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An analysis of public shaming in The Scarlet Letter and its relation to the digital age, By Okezue Bell

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The themes of public shaming as depicted in The Scarlet Letter underlie an important societal norm that has evolved in  contemporary digital landscape. In Hawthorne’s novel, young and beautiful Hester Prynne navigates through the inequities and confinement of 17th century Puritan society after forcibly having all of her clothes branded by a scarlet letter for committing adultery. Throughout the story, the reader sees Hester constantly having the blame placed on her by the general public and faces trials and tribulations with her husband, Roger Chillingworth, and the man with whom she committed adultery. 

In the digitally-focused society of today, the premise of The Scarlet Letter is reciprocated. Instances of public shaming have become increasingly popular over the web, often a communal attack on a single public figure, using the internet as a medium to brand individuals with a digital footprint that is practically irrevocable. Individuals, especially women, are put under the scrutiny of digital onlookers and are subjected to shame and disproportional hate when they make and broadcast a mistake. Technology has exacerbated public shaming, normalising it, increasing its volatility, and creating long-lasting effects.

In an article titled ‘The Danger of Public Shaming in the Internet Age’, author Farah Mohammed details how public figures are constantly subjected to insult and attack by the public, in part due to the age of sharing and posting videos for millions of people to see. She describes famous vlogger and casual entrepreneur Logan Paul’s ‘suicide forest’ scandal in 2018. Paul had visited the Aokigahara forest, a historically significant forest in Japan that has, unfortunately, become the site of many suicides in recent years, leading it to be called the Suicide Forest. Perhaps out of nervousness and confusion, Paul filmed a dead body he encountered in the forest and attempted to make light of the situation, which did not bode well for him after he decided to post the video with the clip in it. After his millions of fans saw the video, they began blasting him on social media, leading to a decline in his supporters and even forcing him to go on a YouTube hiatus despite his apology. Even today, Google backed out of a $3.5 million deal due to the incident, and many YouTubers have mentioned canceling their engagement with him after it gained negative traction. Mohammed used this example to contextualise the culture of internet rage, and how much it affects those who are in the limelight. She attributes this to the public’s sense to belong and absolve themselves, quoting journalist, Riya Konganzon, who says, “The extent to which we are willing to inflict pain on others is tempered by our shame at being, and being thought, cruel.” Paul’s debacle with the public is synonymous with Hester Prynne’s shaming in The Scarlet Letter.

Much like Hester, Paul is branded with a digital footprint that affects people’s perception of him without the need for empirical evidence, and he was placed in a situation where everyone was scorning him. Though Hester’s branding and shame on the scaffold were physical, she suffered the same consequences. While they both did commit immoral acts, the retribution by the public was unnecessarily harsh. In the case of Logan Paul, whose shaming occurred in contemporary society, he still has to endure the far-reaching effects of the mistakes he’s made thanks to the internet and dissemination of information, while Hester was able to isolate herself in society, and even physically remove her branding.

Another important theme that Hawthorne portrays is the idea of women being a spectacle for society, and having them thrust into society for public shaming, especially in an issue that involves men, such as sex scandals or adultery. In Hester’s case, she was forced into a life of humiliation and unwanted publicity, while the father of her illegitimate child got to keep his high ranking status in society and navigate it as he had done before (though it is important to note that he too was psychologically affected by Hester’s condemnation). Hester was left largely unsupported by religion, the economy, and society, and was also burdened by the responsibility of being a mother to her child, another reminder of her infidelity. Though Hester overcame her struggles, her life was forever changed without her consent, and she had to endure exile.

A similar, arguably worse, situation happened to American activist, Monica Lewinsky, when her affair with President Bill Clinton in 1994, at a time she was a 24-year-old intern, was revealed to the public. Though President Clinton did not face much negative backlash, Lewinsky was torn down by the media, and she went under the radar until around 2014. In an article by Discover magazine titled ‘Shame and the Rise of the Social Media Outrage Machine’, author Timothy Meinch highlights the internet-based outrage culture that is very prevalent today. Lewinsky was brutally insulted by viewers and called derogatory names. She recounts the experience in her TED Talk, saying, “I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one, worldwide”, showing how, like Hester, her life was polarised by a mistake that grew in proportion due to public shaming.

The larger difference between the two is that Lewinsky’s shaming was done through the internet, which led to the rapid spread of her scandal globally, while Hester’s public shaming was done in a secluded Puritan community in Boston. Therefore, Lewinsky had to suffer the effects of her destroyed reputation all over the world, while Hester was able to deal with it in a smaller setting.

Both of the cases of Logan Paul and Monica Lewinsky highlight the evolution of public shaming into a culture in the digital world, or as Lewinsky describes it, “a marketplace [that] has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity, and shame is an industry”. Hawthorne’s depiction of public shaming using Hester is also appreciable, as it is in an entirely different setting, and Hawthorne personifies the feeling of guilt. He quotes, “In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but properly serve to hide another…with a burning bush, and a yet haughty smile, and glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread appeared the letter A.” Here, he narrates the extremely important paradox of public shaming in every instance: branding. 

Though guilt and shame are feelings that one can progress from, it is the branding that affects them. Just as Hester is judged and reminded of her sins thanks to the scarlet letter on her bosom, Logan Paul and Monica Lewinsky are pre-judged and cannot forget or ignore their mistakes because they are constantly thrown in front of them. This is why internet shaming is worse. In Hester’s case, she could conceal herself and tore off the scarlet letter. In the case of internet shaming, the digital footprint cannot be erased.

Overall, each of these instances highlights an unfortunate evil in society, which is public shaming and humiliation. These are used as outlets for society to use a singular individual as a scapegoat for their wrongdoings, and in turn, end up breaking one’s morale. Public shaming has progressed to an even greater extent with the advent of social media and telecommunications, creating indissoluble effects than observed in The Scarlet Letter. This is because the ability to congregate without revealing one’s identity or facing repercussions has been fostered by the nature of the internet, leading to targeted humiliation. Ultimately, it becomes the individual’s responsibility to own up to their mistakes and challenge society if it chooses to respond with the toxic culture of public shaming and widespread humiliation.

Before you go…
My name is Okezue, a developer and researcher obsessed with learning and building things, especially when it involves any biology or computer science. Check out my socials here, or contact me @[email protected].
I write something new every day/week, so I hope to see you again soon! Make sure you comment, and leave some claps on this too — especially if you liked it! I sure enjoyed writing it!

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