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Pope Francis' public shaming strategy


Pope Francis

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 world's richest citizens, who declared that he paid less tax than his employees, and that he and his wealthy friends have been 'coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress'.

Clearly Buffett did not feel isolated by public criticism of him as an individual. It is more likely that he recognised the truth in negative commentary on the culture of unbridled capitalism such as that we now hear from Pope Francis. In Francis' words, he would have felt 'welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged'.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, social media, public shame, Pope Francis, Warren Buffett, philanthropy, capitalism



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Existing comments

Pope Francis is a cracker. Hopefully we will have him for sufficient time to infuse our society with his humanity and holiness.

john frawley | 13 April 2015  

'Some argue that the shaming of an individual can serve a useful function in terms of promoting positive and responsible behaviour'. Surely this never works long-term. "Doing the right thing' because you're afraid of the consequences doesn't promote a change of heart, just a change of specific external behaviours. I'd guess Warren Buffett's heart had been changing long before the storm of criticism began from outside. Tenderness, not psychological or physical violence, is the way. Or, as we used to say, the locus of control is within ourselves.

Joan Seymour | 13 April 2015  

I'm torn about Warren Buffett's remark. By his laborious and judicious scrutiny and investment strategy, he's lifted thousands upon thousands of shareholders up from poverty. Why shouldn't a poverty-eliminator be rewarded for that with, e.g. a lower tax rate? Come to think of it, why should champions of poverty-elimination such as Buffet be hit with any taxes at all? Where does that argument go? Should the Indian government slug donations to the Missionaries of Charity because, due to their outstanding work they’re so good at raising funds ? Shouldn't we be encouraging poverty-elimination, rather than punishing it? What’s wrong with a message: “If you can lift a thousand people out of poverty, we’ll reduce your taxes!” ? Surely, er hem, social justice is about helping the poor, not cutting the rich down to size? On the other hand, if Buffett's point is somehow accepted, then, OK, we should align taxes of high and low income earners. So let’s do that: let’s reduce average taxation of all other income earners below that of the Buffett billionaires! Say, to 10% or less. Great! Yes, I know there'll be the moaners pointing out that, as Arthur Laffer has conclusively shown, this will massively boost economic activity and end up in a huge boost to government coffers, with the attendant perils of increased state activity. But, I say, let's cross that glorious bridge when we come to it.

HH | 13 April 2015  

HH: The “poverty eliminators” you talk about, such as Warren Buffet, are already handsomely rewarded with billions of dollars for whatever benefits they confer on society. You are now proposing that perhaps they should not have to pay any tax all for this. Surely they have already been magnificently remunerated by the market economy. Perhaps too you should consider that most were not rags-to-riches stories but come from upper middle and upper-class backgrounds, as various studies of millionaires have shown over the years. They already had far more advantages than most and some have inherited substantial family businesses and fortunes. Should they not perhaps be “giving back” to society notwithstanding whatever jobs and shareholder dividends they have inadvertently generated while pursuing their self-interested money-making agendas. Certainly enlightened tycoons think like Buffett and thank God they do. And I’m assuming you were not serious in equating such organisations as the Missionaries of Charity workers with greedy selfish tycoons. And you’re right John Frawley, Pope Francis is “a cracker”. He’s the best chance that a sclerotic Catholic church has had in decades in reforming itself. One hopes he lives long enough to perform this daunting task against thickets of vested and venal interests. Only a reformist Lefty like him would have any chance.

Dennis | 14 April 2015  

In many ways social media have become an out-of-control modern day pillory. It may give a perverse sort of satisfaction to those doing the pillorying, but, to the often totally innocent victims, the experience can be devastating. Some may suffer serious psychological damage or even suicide. Social media critique is often nothing more than a lynch mob. I think we need to watch this modern phenomenon. Sermons could be very effectively directed at it. The Pope is duty bound to offer Christian critique. He does. Obviously this is done without personal vilification. Warren Buffett, despite his fortune, lives a modest lifestyle . He has retained his normalcy and ability to see his situation from the viewpoint of the average citizen. Perhaps all the rich and powerful need to do this? A gentle reminder a la Francis would not go astray.

Edward Fido | 14 April 2015  

Dennis, is it your belief, then, that the more successful people are at lifting others out of poverty by their business activity, the more intensely they should be discouraged via the tax system from doing so ?

HH | 14 April 2015  

Easter Sunday 2015 Google home page had no reference to Easter. Today Google is celebrating the 155th Anniversary of the Pony Express...

Name | 14 April 2015  

HH: Our tycoons are already amply rewarded for “lifting others out of poverty” as a by-product of their single-minded pursuit of ever more billions for themselves and their shareholders. They already have a massive incentive to do this through the vast wealth the capitalist economy allows them to keep and use however they want. Murdoch, Reinhardt and Packer et al don’t need to have their taxes further reduced to pursue their “poverty alleviating” activities. As it is most of these tycoons already have phalanxes of accountants and lawyers as well as numerous tax havens to minimize their taxes anyway as the recent Senate hearings in Canberra have shown. As Warren Buffet so aptly noted; his secretary pays a higher percentage of tax than he does, an obscenely unfair situation. When the average wage-earner sees billionaires avoiding tax, it only encourages him to try and rort the system as well, further reducing the state’s tax revenue. .

Dennis | 15 April 2015  

Simply by the laws of physics, business activity doesn't in itself "eliminate poverty". Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it's merely an issue of redistribution. Business tycoons may create an employment bubble in one sector of society, but that means someone somewhere, or the environment, will suffer. Coles and Woolworths have benefited low income Aussies with cheap milk, but now dairy farmers are going broke.

AURELIUS | 15 April 2015  

Dennis, on the market, voluntary exchange benefits both parties. If successful businessmen are “already” amply rewarded by their monetary profits, then by the same token so is the society in which they have conducted their business, enriching the lives of their customers many times over with their particular product or service. Why should they be penalized at a higher rate of taxation if they choose to benefit society further by continuing to supply their goods or services? Suppose there’s a top-flight heart surgeon who saves and prolongs lives with her brilliant skills. In the last quarter of the financial year she might choose to continue working hard. But say her income in that period is taxed at the highest marginal rate. She could (as many do) choose alternatively to suspend her life-saving work for part or all that time and just take a relaxing cruise round the world, leaving her would-be patients vulnerable to less skilled surgeons. A perfectly understandable choice; but isn't it the height of folly to tempt her in this way, as opposed to giving her an incentive to work on to the immense relief of her patients and their families and friends? By the way, if we note his actions, it’s not as if Warren Buffett is all that upset he’s paying an “obscenely” low rate of tax. This man of outstanding civic virtue could at the stroke of a pen have sacked all his tax lawyers and accountants and written a fat cheque to the government covering the quantum he’s managed to keep out of its hands over the years. He didn't. Sure, he’s going to give 99% of his wealth away and good for him. But he’s entrusted private charities to prudently dispense his largesse, not the inefficient state. That says a lot about what Buffet really thinks of taxation, governments and how best to contribute to society.

HH | 16 April 2015  

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