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Pope Francis' public shaming strategy

  • 13 April 2015

Pope Francis' most famous utterance 'Who am I to judge?' reflects the priority he gives to mercy as the hallmark of his papacy, and this as underlining his recent announcement of 2016 as the Holy Year of Mercy.

Mercy, he writes in his apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium, must be freely given, in a climate in which 'everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged'.

Francis has himself given a good lead in the way he has sought to shame cultures and institutions – such as capitalism and banks – and not individuals.

Public shame has become quite a phenomenon in recent years, with the rise of social media. But unfortunately it has been less about criticising institutions than targeting individuals, often with the deliberate intention of hurting them.

This destructive behaviour is the subject of a new book titled So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Welsh journalist Jon Ronson. Ronson talks about ordinary people who put a foot wrong, often innocently, and are mercilessly pilloried for it in social media. It's a negative consequence of the democratisation of the media of public communication.

'The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people's faults.'

Some argue that the shaming of an individual can serve a useful function in terms of promoting positive and responsible behaviour. But, they also point out, it often causes lasting harm in the form of poor mental and physical health. They say it can activate the hyper-pituitary adrenal and immune systems.

But whether it is a useful reality-check or a psychologically crushing admonition from the peer group, it is always a less effective long term corrective than Pope Francis' idea of mercy, which 'gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives [and] bridges distances', rather than creating isolation.

During the Senate Inquiry of the past week, there has been a degree of public shaming of large corporations such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Ikea, for systematic tax dodging. This is always better than pinning such reprehensible behaviour on individuals, who are more likely to respond with bitter denial that will only entrench their behaviour.

If we follow Pope Francis' example in criticising the culture rather than the person, we are more likely to get from 'offenders' the kind of humble self-revelatory actions that are characteristic of good public citizens. An example is the astonishing statement in 2011 from Warren Buffett, one of the