Lessons from COVID: Is public shaming justified in the fight for the climate?

Shaming has been a prominent form of patrolling during the coronavirus pandemic. From a video of an NHS worker calling out teenagers drinking alcohol in a park, to the neologism ‘covidiot’ being added to the Urban Dictionary, the pandemic has caused the line between calling out and shaming to be blurred into oblivion. But in a crisis, when lives are on the line and safety is at the forefront of our minds, can public shaming be justified to ensure others’ compliance? Or is the damaging effect on mental health too counterintuitive to the cause?

Just a few months ago, before lockdown was implemented in the UK, it was the climate crisis that was at the forefront of our minds. There was frequent shaming directed towards those using plastic straws rather than paper, biodegradable ones; vegans began to gain a reputation of criticising other vegans for the smallest of mistakes; and being given dirty glances on the street whilst holding a disposable takeaway cup would cause a pang of guilt to hit hard. 

Now that coronavirus has taken precedence, many of these concerns have begun to be forgotten and instead replaced with worries about social distancing. There is more uneasiness over the two-metre distance in the queue for a takeaway bar, rather than the plastic cup containing your long-awaited pint.  Even disposable PPE, whilst being a current healthcare necessity, is having devastating environmental consequences due to them not being recyclable or biodegradable.

No matter which of these crises is at the front of our minds, the public shaming they have produced have predominantly manifested online; a space where you have the option to be anonymous and a global audience ready to join you in the fight. Social media has made it even easier to ignorantly blast mistakes to the world, and receive sharp daggers of criticism in response. Some users seem to view Twitter as their own personal lectern, to share their moral stance and hope that 240 characters and typing in capitals will change a follower’s mind. 

Perhaps it does – or perhaps it also causes people to be riddled with guilt, paranoia, and embarrassment. Personally, reading everyone’s hate-driven criticism towards other people made me feel sick with guilt at the height of lockdown. If I misjudged the length of a walk and accidentally went over my designated hour, I would then force myself to remain housebound for the rest of the week. I became paranoid that my vocal friends would turn their attention to me – that I’d be next on the firing line of people to be called out online, after having spent ten minutes longer on my walk than I was allowed. 

In contrast, witnessing Dominic Cummings break his own rules at the height of lockdown and receive huge amounts of criticism from the British public felt particularly significant; it seemed to have caused him to get more defensive, rather than own up to his mistakes. Despite the overwhelming national agreement of Cummings breaching the lockdown rules, there were no real consequences for what he did, other than a slightly damaged reputation – if he had stepped down, or been dismissed by the Prime Minister, perhaps the public would have felt less outraged. 

Even looking back at the treatment of Caroline Flack earlier this year we can see the tragic effects of public shaming. She was a woman who, quite literally, was destroyed by the media and comments online after being charged with the assault of her boyfriend. Unlike Cummings, she was facing the consequences in court, and was compelled to step back from her usual role as presenter of Love Island. When the impact on those to whom we direct moral criticism and ascribe shame can be so severe, must we not ask ourselves what is the boundary? Where do we draw the line of the public interest? Can damaging moral critique be carried out without impunity when its consequences are fatal?

In any case, shaming ultimately derives from a bullying mentality, and so it is unnerving to see that it has been used as a viable method of control during a time of such heightened emotion, as in this pandemic. We can see that public shaming and the subsequent guilt can have severe effects on mental health, and these affects must only be intensified when living through such an emotionally stressful time. Even those not in the spotlight of fame have suffered from public disgrace; in one case in Poland, it caused a man to commit suicide after being humiliated online for visiting a car showroom even though he’d been diagnosed with coronavirus. 

With this in mind, it is imperative that we draw a line between calling out and public shaming – the former being a type of criticism that appears far more productive. It implies a private message in a DM, the intention fuelled by concern, rather than anger. These conversations do not insult people’s ignorance or misbehaviour, but rather draw attention to it, and provide opportunities for apologies and improvements. 

The perpetuation of public shaming is likely a result of social media’s increasingly popular ‘cancel culture’, which is a way that online users are boycotting celebrities that have “done or said something objectionable or offensive”. Jameela Jamil, a vocal activist and actor, said in an interview with Trevor Noah for ‘The Daily Show’, that if people are ‘cancelled’ they “are going to feel that there is no value in learning because [they’re] punished forever for a sin that [they] no longer stand by.” She advocates for “progress, not perfection”, as long as people haven’t caused “irrevocable harm”, insisting that we will never have this “moral purity” that we seem to be striving for.

It is interesting then that the shaming we have witnessed during this pandemic has been far more severe than the complaints over plastic straws we’ve seen with the climate crisis. Perhaps that is due to the public seeing the virus as more of an immediate threat, and that any misbehaviour is an example of this “irrevocable harm” Jamil refers to, or perhaps it is because the government has provided us with legislative rules to follow. As a result of this nationwide guidance, we begin collectively patrolling those around us, and the police are able to punish those that refuse to comply. 

In which case, evidently it is not shaming that has been effective during this pandemic, but the implementation of lockdown rules. With the climate crisis, there have never been any sustainability regulations – many of our politicians haven’t seen it as a genuine threat, allowing any non-sustainable criticisms to be brushed off as personal opinion. The only punishments put in place involve paying extra for a plastic bag at the supermarket, or getting a small discount for bringing a reusable cup to a cafe. Yet it is well known that the climate has the potential to be a threat even larger than that of this global pandemic. It would require radical change towards all areas of our life: from transport to clothing to diet to food production and packaging – the list goes on. The Earth is begging for a long-term, permanent change, and it is that intimidating prospect that has left many of us in denial for so long. 

However, the pandemic has shown us that we are capable of making these radical changes, despite the economic consequences. Boris Johnson has frequently compared coronavirus to World War Two, and yet the true World War has been happening for years, and it’s against Mother Nature herself. 

Ultimately, issues of the climate cannot be solved through shaming; as long as flights are still running and fast fashion companies continue to profit, the climate will remain endangered. It is up to the government to take action, forcing sustainability to no longer be a choice. 

Until then, we must look to our experience of COVID-19; if it has taught us anything, it’s that collective small actions can make big changes. As lockdown eases, we must begin to live more eco-consciously again, we must call out the government and big companies to make permanent structural changes, and we must praise each other’s sustainable choices, rather than shaming their mistakes. 

Words by Charlotte West

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