Monday, June 20, 2011

After the Riots: Shame, Shame, Double Shame

See the comments for an update and further thoughts on this post as of June 23.

There have yet to be any criminal charges laid for the riots in Vancouver following game seven of the Stanley Cup, but I am sure there will be. Up to a million photos have been submitted to evidence. Some real life good people showed up the morning after to clean up. Stories have circulated about people who protected local businesses from further looting and damage. A number of guilty parties have come forward to confess responsibility and apologize.

As the city grappled with the embarrassment and horror of the seemingly meaningless and thus all-the-more-disturbing event there has been no small amount of public opinion and denouncement of the perpetrators. This seems to me to be largely appropriate.
What else should people do but try to understand what occurred and seek a measure of justice? What else should take place in the public sphere than designating what is and what is not honourable and appropriate and acceptable in society?

However, you have to wonder at what point such declarations of honour and searches for justice become blatant shamings and quests for sustained self-righteousness. I heard one sports talk radio host raise the issue of our societal complicity in such acts. I listened at work as he and his co-host went back and forth from simply calling the rioters "idiots" and trying to probe into the societal conditions (in which we all have a hand) which make such an event so evidently possible. They seemed to be on a healthy thought-process.

Few would want to defend the rioters, and indeed I think it incredibly important to try to seek to hold them accountable and also to reflect on what kind of society we wish to promote. But is the setting of honour codes and their enforcement by shaming the way to do it? Can it not get to the point where the shaming ritual actually serves to detach perceived do-gooders from wrongdoers in a way that is naive at best and insidiously self- and society-destructive at worst?

I was in Vancouver in '94 and could imagine that, in the right conditions, I could have become caught up in the riots. Had alcohol and a lack of accountability been present in my life at that age I might easily have participated, at least as a snickering bystander. If I had undealt-with emotional problems or simply lacked any kind of modeling for how to deal with anger or disappointment I might well kicked over a garbage can or two. If I had been brought up in a "me-first" society with little mentoring that taught me to respect the property of others or the authorities at all then I might well have cheered those who did damage to the infrastructure in a moment of passion. This doesn't excuse any of it, but it does serve (I hope) to illustrate that shaming people simply as "idiots" is way too easy.

Consider the story of Nathan Kotylak, a 17 year old water-polo player who has confessed his part in the riots and faced up to consequences that many who were involved will find it easy to escape. He has submitted himself to the disciplinary processes of school, family, team and society. And well he should. But he has also submitted himself to further shaming, not to mention providing a face and a name for all the anonymous shaming being done already. As the CBC story reports:
The online venom reached a point where Kotylak's father, who is a doctor in Maple Ridge, suspended his medical practice and the family made a decision to leave their home temporarily, said Findlay.

"The family has been concerned for their safety," he said. "It's kind of odd because we see the mob mentality that's been shown on TV through the riot, we're experiencing very much the same thing online."
Surely we've got a mixed bag of responses to the riots and just like the sports talk radio hosts we have a lot people processing things slowly from initial rage to later more mature and compassionate and even merciful approaches to justice and restoration. Many Vancouverites have in fact responded quite admirably. We should definitely be having these "code of honour" discussions and assertions in society. But we should also note a difference between grace-based and shame-based approaches to public morality. Indeed there is no shortage of cause for self-reflection after these riots, and this is one more area where that might be appropriate.


Colin Toffelmire said...

I just started reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue the other day, and he starts to address one of the problems you're talking about here in his opening chapter. He explores the problem that after the renaissance and the modern turn, we have to a very great extent evicerated the moral core of our culture. We no longer have any kind of common language with which to speak about morality or virtue, apart from either icky Randian self-interest, or some form of utilitarianism (usually of the Millsian variety). Neither of those is all that useful in a coversation about personal honour and morality. But, and here's the thing, how do we move forward?

Jon Coutts said...

I am curious about the new kind of atheist ethic that seems to think that science can provide what is lacking. I don't see how it will escape the self-interest or the utilitarianism.

As fro where we're at, I don't know if we have a total lack of "moral core", I think we're probably going forward on a sort of puff of smoke or an unspoken default setting amongst the powers that be. Sometimes I think we think the default is more intact than it it really is - and event like this surprise us. What we think are accepted norms have perhaps been eroded in areas where we weren't looking. And what we get in situations like this is a bit of reevaluation, as well as some jockeying over codes of honour and also over our relative positions in that honour system. Somewhere between saving face and looking in the mirror again.

As for how we move forward, I think it kind of depends if we are talking about ethics in the church or in society. In both cases there has to be some kind of common sense of "honour", some kind of generally agreed upon morality. But in both cases this would always be in a certain amount of flux. I think in the church we're looking at something more and something different going on when it comes to ethics. A sense of virtue or honour can be a kind of base, but we need to be able to talk in the realm of obedience to Christ or we're not really doing uniquely Christian ethics yet, I'd suggest.

A question I'd raise with this post would be whether society can actually do the self-analysis to see where the supposed "default" has eroded. I mean, ironically, in a way the department stores that were looted have likely contributed in some way (by their advertising at the very least) to the individualist me-first consumer culture in which such anarchic-self-expression can thrive.

Another interesting question I'd raise is where the societal system gets the impetus for grace or the resources to reasonably sustain it? Seems like the shame-based approach might be rather consistent with the "world views" of those who default to it. Maybe.

knotter said...

There was a riot?!?!

Seriously do you rid the shame? Especially if it's you or your kid that's on the front page of the paper trying to light a police car on fire?

PS, It's all Bettman's fault.

Tony Tanti said...

I'm fine with the shaming. The only chance we have of this not happening again is if those that seriously broke the law (looted, smashed and burned cars) are held to account. The next time riot like behaviour starts the rioters will all be looking around to see if they're on camera, that's a good thing.

I'm not ok with the vigilante nature of some of the shaming, the shamers are started to be just as shameful on the extreme end. (threatening people and property etc...)

As for the overall causes of something like this, I could go on a pretty long rant here but I won't. I agree there is some responsibility in the me-first consumer culture that puts getting a new purse ahead of sanity. But there is also a problem with the total disregard for authority and rules that I think has at least a little to do with a general lack of consequences in our culture.

Jon Coutts said...

Shaming makes a certain amount of sense in a certain context under certain limitations. this is probably one of those things where I'm trying to say "see how this can only go so far" in general and also "this is not acceptable" when it comes to uniquely Christian ethics.

Jon Coutts said...

Check out this story:

Though publicly apologetic, a woman is fired for appearing to be a looter in the Vancouver riots. On one hand, this is great. What a way for a society to commend proper behaviour: You become unemployable.

Also, it just makes sense that if you are "caught" stealing (let's remember she hasn't been charged yet), you become less immediately employable (i.e. trustworthy). And if you are a company's "face" (i.e. a receptionist) then perhaps your public persona is a part of your employability.

On the other hand, however, this is troublesome on a number of levels:

1) She is being fired mainly because of public pressure. Emails and complaints and "outing" -- which the employer himself calls "ugly". Aggressive shaming.

2) Boycotting places that employ these people? Really? I'm all for boycotting as a means of public protest, but is this really the issue over which to do that? What about all the other things that our beloved corporations have their hands in (from unfair trade to cruelty to animals to political lobbying to the offensiveness if commercials)? Are we really using our boycotting energies to demand they fire employees who got caught up in a riot?

I guess that makes a bit of sense, but within reason. I'd sooner have those companies employ discipline of some kind and keep the person hired. That seems much more like a grace-based approach to moral reform in a society. (But here is where we reach the limits of our societal resources, and this explains why shaming has a provisional place. Where would our society get grace from?)

3) This one might get me in a bit of trouble, since it will sound like I support looting and such, so let me be clear: I don't. These were deplorable acts. But does it strike anyone as odd that we are so venomously opposed to the defamation of places of business, when it is they who sell the iPhones and support the newsmedia which produce (or at least perpetuate) the consumeristic and sensationalizing cultural ethos that provides a home for such irresponsible behaviour? Is it not the commercial utopia that they make their profits from which informs the subconscious and often misdirected angst of these suburban youth? Is not the corporate and media world precisely the one that has raised these looters and rioters and gawkers? Are their actions not entirely in line with the values perpetuated by the commercial world?

Of course there should be moral outrage over this event, but it just seems disproportionate considering how much else there is to be morally outraged about.

And every time there is shaming going on, we at least have to pause and ask ourselves how much this is just an opportunity for us to assert our sense of self-righteous distance from the problems "out there". Shaming is often also a veiled form of posturing.

Whatever place it might have, I certainly think a Christian reflecting on these events ought to be able to tease out the difference between that approach and the gracious approach; between retributive and restorative justice.

Tony Tanti said...

I lean towards answering no to your questions on #3. I suppose you're referring to the looting and the blame that consumerism needs to take for making people want stuff so bad that they loot for it. In that way I see your point.

But are the rioters and looters actions in line with the values of consumerism? I don't see the connection with assaults, vandalism and attempted damage to emergency vehicles and workers.

If anything I think corporate consumerism pushes a blind acceptance of authority and rules because those rules tend to benefit them. The push back on this becomes anarchist thinking which hates all businesses, has no respect for private property, no respect for authority and no fear of punishment.

Jon Coutts said...

I didn't say I was blaming them, I was musing about rigour with which businesses are defended in such obvious cases where they are the clear victim, as compared with the absolute lethargy we tend to have in the everyday cases where our minds and our societal ethos are the victim of the propaganda and politics of business.

I do think that there is an irony there. Not a direct, one-to-one causal connection, but a thematic one. On a basic level the value of consumerism is "me-first", such that all societies, politics and goods and services are evaluated through that lens.

It is the legislative branch of society (with law enforcement as the face of it) which has to add and enforce the "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else" bit. The disrespect for others (the assaults and damage, etc) are out of sync with that, but not really with the basic mindset of consumerism.

e.g., these people were out looking for a great experience - a night to remember. They got the raw end of the deal that night and the experience became a cathartic rather than celebrative one. The shops on that street are there to meet their felt-needs, within certain normative bounds. When the mood on the street changes and there is a free for all, some of the bounds loosen and the unbridled "consumerism" is unleashed. They regret it later, but get caught up in it at the moment. (Just like lots of our legitimate purchases, actually!)

You said: "If anything I think corporate consumerism pushes a blind acceptance of authority and rules because those rules tend to benefit them. The push back on this becomes anarchist thinking which hates all businesses, has no respect for privateproperty, no respect for authority and no fear of punishment."

To be clear, again, I don't support anarchism in principle and I certainly don't support these anarchic actions. But I have some sympathy for anarchists (if in fact they exist. and by this I don't mean mindless looters and rioters). I tend to think anarchists are frustrated by the hierarchy in society - they can sense it and they have angst about it, but they don't know what they can do about it and wouldn't have the resources to challenge it if they did. Or even if they had the resources, to use them would be to take part in the very "evil" system which they oppose. So all they can do is protest.

Whether that protest even escapes the system it protests is debatable, as is whether it is effective or wise or even fair or good. I don't support pure anarchism or the rioting that took place. But I have some sympathy for those who think the values of "private property" and "big business" have taken on way too much of a life of their own.

At the end of the day I don't think anarchism had much to do with the riots, but I do see an irony in the way we are so revolted by the obvious attacks on local shops and so lulled to sleep by the everyday attack of corporate consumerism on our societal and personal values.