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The ways we punish and why they matter


In early 2015, The New York Times Magazine ran a story about a woman named Justine Sacco. It detailed how her life was essentially destroyed after sending out an at-best-offensive, at-worst-blatantly-racist tweet about how she hoped she wouldn’t get AIDS during her trip to South Africa. The tweet ended with the addendum: “Just kidding. I’m white!”

In a matter of 12 hours, the tweet had gone viral, in the worst of ways. Sacco was fired from her job and publicly humiliated on Twitter. The story horrified me — there was something terrifying about the way in which a mass of people can come together and enact such complete and ultimate punishment.

It’s been almost four years since I read that story, but I still think about it all the time. I’ve come to realize that the thing that frightened me so much about the mode of punishment that Sacco went through is that it was ultimately pointless. If the goal of getting Sacco fired and ruining her life was to take steps towards dismantling the anti-black state in South Africa and around the world, I think we can say with relative confidence that that has not happened in any real sense. Most people probably don’t even remember who Justine Sacco is. This distinctive formula of social justice — punitive collective shaming — does little more than make those carrying out the punishment feel good about themselves.

But even as Sacco’s story fades from our consciousness, the vehicles and motives we use to punish people like Justine Sacco very much remain, both on the political left and right.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed this impulse towards punishment for its own sake in a rather strange place: Fox News. Namely, how their news shows ran almost nonstop coverage of the breaking story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults.

This coverage was bizarre to me, considering that most pundits on Fox News vocally support a man who once bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia and that Fox renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract right after he settled his sexual harassment claims. And yet, for weeks, they ran story after story on Weinstein.

This punishment of Weinstein had nothing to do with trying to alleviate any of the real pain that Weinstein inflicted on the women he abused. It didn’t even have anything to do with bringing attention to the brutal fact that in our world, women’s bodies are consistently violated, in public and in private. No, Fox decided to focus on how the revelations on Weinstein were proof of a “Hollywood Swamp” run by corrupt, immoral liberals, headed by (of course) Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In Fox’s handling of this story, there are faint traces of Justine Sacco’s case — people coming together to punish for self-serving reasons. Contrast Fox News’ take on Harvey Weinstein to the #MeToo campaign, which brought together thousands of women and started truly meaningful discussions about sexual assault in our society. The #MeToo campaign was, perhaps, an implicit punishing of Weinstein, but in a much larger sense, it was a championing of voices that are not usually heard. In this sense, it was not so much punitive as it was reformative, a radical rethinking of the way in which we discuss sexual assault and the people who we think that it happens to. Whereas Fox News’ punishment of Weinstein was self-serving and mostly useless for bringing about actual change, the #MeToo campaign was inspiring and empowering.

There’s an implicit question running through the undercurrent of all these stories: What, exactly, is the point of our modes of punishment?  When we flame people on Twitter for a hurtful microaggression, do we actually care about them learning about how their voice contributes to structures of oppression and helping to dismantle those structures, or do we want the world to know that we are some brand of “woke” that’s in right now? When we take public figures and tear them down, bit by bit, are we doing it because we actually care about the crimes they committed, and how those crimes affected the victims, or because we are trying to make some larger point about systems that we dislike?

We should not punish simply because we can. We should not punish for the sole purpose of feeling good about ourselves. We should punish to rehabilitate.


Contact Adesuwa Agbonile at adesuwaa ‘at’

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