The Shaming of the Shrew

This is the third in a little series of articles reflecting on the controversy surrounding Dominic Cumming’s trip to Durham. I guess it also relates to the issues that came up with Professor Neil Ferguson and Catherine Calderwood, the former Scottish Chief Medical Officer I am more concerned with the lessons we learn for our own contexts than the specific outcomes for politicians.

I want you to notice something important at the heart of all three stories. What was it that people really wanted. I want to suggest that once we leave the legal court rooms and enter the court of media and public opinion, the issues are rarely about guilt and justice but about shame. 

If the people concerned broke laws, then penalties should have been incurred whether that was breaking the law of the land or rules relating to their employment.  However, that isn’t what really is (or was) at stake in each of those cases is it? Rather than appropriate punishment either for penal or restorative ends, we are looking for public shame.

We don’t just want Neil Ferguson and Dominic Cummings to pay their fine or even to step down from their jobs. We want to see them publicly humiliated, we want to see their reputations torn to shreds and we want them to be banished, never to return. I suspect that is partly why we don’t want to find ourselves showing them sympathy either![1]

Why is that? Well I think that in those cases, the issue is not really (or at least just) about whether or not they broke the rules or were in the wrong. Something greater was and is at stake. We are frustrated, even if we agree with the lockdown, we want to be free from it. We resent the loss of freedom. We are anxious and worried. When we see some people seeming to get away with it, whether politicians visiting second homes, scientific advisors slipping out to commit indiscretions or people heading down to the seaside to cram onto the beach.[2]  The sense we have is that people get away with it because they can.[3]

So, we want someone to pay and to make some form of atonement for all our suffering. I suspect that in Dominic Cummings’ case there is the additional residual anger for his involvement in Brexit, the constitutional shenanigans around proroguing Parliament and Boris’s triumph in the 2019 election.  This type of payment is unlikely to be proportionate because it is about making sure the person is humiliated and shamed as much as possible.

The thing about shame is because it really is about responding to my/our own pain and anger and about defeating and suppressing the person who has offended us, no matter what we do, it will never be enough until we have completely crushed the other. There is therefore no grace or mercy in the courtroom of public shaming.

But it is not only about the public seeking a form of atonement through shaming is it? We all seek to do it to ourselves. We all try to make atonement for ourselves and it is never possible for us to do full justice to our crimes. Let me give you another example. There have been a number of incidents where someone breaking the rules has led to tragedy. Think about those who intentionally spat in the face of the London Underground worker. I doubt they intended to kill. Yet as a result of their disgusting behaviour someone died. How do they live with themselves now? What about those who invited people to a party only for a number of family members to get sick and die. Imagine bearing that level of guilt.

You see, no fine, no prison sentence, no public shaming and humiliation can bring those lives back. No punishment can take away the shame, guilt, grief and pain that those responsible must carry.

That’s the difference that The Cross makes. Jesus is the only one who can truly bear our guilt and shame. Jesus was punished on the Cross so that we could be declared innocent, he was mocked, beating, stripped and shamed so that we could be clothed in righteousness, he died so that we could live.

This is good news not just for people who are experiencing guilt and shame for what they have done during the Coronavirus. It is the problem each of us faces as we think back through our lives about those we have hurt through what we have said and done to them and what we have not done for them because of what we thought about them. It is the problem we face when we realise that we have not loved God as we should.

Jesus’ death on the Cross is enough to take away not just Dominic Cumming’s shame and guilt but yours and mine too.

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Update … Cummings in his press conference has said that the other factor within his circumstances was that his house was a target for press and protest action.


[1] On a side point, you will notice that a factor in this court room relates to how dispensable the offender is not to the public good but to their personal sponsors and protectors. Although Calderwood and Ferguson may have something valuable to offer as scientists, they were seen as replaceable by their political masters. Cummings although not a scientist and arguably not offering anything near the same level of public value seems to be seen as indispensable to the Prime Minister though if he remains the story for long, that will no doubt change.

[2] My favourite media incident of the last week was the mother and daughter complaining to the media about how they had arrived at the beach only to find it packed with holiday makers and how reckless that all was.

[3] This is not new, read Ecclesiastes or Psalms 37 and 73.

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