Cathy Reisenwitz’s post on slut-shaming as a form of coercion has set off a storm of commentary, most of it negative. Let me come to her defense.
“I may find complete ostracism much more oppressive than a small fine,” she writes. “Coercion comes in many forms.”
In one sense, what she argues is undeniably true and needs to be said.Consider: would you rather have the planter on your front porch stolen or face humiliation and ridicule at the hands of your entire social group? Would you rather have your watch ripped off your wrist or be smeared all over the Internet as liar, cheat, racist, rapist, slut, and nazi-sympathizer?
Further, I have no doubt that she is right that ridicule, detraction, calumny, slander, etc. can be more psychologically debilitating than outright physical coercion. Just because neither the state nor private criminality is involved doesn’t mean that words and action cannot be evil and catastrophically destructive.
In political movements, this tendency to use words as weaponry can be a special problem. In my time in the libertarian world, for example, I’ve witnessed appalling example of outright attempts to destroy reputations, wicked cases of hearsay turned into fake fact and dripped like poison in people’s ears, attempts to intimidate people to fulfill petty factional goals, and agit-prop style campaigns to demonize and wreck people as a way of boosting power and privilege.
I find all of this horrifying. To say, oh but the state is not involved, excuses nothing. The court of taste and manners is the great and effective juridical center of a free society, and this court has long said that people who do these things are engaged in tearing down, not building up. I suspect that this is what Cathy is getting at, even if her comments are focussed on a more narrow form of shaming.
However, she goes too far in claiming that all these behaviors are not distinct from the type of behavior that pertains to the law. Smears, lies, and calumnies may be wicked, but, because possessing a human right to our reputations is untenable, they cannot be made illegal without violating the right to free speech. It is precisely because the range of applicable law must be restrained that the law must deal exclusively with aggression against person and real property (and, again, reputation is not property). This is a core proposition of the liberal idea dating from Sumner to Rothbard.
In addition, with a blanket condemnation of shaming, Reisenwitz would take away a major tool that we as individuals have in dealing with the problem of evil itself. We must be free to call people out for destructive behaviors that harm people. Trolls and evil doers should in fact be shamed and shunned. They should be made to feel alone and isolated so that they will pay some personal price for anti-social behavior. Society needs means to deal with trolls among us and without taking recourse to the law.
Shaming does have an important social function. I would even say that it is used less than it ought to be precisely because, as Cathy notes, too often malicious people are tolerated insofar as they are not using outright physical coercion. Society needs to be able to police itself — lifting up the good and pushing aside the bad — lest the state step in and take away all our rights to speak and think freely.
Freedom is a messy thing sometimes, but it is the best system we know to cause civility, decency, and productivity to emerge from the thicket of slander that is too often the default mode of humanity.