Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Revenge vs. Rehabilitation

How shame may help sexual harassers to reform.

As exposés of powerful men accused of sexually harassing women continue to dominate the news cycle, we feel outraged, of course; many of us also take pleasure in the public humiliation these bad actors undergo, glad to see them finally get “what they deserve.”

Anna Graham Hunter, the production intern who has accused Dustin Hoffman of sexually harassing her on the 1985 set of Death of a Salesman, recently gave voice to this feeling. When she learned that HBO host John Oliver had aggressively challenged Hoffman at a recent media event, she “felt cheerful – almost giddy.” No doubt millions of people across America felt the same way. Men who for years have exploited positions of power and prestige to sexually harass women with impunity are now receiving their comeuppance.

Matt Lauer fired from NBC.

Congressman John Conyers forced to step down.

Harvey Weinstein banished from his own company.

Lo, how the mighty have fallen! We understandably rejoice at their downfall, convinced that justice has been served … but what type of justice is it, exactly? Does the spectacle of public humiliation restore moral order in a humane way, or does it instead embody a kind of punishment akin to the law of talion? Do mercy, forgiveness, and rehabilitation have any part to play or is this cultural moment largely focused on exacting revenge?

The public shame campaign instigated by the #MeToo movement and Rose McGowan’s call to name and shame perpetrators everywhere has satisfied a long-thwarted need to right injustice – ironically, for it was shame itself that silenced the victims for decades. As the crimes of these men are adjudicated in the court of public opinion, the widespread urge to shame them thus embodies a kind of retributive justice, reflecting the belief that “those who commit certain kinds of wrongful acts … morally deserve to suffer a proportionate punishment.” Publicly shaming the perpetrators can feel entirely just and morally fitting, a tailor-made penalty for the alleged crimes.

At the same time, to employ public humiliation as a form of punishment also seems regressive, harkening back to the use of pillories and stocks in Colonial America, now widely considered cruel and unusual punishment. Because shame has come to be viewed as a uniformly negative and maladaptive emotion in our culture, the use of public humiliation as a form of retributive justice can easily appear inhumane, barbaric even (especially when you consider that retribution is a synonym for revenge).

How can an enlightened society, built upon principles of empathy, compassion, and respect for individual human dignity, deliberately strive to make other people feel like pariahs and irredeemable outcasts? Does shame have a place within a modern system of social justice? And does shame have any constructive value, or does it embody a form of violence used to oppress some people and exact revenge upon others?

* * *

Recent studies suggest that our species evolved the capacity to experience shame as a way to protect the individual from “social devaluation” during the millennia when our ancestors lived in tribes that depended upon close cooperation among members for survival. If an individual behaved in ways that caused other members of the tribe to value her or him less, the community might be disinclined to share food and make other sacrifices for that individual. According to this evolutionary view, the ability to feel and anticipate the painful emotion of shame encouraged social cohesion, compliance with tribal norms, and promoted survival of the individual as well as the tribe.

Over the millennia, all cultures and civilizations have made use of shame to enforce their particular values. While many historical forms of public shaming have indeed been harsh and cruel, the fear of confronting such a painful experience has also deterred behaviors that offend our collective morality. As noted by historian Lawrence Friedman, even the use of public humiliation in Colonial America was not intended exclusively to punish sinners, but often to teach them a lesson, as well, and to encourage their desire to return and find acceptance within the flock. John Braithwaite of Australian National University refers to this approach as “reintegrative shaming,” in contrast to “stigmatization,” which ostracizes and permanently excludes the offender from full membership in society.

Source: HaroldNet

Does the current public shame campaign reflect stigmatization, where the accused are forever tainted, or reintegrative shaming as instructive punishment, with an implicit offer of eventual forgiveness and re-acceptance into the flock provided that certain conditions are met?

Most punishments meted out by the criminal justice system have time limits; at the end of a specified period of months or years, criminals are deemed to have paid their debt to society and then (at least in theory) are welcomed back into the fold. If public humiliation of sexual harassers is the sentence our collective outrage demands, and if it truly does embody more than a thirst for revenge, how long should it last? Does the shaming campaign have a time limit, and under what conditions may those men persuasively accused or legally convicted of sexual harassment resume membership in society?

Put another way – what, if anything, can these men do to earn forgiveness and restore their reputations?

Forgiveness must, of course, be withheld from those who refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing in the face of plausible accusations from multiple victims – James Toback and Roy Moore – or those who legally attack their credible accusers – Brett Ratner. But what about the others? – men such as Louis CK who acknowledge wrong-doing and express an apparent desire to make amends? There ought to be a way for such men, over time, to restore their reputations, find forgiveness for their crimes, and eventually reintegrate into society.

Unless their utter and complete humiliation will satisfy our vengeful sense of justice, after which we’ll be done with them.

As a first step, harassers who seek forgiveness must admit fault and apologize. In recent weeks, as one prominent man after another has fallen from grace, media analysis of this issue has focused on the public statements of men such as Leon Wieseltier and Mark Halperin, parsing them for sincerity by comparing them to a set of features that supposedly define a “genuine” apology.

But unlike a scandal-ridden corporation such as United Airlines that has offended the public and owes an apology to a broad class of consumers, sexual harassers owe an apology to their victims. If restitution is to be made, it must be made to the victims. If forgiveness is ultimately to be granted, it must begin with forgiveness from the victims. A carefully scripted and publicly issued mea culpa does not fit the bill, primarily because it preserves an emotional distance between the perpetrator and the victim.

The criminal justice system sometimes resorts to an alternative approach to punishment that does not embody retribution. Restorative justice “is a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offense come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future." It stresses the importance of remorse and apology, communicated in person by criminals to their victims. At its best, restorative justice may promote a kind of catharsis and reconciliation between the parties, potentially leading to reform by the criminal and authentic forgiveness from the victim.

Women who have suffered sexual harassment will likely dread such encounters with those who assaulted them and may, therefore, be reluctant to participate; they understandably fear re-traumatization, but they needn’t confront the harasser alone. Supportive friends, family, and legal counsel can help them to feel safe. And because remorse is often conveyed by facial expressions and body posture, such in-person encounters allow the victims to assess the genuineness of an apology, “receive needed assurance that it was not their fault, overcome their resentment, and see offenders as redeemable human beings.”

When remorse is expressed in the form of a genuine apology delivered face-to-face, when victims feel heard and can see with their own eyes that remorse is truly felt, it may initiate the process of forgiveness and reintegration of the offender into society.

Face-to-face interactions between perpetrator and victim may also help “break down pride, fear, pain, anxiety, and other barriers to accepting responsibility and thus pave the way for genuine repentance” by the perpetrator. This breaking down of pride, fear, and anxiety in many ways resembles the psychotherapy work I do with clients in flight from shame, usually unconscious, concealed behind their psychological defense mechanisms. Growth in psychotherapy occurs as we break down those defenses, allowing clients to face their shame and learn the lessons it often has to teach them—about their faults and limitations, and about the person they would like to become.

If accused sexual harassers are truly going to reform and grow, they mustn't try to manage their public humiliation by handing it over to press agents, or spending a few weeks in rehab to cope with a supposed “sex addiction.” For personal rehabilitation to be possible, they must face their shame head-on as my clients eventually do. The best way for these men to face their shame is to meet in person with their victims while deprived of their usual power-based defenses and the protection afforded by the enablers around them, and to bear witness to the pain and emotional distress they have inflicted upon their victims. They must make themselves vulnerable and hope that genuine remorse will lead to forgiveness. They must learn something useful from their shame.

And if we as a collective society are ever to forgive the harassers and not stop short at revenge, we should wait for their victims to forgive them first.