Shaming People In Public – The Downside

Jeremy Boorda
We’ve all heard of public figures caught in scandals, and we normally don’t spend too much time feeling sorry for the shame they must feel at being exposed. After all, they brought it upon themselves. But shame can lead to consequences. Take Admiral Jeremy Boorda, of the U.S. Navy, who committed suicide after Newsweek magazine contacted him earlier in the day to request an interview for a story that called into question the military decorations that he had been wearing for years.

Defense Department officials said the 57-year-old admiral left behind two suicide notes, both suggesting that he had been driven to take his life by fear that the reputation of the Navy, which has been battered in recent years by a series of scandals, would be further harmed by the disclosures about his medals.

It may have been an innocent mistake on his part to wear Vietnam valor medals, since he had served aboard ships off the Vietnamese coast. Furthermore, the day after his suicide former admiral Elmo Zumwalt said that he personally authorized Admiral Boorda to wear the medals – so it may not even have been a mistake.

So there are issues with public shaming, when it leads to suicide – in this case of a person who perhaps did not even deserve any shame.

Interestingly, the Navy, had been overwhelmed in previous years with scandal – from rampant cheating among midshipmen at the Naval Academy to the sexual assault of dozens of women at the 1991 Tailhook convention of naval aviators.

I personally am all in favor of such scandals being exposed, but once actual names get named, then we have to be a little more careful. We have to weigh consequences. On the plus side – by exposing a scandal – a wicked or disgusting act can be exposed, understood, stopped, and maybe prevented in future. A person who we have given our trust, and our vote, may turn out to have done things that change our opinion of him. And so we should know about it, no matter if our knowledge brings the person in an instant from a high of public admiration to a low of public contempt. On the negative side, we could be branding this person for life, embarrassing his children terribly, and in addition, in one case I know of, the disgust that was felt for the person got translated to active persecution by a small but nasty segment of the population.

In the Jewish religion the Talmud derives from the story of Judah and Tamar that it is better to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to shame another publicly. That may be extreme, but perhaps first, in some cases, we should confront the person privately about the scandal, and see if he changes his behavior, before going public.

There was another suicide that is relevant. Tyler Clementi a Rutgers freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.
The cause was that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro, had broadcast live images of the 18-year-old having a sexual encounter with another man on the internet.

Ravi and Molly Wei, 18, of Princeton, set up a camera in Tyler’s dorm room.

‘”Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay,” Ravi said on his Twitter page.’

Two days later, Ravi posted another entry directing his nearly 150 Twitter followers to iChat, an internet messaging service with a live video feed.

“Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again,” Ravi wrote in the Sept. 21 post.

This raises several questions. If you live in a dorm with a roommate, should you tell the roommate to leave and then use that dorm room for sexual encounters? Perhaps, (my being old-fashioned), you should wait until marriage for sex. It would prevent all sorts of problems. Homosexuality raises a lot of other issues too which I will not get into here.

Whatever we feel of Tyler’s actions, though, exposing them to the public led him to a state of misery and shame and despair great enough that he drove up to a bridge, and jumped off. Being exposed does have a salutary effect to the extent that you see yourself as others see you, and you may understand that you’ve traveled down a slippery slope, but this kind of exposure was too much.

One argument for knowing about scandals is that it tells you about the world you live in, and about the nature of some who inhabit it. But I would think I could do with only a general knowledge of pre-marital sex, gay or otherwise, going on in college dorms. I don’t need to know the names and faces of the people who engage in it.

As for “stolen valor” in the case of the Admiral, a strong sense of honor led him to a tragic action and in his case, it really may have been a perfectionist attitude that led him to his suicide.

When shameful actions take a coloring of evil thats when they should be exposed. There is also a saying “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. We just have to make sure the sunlight doesn’t kill the person it illuminates.


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