Public Shaming and the Disposable Society (子曰、君子不器)

Bui huu hung

by Leanne Ogasawara

“When I was an undergraduate, on my way to first day of quantum mechanics class, I was riding up in the elevator with the professor and several (male) students. The professor kindly informed us that this would be the class that “separated the men from the boys.”

Astronomy is really making the news these days. Except it's not for the reasons one would hope or expect; for the headlines keep rolling in one after the other about “astronomy's snowballing cases of sexual harassment.”


As a woman, obviously, I think matters like this should never be covered up and that process must be put in place in universities to deal with transgressions. In fact, I go a step further and believe that as “exemplars,” anyone who is in a teaching profession should be held up to the very highest moral standards.

Like most women, this is also not something that I am unfamiliar with either.

As an undergraduate at Berkeley in philosophy, I was one of the few women in the program, and I think philosophy has similar kinds of issues as we are seeing in astronomy. Even as an undergraduate it often felt like a kind of “boys club.” In Japan, too, in my twenties, I worked at Hitachi, ostensibly as a translator and interpreter; but in fact, as the only “girl” in the department, I spent all my time answering the phones and serving tea and stapling papers and tidying up.

I didn't stay long…

In many ways, “not staying long” is what has characterized my life.

A few years ago, a man I respect greatly asked me why I quit things so much. I think he was referring to my giving up dance –something that I loved– and then grad school, which I also loved but quit in order to get married. His question, asked suddenly, embarrassed me, and I felt he didn't really get it–that it's harder as a woman to stay on track career-wise or even goal-wise. In fact, at my now advanced age of almost 48, I am coming more and more to be convinced that most women get stuck doing the real dirty work in the world and that their engagement with “woman's” work–with children, in schools, as nurses, as wives–is the most unsung, unappreciated work there is. I really did feel that at least in Japan, cooking real meals and tending the home (including taking care of aging parents) was valued and honored. There should be honor in all work. At home or in the office. So, in some way in the US, it is a bitter pill not to have equality in the work place since working at home as a mother and wife is so utterly devalued.

So, yes I do think there are major issues in terms of sexism and racism in academia and that these should be thoroughly addressed and dealt with.

But is public shaming and career-ruining an “effective?” way of handling this problem?

Someone actually used those words, by the way. It was posted on a friend's facebook page about how “effective public shaming is” for cases like this. Well, sure, it does effectively ruin the person's career and maybe life. But even if one thinks that the battle has been won (which I don't), I would suggest the war has been lost in the process. And this is a seriously scary problem we are now seeing in the world.

Indeed, it is depressing that the Internet and modern media seems to be making us uglier and less tolerant as human beings, rather than any better.

Journalist Jon Ronson lays this all out in a video that I highly recommend people take a look at below. The video is really sad–and one has to wonder what happened to us that we have become as a society so incredibly unkind to each other?

People say it all really started with Monica Lewinsky, but this was something I particularly noticed when I returned from Japan almost five years ago. That we are becoming a “blame-gaming” society…. I mean, it's all you hear. Democrats ripping apart Republicans and Republicans ripping apart Democrats (we got it, you think the other side is stupid–now can you talk about the issues?), women doing male bashing, and people really getting nasty about other people. Instead of old fashion gossip, we are talking about whole-sale character assassination. And it is relentless and seemingly without end. After two decades in Japan, this was incredibly shocking –and to be honest, a really unsavory and unpleasant change in our society.

Jon Ronson does such a good job laying out how this kind of public shaming does NOT equal social justice. This is really important, I think. If you would talk to this great lady physicist, I guess she would say that child care and equal career opportunities is what she needed. When you ruin one person's career how does that help the underlying economic issues that really hold people back? And this brings me to my second point, the practice is also effectively blurring any nuanced understanding of what makes a major transgression and what makes for a minor one. This was really disturbing in the case of the astronomers as fairly serious transgressions were being treated in the same broad brushstrokes as people who said silly jokes. The comment at the top of the page is an example I am using of an ill choice of words being blown way out of proportion. I would say the Tim Hunt case was another of this type as well.

We have become a society where people are utterly unable to bracket their personal feelings and preferences in favor of optimizing the needs of all interested parties.

It is the world of feelings run amok.

Everything offends everyone.

And does the policing of language ever really work when it is so heavy handed? I think the Maoists and the McCarthyists really did think they were working for a better society –and significantly, similar to what we see today, minor transgressions (as they defined them) were treated basically the same as major ones so you had a “you are with us or against us” mentality going on and the result was, a lot of talented people felt bullied into silence (or at least being so careful they were utterly humorless). I think the mentor-student relationship has long been wrought with issues of transgression–some serious and some less so but the last time I checked, we were a rule of law society and there is such a thing as process–right?

Charles Taylor suggests in his book A Secular Age that one should at least be suspicious of terms like “zero tolerance” since it hints at a totalitarian approach in which one group actually believes that they can police another group to the level of zero deviation from their intended social reforms. Taylor's book is incredibly stimulating on this topic of totalitarian approaches to “reform.” And I do think what we are seeing today is a kind of totalitarian policing and ideological initiation by the elite. Or to put it a different way, the generation that is offended by everything and tries to insist on a certain ideological policing among elites (紅衛兵?), rather than seriously addressing the real (economic) issues that hold people back —we will not be remembered kindly.


Bui Huu Hung_paintings_artodyssey1 (20)子曰、君子不器

I usually only turn to Confucius when I hit rock bottom.

I am now re-reading Hall and Ames fantastic book, Thinking Through Confucius, and remembering a time when my son was younger and we left Japan and spent one six month stint in LA with my mom. He was 3 and he attended a local preschool in the US. During the first parent-teacher meeting, the teacher mentioned that he had a very developed “moral sense.” That is, he was always concerned about being good, was generous and considerate. Returning to Japan, however, his father immediately noticed how he kept using the Japanese expression ..”fault” (to have responsibility); as in, “that was his fault.”

People just don't talk that way in Japan (blame is avoided, I would say). And so his father was very worried that he would never cut it in school if he was always casting blame on people. A bad American habit, he said, “Even adults hesitate to use that expression.” Over the years there, I struggled to get him to just indirectly express dislike for the action without casting blame on the person who commits the action, but sure enough this came up again in 1st grade at his first parent-teacher meeting…. his teacher complained that he gets very upset when someone breaks a rule and will blame the person. And in her words, “to blame a person will then cast blame back on your son and ruin the harmony of the group.”

She said it was a problematic behavior that we needed to address with him.

When his teacher said that, I stupidly responded, “Well, maybe if you enacted swifter punishments….?” To which she said, “When a child misbehaves, it is just because we have not educated them enough. I promise, give it time and as a group they will all improve together.”

“It just may take some of the boys longer,” she added giggling.

Fair enough.

Do you remember that scene at the end of the Last Emperor when Puyi was made to write unending, hansei-bun 反省文 (essays repenting past misdeeds)… I don't know about in China, but in Japan those essays start the moment the kids learn how to write. And, no self-recriminations are involved. Hansei 反省 is always about the action– not the person. It is interesting but basically, the children are to write what the misdeed was, and why it was unacceptable. No where is any fault cast on the person, but rather it is always in the hope of improving behavior by talking about the misdeed in terms of the context in which it was performed.

Hansei bun is a practice adults continue on into their careers, too.

Even mothers, by the way, have 反省会 (meetings to discuss our mis-deeds) after each and every event. It is a disaster for me since I never see the tiny mistakes and usually smile, “Didn't we do a great job??” To which no one ever responds and other people step up to point all the mistakes that I never even ever would have noticed…. Everything is mentioned and discussed in the passive tense so there is no actor just action, and then we (as a group) vow to do better next time.

This is something I have always liked about Confucian style education (in Japan)–this idea that everyone is capable of improvement and that education (and correction) should be process oriented. Transgressions should be addressed through process as appropriate. And that said, then, do we really need to rake people over the coals to this level? To believe someone is capable of rehabilitation and improvement is to show respect to their inherent human worth.

Like most people, I was really shocked about the dentist who killed the lion. Who would do that? It is something that is outside my ability to really “get.” I guess others felt similarly– but wow did people get ugly. People calling for his death (“I hope someone kills you and skins you alive” “I hope you die of cancer”) and others making a concerted effort to destroy his business. See Ronson's video for many examples of this really ugly behavior. People are not one thing (子曰、君子不器). And we have to all own the fact that we have been complicit in a world that creates people like this. Especially Americans are consumers of a meat industry that utilizes slaughter practices that future generations will be appalled by… I think this actually is one of the biggest ethical issues we face as a people: how the US food industry treats animals. Isn't it better to look at the unethical practices that are embedded in the system (supermarket meat, etc) in our society rather than turning people into scapegoats over and over and pretending that this somehow changes things?

Concerning the Caltech professor who was involved in the scandal, someone said that the transgressor would now be “a pariah” and “could never show his face on campus again….” It sounded straight out of a movie about the McCarthy era ….

I am not saying people should not be sanctioned and punished if they break rules of conduct– but what I am saying is that the ugly rhetoric lacking totally in any compassion is not doing anyone any favors (except the person engaging in character assassination since it makes them feel powerful). Witch hunts, public shaming and lynching are really ugly. It seems it has become a kind of pastime in our society. How did we becoming so uncharitable to others? We in the US now have more people in jail than Stalin had in his gulags–and isn't it the same kind of impulse to throw people who “don't work for us” away…just take out the garbage….? Tolerance and social justice must come with respect for the humanity of all people, even those whose behavior is offensive to the elite. I guess I agree with Hillary Clinton that there is just too much meanness and dissent (coming from her, that is REAL CHUTZPAH!); for as Confucius famously said (Fingarette's translation), “A noble man is not a utensil” (子曰、君子不器).

The noble man is the man who most perfectly having given up the self, ego, obstinacy and personal pride (9:4) follows not personal profit but the Way. Such a man has come to fruition as a person; he is a consummate man. He is a Holy Vessel. –Herbert Fingarette (Confucius: The Secular as Sacred)

Paintings by Bui Huu Hung (lacquer on wood)

The Brainwashing of my father by FOX

Femfog in medieval studies

The Other Side is Not Dumb

Fingarette's Secular as Sacred

Hall and Ames' Thinking through Confucius

Looking forward to this: Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family and Religion, by Henry Rosemont and The Decline of Mercy, by Tuckness and Parrish