When I was in university, one of the books in my American Literature course was The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I enjoyed it, but until recently, I didn’t recognize the brilliance of the novel or see just how prescient Nathaniel Hawthorne was.
I’m sure that you’re familiar with The Scarlet Letter, since it’s on just about every English teacher’s reading list, but if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, allow me to refresh your memory.
The story takes place in Boston, in 1642. At the time, the city’s citizens were known as Puritans. The Puritans were a group of Protestants who felt that the Church of England had not distanced itself enough from the Church of Rome, and hence wanted to purify the Church of England by ridding it of all traces of Roman Catholicism. They demanded a very strict code of conduct, and by today’s standards they would be considered fundamentalists, or even extremists.
The book’s main character, Hester Prynne, has been charged with committing adultery. After being found guilty, her punishment is prison time, and afterwards, being required to wear a scarlet letter “A” prominently on her dress. This sentence was considered especially light, since adulterers under Puritan law are usually branded or put to death. Although it isn’t stated explicitly in the book, the “A” stands for adulteress, and wearing it in public is meant to shame Hester in front of the townspeople. Since Hester has refused to name the man involved, she must bear this shame alone.
During this course, we discussed the meaning of the letter “A”. The obvious interpretation was that it stood for adulteress, but our professor encouraged us to dig deeper and come up with additional meanings. We reasoned that it could also stand for angel, since Prynne always maintained a regal bearing, and able because Prynne demonstrated that was able to live life on her own terms, without the assistance of a man. Our professor then added his own personal interpretation: America. The letter, or at least the laws that led to its display on Hester Prynne’s dress, symbolized American culture at the time.
As I was making my way through the book, I thought that this tale was just a quaint glimpse into a long-forgotten Puritanical existence. I was glad that our modern, progressive society, now largely free of its ecclesiastical manacles, no longer behaves so sanctimoniously, and that we were now well beyond such pettiness and overt derision.
As it turns out, I spoke too soon… during the past generation, I’ve noticed a resurgence of these Puritanical practices in our society. I am now witnessing what I am going to call “The Return of the Scarlet Letter”. Much like a neighbourhood of anti-vaxxers, suddenly faced with a new outbreak of a long-vanquished disease, many people are now behaving in a manner from which I assumed we had all evolved. This unabashed schadenfreude – something I thought was beneath us as a society – is returning with a vengeance, thanks to social media.
With each passing year, it appears that we are becoming more like our judgmental 17th century predecessors. Allow me to share some of my observations:
A Sign Of The Crimes
The first “signs” of a behavioural shift began before the advent of social media. From time to time, I would read an article about a judge who meted out an unconventional punishment to a petty thief or a misbehaving teenager. In lieu of a criminal record or jail time, the guilty party would have to stand in public beside a large sign that described their transgression.
Before long, parents started mimicking these judges and delivering a similar punishment to their errant teenagers.
Shaming via E-Mail Forwarding
I then noticed that e-mail was no longer being used solely as a business and communication tool. It was now wielded as a weapon and used to ridicule others. Some infamous early examples were Claire Swire, Peter Chung, Lucy Gao and Aleksey Vayner.
Social Media As A Catalyst
The increase in the prevalence of online shaming coincided with the rise in popularity of social media. While social media has certainly altered – for better or for worse – the way we communicate, I believe that the anonymity of online communication allows us to revert to the holier-than-thou mindsets of those 17th century Puritans. We can become openly disapproving of others because no one can trace our comments back to us. Unlike the targets of our derision, our reputations won’t be damaged by our disparaging comments.
Soon, web sites dedicated solely to embarrassing others began to appear.
People Of Wal-Mart: There is a web site called People Of Wal-Mart that displays photos of Wal-Mart shoppers. Visitors are free to upload photos themselves and add them to the collection. I will admit that some of these photos are humourous – like the above photo of the suspicious loose candy, entitled Looks Legit”. However, as I’m sure you know, these are generally photos of people who are inappropriately dressed, who are behaving poorly, or who have substandard parenting skills. Essentially, these socially-challenged souls are put on display so that we can mock them. If that isn’t gratifying enough for us, there is now a rating system (1-10 stars) and a user comments section, so that visitors – under the identity cloak of online user names – can ridicule them even further.
Airline Passenger Shaming: If you behave poorly or selfishly on airplane, don’t be surprised if your photograph appears on the Passenger Shaming Facebook group or Instagram album. If your behaviour is particularly egregious, it may even be described in detail in newspaper articles.
Ashley Madison Web Site Hack
These days, web sites get hacked all the time, but the Ashley Madison data breach in July 2015 was different. There were no ransom requests or any attempts at monetary gain. Its user data was made public because the hacker(s) objected to its line of business, and wanted to “out” all of Ashley Madison’s customers as part of a moral crusade against the company. Over 60 gigabytes of customer information were made public, including names, address, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
The Police Are Now Participating
More recently (as of October 2015), the practice of public shaming is being adopted by a police department in West Virginia. Anyone caught soliciting a prostitute in the city of Huntington will have his photograph displayed on a billboard, visible from one of the city’s busiest streets.
In November 2015, someone from an organization called Overweight Haters Ltd. began handing out insulting cards to overweight passengers on the London subway. The cards read, in part, “It’s really not glandular, it’s your gluttony. Our organisation hates and resents fat people. We object to the enormous amount of food resources you consume while half the world starves.“.
In January 2016, after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Carrie Fisher became the target of body shaming because she no longer looked like she did in the original 1977 Star Wars movie.
What Is The New Scarlet Letter?
In my American Literature class, we suggested that Hester Prynne’s letter “A” – in addition to adulteress – might also mean angel, able and America. I think that the letter “A” is still apt when in today’s age of social media shaming. It continues to stand for adultery (as evidenced by the Ashley Madison data breach and the police billboard displaying the names of “johns”), and I would now like to propose some additional meanings:
- Amoral: Behaviour publicized by the West Virginia police billboard, and the miscreants forced to hold signs in public describing their transgressions.
- Airplane: An obvious one, abundantly illustrated in the Passenger Shaming Facebook group.
- Anonymous: The anonymity of the Internet means that it is far easier for us to shame someone in cyberspace than to confront that person face-to-face.
- Ashley: Given their motive, I’m sure that the Ashley Madison hackers would love to see every Ashley Madison customer forced to wear a large, embroidered letter “A” on their clothes, just like Hester Prynne.
The Puritans did have a harsh and antiquated form of punishment for moral crimes, but I will say this in their defense: at least Hester Prynne was limited to the scorn of her town’s inhabitants, and only of those whom she encountered in person. Today’s shaming targets are not as fortunate. Jessie Jackson is quoted as saying “The only time you should look down on a person is when you are helping them get up”, and I agree with him. Not only have we lowered ourselves to the disdainful, judgmental behaviour of the Puritans, but now thanks to the Internet, our shaming no longer has any geographical boundaries. Those who have been targeted now have to face coast-to-coast, or even global, consternation.
If it’s been a while since you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, then I urge you to re-read it. As you do, think about how you use social media and ask yourself how much our attitudes and behaviour have really evolved. Surely, we’re more enlightened and more sophisticated than the Puritans; let’s not allow these new forms of communication drag us back into the 17th century.