Distancing and Decency

by Ute Frevert

May 13, 2020

There’s a new game in town and it already has a name. Social distancing shaming. Newspapers have reported on it, bloggers have commented on it, Twitterers have tweeted about it. It’s old wine in new bottles, really. People publicly castigate others who, in their estimation, are not following the rules and, in doing so, they aim to compel them to conform. The criticized person is supposed to feel ashamed of themselves and change their behavior.

At issue is usually the safe distance of two meters that we’re supposed to keep from others in order to avoid getting infected or infecting those nearby with the novel corona virus. Many adhere to the recommendation, and on the whole, it is impressive how disciplined people have been following state guidelines. But, as always, there are some stragglers. They are publicly admonished by their fellow citizens who are confident of always doing everything right. Sometimes, they are veritably pilloried, or at least that’s how they feel.

The examples are legion. Some of the social-distancing referees curse and shout, others pull out their tape measure or think up other illustrative methods of remonstrating behavior they deem dangerous. The image of seniors walking their dogs reprimanding parents who don’t keep their kids on a leash seems like it has already become a stereotype. Joggers attract glares and harsh words when they don’t change their path enough. Some neighbors and parents chat on the internet about who broke the rules again, or they hang up a sign in their window informing about offenders. In the villages around Lake Müritz and on Germany’s coast on the Baltic Sea, citizens are playing police and chasing off people from out of town.

In principle, everyone’s a suspect. Who goes shopping too often? Who takes their dog out too much? Does she really need to go jogging every other day? Are there people in his apartment who don’t belong there? Is the old man receiving visits from his children and grandchildren on his birthday? Everybody observes everybody else, sometimes more frequently and with a sharper eye than others, and they often use social media to communicate what they see.

This kind of activity isn’t new. Over the last few years, social shaming has becoming widespread. A person who is too fat, a woman who has too many sexual contacts or wears the wrong clothes, a driver who goes too fast on the highway, a homeowner who waters the grass during a drought — all are candidates for public reproach. In 2019, when climate change saw an uptick in press coverage, “flight shaming,” “plastic shaming,” “meat shaming,” “car shaming,” and “child shaming” were added to the catalog. And again, social media like Facebook host the images and comments that lambast the objects of disdain.

Sheer schadenfreude is often the motive, the plain old desire to humiliate others in a way that allows one to forget about one’s own weaknesses and fears of falling short. More and more, however, shaming dons a political, moral cloak; indeed, it’s often the royal robe of moral superiority. Last year it was the protection of the climate that seemed to justify all types of public shaming. Whoever produced too much CO2, whether as an owner of an SUV, passenger on a flight, non-vegetarian, or couple that wants to have a child, was perceived as contributing to the impending climate crisis and consequentially made to viscerally feel the dislike of climate protectors. Today, it is the protection of public health that ennobles the moral finger wagging of John K. Citizen.

What is so offensive about all this? Don’t vigilance and calling people out have their good side? Don’t they testify to the existence of an active civil society that takes its affairs into its own hands instead of over-relying on the state and the police? Isn’t everyone who points out another’s misdemeanors a good person guarding the common good?

It was the practice of early modern communities of villages, which publicly chastised allegedly immoral residents. Labor unions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, too, put strike breakers on the pillory and imagined sending bad bosses to the symbolic gallows. Nazis paraded couples accused of filthying “German honor” through the streets. In 1977, the Red Army Faction humiliated Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, by hanging a sign around his neck that marked him as a “prisoner” who was about to receive revolutionary judgment — issued by none less than the militant avant-garde of the people, long subjugated by capitalism.

Shaming and humiliating in the name of the people was also part of the classic honor sanctions meted out by feudal courts. The pillory, beatings, and branding have been part of the official punitive arsenal since the late medieval period, rounding out physical pain with a social dimension intended to demonstrate the unity of authority and populace. Punishing transgressors in public allows people to participate in the administration of justice and reinforces the validity of the violated norms, rules, and laws. Penance in church worked with a similar logic and also utilized practices of social shaming and embarrassment.

It might have seemed like an expression of democratization when everyday men and women started employing such practices, thus substituting the justice of state or church with instruments of “popular justice.” Indeed, some proponents praise public shaming as a way for citizens to defend themselves against those who might contravene public interests. “Bring on the shame” to enforce the new distancing etiquette, a Canadian journalist recently wrote. After all, it’s a matter of life and death, and whosoever refuses to listen should be made to.

But the argument has its pernicious side and was not received well by readers. Those who proclaim themselves judges of others’ behavior cultivate a denunciatory hall-monitor mentality unworthy of a democratic society. Democracy is not about distrust and the surveillance of all by all. Rather, it is based on mutual trust. Decency and integrity play an important role, as do courteousness and the presumption of innocence. It’s the precise opposite of the denigrating message of Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1845 children’s book Struwwelpeter (Shock-Headed Peter): “Just look at him! There he stands, with his nasty hair and hands.” Children today are no longer taught that it is a virtue to point the finger at others, but to refrain from such an embarrassing gesture of disrespect.

This doesn’t mean that people can’t criticize. If a person finds another’s actions in public to be very discomforting, they can let the culprit know, whether it be men urinating on the platform or teenagers coming too close. Critique has a purpose, but it should be calm, friendly, and measured. And it should be carried out in private, without an audience, thus stripping it of the shaming quality inherent in every public remonstration while lending it poignancy. Because in the end, most people don’t react to shaming by changing their behavior. They react by defending themselves and blowing it off. Demanding distance with manners is more effective than the arrogant shouts of self-anointed saviors of public health.

In the “Third Reich” and in the early days of the German Democractic Republic, people shamelessly called upon others to denounce the “vermin” suspected of acting counter to the public good. Everyone who believes in democracy should be above all that, and that goes for the current crisis, to which, as we’re constantly reminded, everything pales in comparison. No doubt, it requires a good deal of self-discipline and abstinence, and that people respond to this coercion by forwarding it along to others is not surprising: if I have to hold myself to strict rules, then others should too. The exceptional circumstances combined with a considerable amount of free time seem to foster a sentry mentality that couples frustration with fantasies of punishment and self-righteously claims to advance the common good.

This is the ugly underside of civic responsibility and its concomitant norms of discipline and solidarity that we have to uphold and practice during the pandemic — which, for the most part, people are succeeding at. I’m familiar with it in myself, too. There is only one thing to help against it: decency. Some call it civilization.

Go to Editor View