Lots of attention (and some great commentary) these last 2 days on the preposterously brief sentence that Tom Humphries received for grooming and abusing a young woman, in particular Judge Karen O’Connor’s rationale. She seemed to suggest that his fall from a high profile position constituted a punishment in itself, and commented that “it would be difficult not to have sympathy for him.” The thoughtlessness of vocally empathising with the perpetrator rather than his victim appalled many, including me.
And once again (I tied myself in knots over the George Hook business, before finally not blogging about it), there are plenty of voices arguing against “witch hunts”, “lynch mobs”, “trial by media” and all the rest. And given the particular Irish expertise at creating pariahs and then destroying them, I get it. Even powerful people can become marginalised and even oppressed: stigma and shame are remarkable tools and should be deployed carefully (they never are). But if you’re really so concerned that Humphries shouldn’t be publicly shamed, then why not hold him to account robustly, formally?
Most victims of sexual abuse that I know want to see their abusers cast out, humiliated, systematically excluded. After all, that is what victims and survivors themselves often experience. Silencing. Denial. Belittling. Doors closed, offers rescinded, if they insist on mentioning their abuse or naming their abuser.
We know that abuse is rarely reported, rarely prosecuted, and almost never results in a sentence; while victims and survivors suffer from a wide range of personal impacts (on their physical and mental health, their friendships, their relationships, their careers, and on and on), often threaded through with a heavy dose of shame. Impunity makes these impacts, and their attendant shame, far far worse.
It seems to me that if you are bothered by any instinctive social shaming of people like Humphries, you need to be demanding tougher sentences for real crimes. If sexual violence were consistently treated as the serious crime it is, then the impact of a conviction could be objectively assessed. What was Judge O’Connor really saying – that the public shame was a punishment equivalent to one and a half years in jail (or seven and a half years, depending on how you interpret the sentencing guidelines)? If you don’t want him to be shamed, send the message that he is accountable for his crime, formally, visibly, through an appropriate sentence.
Comments about trial by media are particularly amusing. On this occasion, the court of public opinion and the court of law came to exactly the same conclusion: that Humphries was guilty; and that his wrong-doing was especially egregious for the abuse of power it involved. The court of law failed to enact a fair punishment and you can hardly be surprised if other public spaces do so instead.
I think that public shaming for acts of abuse occurs because those acts are still somehow conceived as private, outside of the realm of formal justice. They are not. They are serious crimes. Once criminals are held to justice for their acts, then I’ll be willing to hear about the rights or wrongs of an emotional public response.
But until then, shame is the only justice available, and it will continue to be deployed.