Shaming O.J. News Corp's decision to cancel plans to publish a book and broadcast an interview with O.J. Simpson was greeted with relief both inside and outside the company. Journalist Shankar Vedantam talks about how shame is a powerful tool that should be used more as punishment in American society.
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Shaming O.J.

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Shaming O.J.

Shaming O.J.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The decision by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to call off the O.J. Simpson book deal and TV interview met with a sigh of public relief last week. Called “If I Did It,” the hypothetical confession about how Simpson would have killed Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman if in fact he had done it was supposed to go on sale at the end of this week, preceded by a two-part Fox television interview.

Murdock personally pulled the plug on the deals after his company was accused of exploiting the notorious double murder. He said that he and his executives, quote, “agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project.”

In today's Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam writes that the Simpson controversy shows that shame is still a powerful tool in America and that it could be effective even when the law cannot. And he joins us in just a moment.

We went to hear from you. Is a little shame a useful way to teach right from wrong and to offer victims a sense of vindication, or is it just another form of vigilante justice? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Or you can send us e-mail, talk@npr.org.

And now Shankar Vedantam joins us by phone, and nice to you have on the program again.

Mr. SHANKAR VEDANTAM (Journalist, The Washington Post): Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: Was shame really the motivation for Rupert Murdoch here?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Well, of course none of us knows what exactly went on in his mind and his heart, but it's fair to say that he knew about the project ahead of time but it was only after a storm of media coverage and media protests and really widespread revulsion at the project that he decided to pull the plug. So it's fair to say that, you know, public pressure at some level did play a role in the decision.

CONAN: And public pressure in the form of shame.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Yeah. I think so. I think people believed that this project was absolutely shameless and was in the worst possible taste and that no self-respecting corporation ought to, A, be profiting from publishing a book like this, and then, B, scheduling a television special about it during the November sweeps.

CONAN: And therefore a public good was, you would argue, brought about by the use of shame and non-litigiously. Nobody got sued over here.

Mr. VEDANTAM: I think so. One of the things that happened when the book project was announced I think is that people saw that the law was actually impotent because O.J. Simpson was not doing anything illegal by publishing his book. His publisher was not doing anything illegal by publishing the book.

It was in shockingly bad taste, but it was perfectly legal. And all of the things that my column today in the Post explores is the notion that shame can achieve things where the law cannot, because it brings in the factor of social pressure and social opinion that can be brought to bear even on things that are ostensibly legal.

CONAN: An as you point out, it was used extensively in colonial and early parts of republican America, people put on the stocks and that.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Absolutely. I mean shame was a central part of punishment through much of the early American history, and it's still extremely widespread in many parts of the world, especially in smaller communities. One of the interesting things is that shame seems to work best when the offender knows a lot of the people in the community.

So if you have a small village of, you know, 50 people or 100 people or even 500 people, when someone does something wrong it's pretty apparent to pretty much everyone in the community that this person has done something wrong. And the reason shame works is because when you're surrounded by a peer group whose opinions you care about greatly, when they look down at you it has a very powerful effect on you.

So in applying ideas of shame to the modern criminal justice system, one of the interesting ideas is that it actually may be more effective in dealing with white collar crime because professionals such as you and me, for instance, are far more susceptible to the views and opinions of our peers than people who are, you know, just appealing to the general public.

CONAN: And the problem with that - you talk about it's useful in small communities, but people also might say small, homogenous communities. Because otherwise, something that is just merely culturally different could be in fact punished by shame.

Mr. VEDANTAM: You're exactly right. I mean there're a lot of potential problems with using shame as a punishment. I mean, for instance, we no longer think that people who commit adultery nowadays need to walk around with a scarlet letter A on their chests. We would think that that's inappropriate.

So the idea of shame gets into the question of what people think is wrong in the first place. One of the interesting things about the O.J. book is that it's one of the relatively rare events, I think, in recent U.S. experience where the revulsion of the project was pretty much universal.

You know, people were divided during the O.J. trial about his guilt or innocence. But irrespective of where you stood on that question, I think everyone agreed that it was in really bad taste to write a book that essentially profited off the murders of two innocent people.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on this conversation. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. John is with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

JOHN (Caller): Yes. I couldn't agree with you more with regard to the shame issue. And if you bring - if you read - I believe it's T.R. Reid's book on “Confucius Lives Next Door” - he speaks about the incredible low rate of crime and the fact that bicycles in Japan do not have locks on them. They rarely lock up their bikes, etc., etc.

And it is not because of the punishment. He makes it very clear. It's because of the shame that you bring on not only yourself, but your family and everybody who you deal with if you do something shameful or something wrong.

So it's not the punishment. It is the shame. And it has worked incredibly well in Japan.

Mr. VEDANTAM: I mean, I would completely agree with this. But, I mean, the interesting thing, though, is there are many examples in many communities around the world where shame is a very effective technique.

The question, of course, is can you import those techniques to the United States, which is a much more diverse country than, you know, most others, and has very large urban populations where people from a great many different backgrounds who don't know each other live very close to one another. So the idea of using peer groups and the influence that peer groups can exert on individuals is greatly diminished in the U.S.

The other question - and I think this should be, you know, firmly acknowledged - is that our criminal justice system frowns at the idea that when you do something wrong, your family should be, you know, the recipient of punishment of any sort.

So there are jurisdictions in the United States, for instance, which seek to publish the names of married men who visit prostitutes in the local newspaper. And I think one legitimate criticism of such kinds of punishments is that they also, you know, essentially shame the man's family and his children.

CONAN: This is - would be similar to the police departments that publish the names and sometimes the pictures of men who visit prostitutes.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Exactly. Yeah.

JOHN: But isn't that better? Don't you think that's better? I mean, if you've broken a crime and it's public record, why not bring it out? Do you think it would keep them from doing it again?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Right. I'm not so much arguing in my column about whether it's the right thing to do, the wrong thing to do. I think there are going to be people who will make both those arguments.

I think certainly the idea that the current criminal justice system essentially punishes people without attaching a voice of moral outrage to the punishment. So the judge says you've committed this crime and this is a category A crime. And the book says that I need to give you six years plus or minus so much for this crime, and off you go.

And there's no sense of social sanction and social shame. And a lot of the people who are interested in shaming punishment say it's those social sanctions that are a very important part of punishment, because they can get offenders to the point of remorse.

CONAN: Hm.

JOHN: Absolutely. It's critical.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. And let's go now to Ben. And Ben's with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

BEN (Caller): Yes. I find it hard to believe that Rupert Murdoch made his decision based on shame. I believe it was probably a matter of money. His, you know, local affiliates were saying we're not having any part of this. He saw it would lose money, and he decided to pull the plug.

CONAN: And, Shankar, to be fair to Ben, a lot of people pointed out that if Rupert Murdoch looked at page six of any of his newspapers, shame might not be included amongst his emotions.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Yeah. I mean, this is one of the points that one of the people that I interviewed made, which is that, you know, how much of this was really a genuine sense of remorse that this was an inappropriate thing?

And, you know, one of the people I talked with pointed out that Murdoch still owns tabloids, you know, which publish spreads about what people on death row are eating - you know, really grotesque and tasteless stories. And if he was really remorseful, then he wouldn't be doing all of those other things.

I think a more interesting - or an interesting response to that is that shame does not always have to work because people genuinely and sincerely feel remorseful. In other words, shame works because people don't want to be held up in a bad way to society's glare.

So even if Rupert Murdoch is not sincere and was sort of doing this for purely financial reasons, you could make the argument that shame has actually worked. So the question of his sincerity or not is almost beside the point.

And as one of the people who is an advocate of shaming punishments argued in the piece that I wrote today, social psychology teaches us that when we act, our actions in some ways influence how we feel.

So when we tell our, you know, the three-year-old child not to hit his brother and to apologize for hitting his brother, he may say I'm sorry even though he doesn't mean it. But if you do it over and over again, by the 20th time you do it, he has internalized the idea that hitting his brother is wrong.

CONAN: So if we continue to complain about headlines like Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Fork, sooner or later these newspapers will improve, you figure?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Well I think it would have to be pretty much unanimous. So we are - you know, we are desensitized as a society to a lot of the headlines. And so we're not going to get the kind of revulsion that accompanied at the O.J. project for most things.

And again, with a country that's as diverse as the United States, I think you would have to have something where, you know, the revulsion rates approach 90 percent or higher for shame to work. Because what happens otherwise is that if there is a subset, a substantial subset of people who not only don't think you did anything wrong but actually think you did right, then shame doesn't work because, you know, the person sort of essentially finds refuge…

CONAN: Hm-hmm.

Mr. VEDANTAM: …in this minority. And the minority says, well, you did the right thing.

CONAN: Hm. Ben, thanks very much for the call.

BEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And Shankar, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Shankar Vedantam is a national reporter for the Washington Post. An article in today's Washington Post about the uses of shame as punishment appeared on the second page of that newspaper.

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