Public shaming would be an effective way to regulate the “irresponsible behavior” of unwed mothers, misbehaving teenagers and welfare recipients, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) argued in his 1995 book Profiles in Character. In a chapter called “The Restoration of Shame,” the likely 2016 presidential candidate made the case that restoring the art of public humiliation could help prevent pregnancies “out of wedlock.”
One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.
Bush points to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character is forced to wear a large red “A” for “adulterer” on her clothes to punish her for having an extramarital affair that produced a child, as an early model for his worldview. “Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots,” Bush wrote.
You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Scarlet letters for those who suffer from mental illnesses like addiction, and for those who suffer from chronic pain. Not that scarlet letters are needed in the technological age — a mark on your electronic health record and in a PDMP database work just the same.
As governor of Florida in 2001, Bush had the opportunity to test his theory on public shaming. He declined to veto a very controversial bill that required single mothers who did not know the identity of the father to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper before they could legally put their babies up for adoption. He later signed a repeal of the so-called “Scarlet Letter” law in 2003 after it was successfully challenged in court.
Bush’s ideas about public shaming extended beyond unwed parents. He said American schools and the welfare system could use a healthy dose of shame as well. “For many, it is more shameful to work than to take public assistance — that is how backward shame has become!” he wrote, adding that the juvenile criminal justice system also “seems to be lacking in humiliation.”
More shameful to work? Where do ideas like this come from? Do you know how boring it is to be unable to work? How much shame is placed on the disabled? And the shame of being involved in the juvenile criminal justice system follows a person for the rest of their lives.
In the context of present-day society we need to make kids feel shame before their friends rather than their family. The Miami Herald columnist Robert Steinback has a good idea. He suggests dressing these juveniles in frilly pink jumpsuits and making them sweep the streets of their own neighborhoods! Would these kids be so cavalier then?
It’s worth pointing out that the kind of public shaming Bush described has come under fire recently in response to the growing trend of parents humiliating their children on social media to punish them. A 13-year-old girl committed suicide last month after her father posted a video of himself cutting off her long hair on YouTube because she had disobeyed him…