Embarrassment may be the alternative to punishment

Holly New

Douglas Engelbart once said, “The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate.” This makes me wonder if we should embarrass people until they mature.

We live in a time where prisons are overcrowded and a significant amount of the population lives in poverty. Do jail time and hefty fines always have to be the answer to petty crimes? Some don’t think so.

In November 2009, two women in Bedford, Pa., were found guilty of theft after stealing a gift card from a 9-year-old girl on her birthday. They were given the choice to either spend time in jail or accept a new punishment as part of a public punishment initiative: spend four-and-a-half hours sitting outside the county courthouse holding a sign that read, “I stole from a 9-year-old on her birthday! Don’t steal or this could happen to you!”

The Cumberland Times-News reported that, “The public punishment initiative was suggested by Assistant District Attorney Travis Livengood, who saw the necessity for a special kind of punishment to combat disgraceful criminal behavior such as stealing from a little girl on her birthday.”

While this initiative hasn’t made its way into the law books, public embarrassment as punishment is more apparent than one might think.

The Huffington Post reported in January 2012 that an Indiana man who was forced to stand outside the courthouse with a sign stating that “I failed to appear for jury duty” after skipping out on jury duty.

Some extend the punishment to social media. Dana Macario of Today wrote about how two Wisconsin parents punished their daughter for misbehaving by taking over her Facebook account and posting silly pictures of themselves.

And my personal favorite? According to ABC News, two students caught fighting at Westwood High School in Mesa, Ariz., were given the choice of suspension or having to sit together for 15 minutes at lunchtime. The funny part was they were forced to hold hands.

I don’t know about you, but my first reaction is to laugh hysterically.

However, some have raised speculation that these embarrassing punishments are detrimental, especially to the children who are being embarrassed. I beg to differ.

We live in an age when people think they are untouchable. Teenagers post everything on the Internet with no forethought as to the consequences. People will commit crimes, assured there is no way they could get caught. We also live in an age where parents aren’t allowed to hit their children like they used to.

While I’m not advocating abuse, new cultural standards have forced parents to think of new methods of effective, yet harmless, punishments. Prison time and fines don’t have to be the only answer to petty crimes, nor does spanking have to be the answer to an unruly teenager. What will generally work is embarrassment. Shame and guilt can be powerful motivators, and when used successfully may even prevent future crimes.

Punishment doesn’t always have to be harsh. Sometimes, red cheeks are enough.