The rioting aftermath and destruction of property in Ferguson is the focus of a commentary by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas titled “Restitution not Retribution” published by the Tribune Content Agency, LLC on Dec. 1, 2014.
Thomas calls for restitution and public shaming as punishment for those who willfully destroyed people’s property in the town. Thomas and I are in agreement on the first point and part company on the second.
Those who damaged the property should pay for it out of their paychecks by having them garnished, suggests Thomas. For transgressors who receive government assistance, he adds, the money “should be forwarded to the businesses they destroyed.”
“Restitution is an Old Testament concept instituted to remind people that when one harms another person, or steals or destroys property, someone else suffers and deserves reimbursement,” writes Thomas. He goes on to say that having to make restitution can induce moral guilt in a person, which can lead them to repent.
I agree that restitution can lead to repentance. I agree that laws need to change so that people can have their property and ability to secure their livelihoods restored. This is just plain common sense; there’s something wrong with a system that leaves a person to deal with losses, while those at fault have no debt to the individual — only to society.
Guilt and shame are another matter altogether. Pushing people to feel guilty and ashamed results in resentment, not repentance. It’s harmful, not curative, and righteous anger creates blind spots to this fact.
We want a society of conscious responsible people don’t we? Then we need to take another look, most importantly, at ourselves. I understand the challenge. I know how tempting it is to point an accusatory finger at others in righteous judgment. But what good does that do?
Decent people get angry and want to see people punished. I understand. I get angry too. But we have a responsibility here to use reason and sound judgment, not emotion. It’s only human to get bent out of shape and angry about violence. But we can’t stay there, or act from there, if we want the world to change.
Shame is the most painful of all human emotions. Knowing this, people and institutions throughout the ages, have chosen to degrade and humiliate people to cause them as much emotional pain as possible. This is sadistic and there’s no justice in it.
Horrible things have been done to people. They’ve been stripped of their clothes, had their hands and feet tied, been branded with hot irons, had their heads shaved and had food and excrement thrown at them. This has been done in the name of justice. This isn’t justice, it’s insanity.
The vulnerability, helpless and emotional agony, of those being shamed, are what this is all about. Today, nothing has changed. It’s just gone digital. There is no healing or redemptive power in shame. So it serves no good purpose. For every person pushed down to the level of shame, we are all worse off.
Restoration builds. Shame tears down and can even destroy. Shame is the handmaiden to suicide; it’s unhealthy and dangerous in private and in public. To humiliate someone publicly could have far-reaching adverse consequences for that person and for others.
Alice Miller, in her book “The Drama of the Gifted Child” points out that Nazis, as children, were raised on public shame in German schools. This prepared them, she wrote, to willingly comply in shaming, torturing and murdering Jews and other minorities.
I think the stakes have gone up because we all have the potential for greater reach in the world. The public was once the local village or town. However, with the advent of television, the public grew to the people of a nation and the global village. These days, thanks to the Internet, a shaming event can be accessed anytime by anyone in the world and can be shared and spread like a virus.
The event becomes immortal, living in cyberspace. It is forever public — meaning the shaming never stops. Those who join in the shaming become infected and infect others with the virus. It could become pandemic. What good effect can that possibly have?
Those who vilify others often escape notice in a shaming story. All fingers typically point to the vilified. Maybe pointing the finger inward, could raise our awareness of how alike we all are. We are all “guilty” of making bad choices.