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.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.
"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."