The death of Cecil the lion (photographed in 2013 by Carol Petersen) has resulted in public shaming and calls for death for his killer.

COLUMN: Time of little shame, and much judgment

When it comes to public shaming, there's a fine line between doing the right thing, and going too far, writes PAN editor Lance Peverley.

Last week, it was the killer of a lion in Zimbabwe.

Then, closer to home, it was a handful of dog owners accused of animal endangerment.

And this week, it was yet another police officer, this one having punched a cyclist in Vancouver.

I write, of course, on the public shaming of individuals through social and traditional media, whereby new technology allows us to unleash very old emotions to shame others who share the planet beneath our feet.

Yet… I’m not convinced our world is entirely in a better place for it.

Certainly, I am not writing to defend the actions of those caught in the online net of what you and I judge to be immoral behaviour.

The fate of the little man with the big gun wouldn’t fare much better, if I endeavoured to represent his side. Just as – if I were judge, jury and executioner – I would be no help to dog owners who leave their pets in hot, sealed cars on sweltering days or to the individual police officers caught on camera failing to carry out their sworn public duties in recent months.

However, despite my lack of empathy, the outcry of an eye for an eye – by some cloaked in online anonymity, and by others in full public view – leaves me with more than a little unease.

I don’t know if those calling for dog owners who put their pets at risk to meet the same fate in vehicular hot boxes are just using hyperbole to make their vengeful points.

But those publicly calling for death of animal killers, it seems to me, are on tricky terrain.

Death.

One person says it, a stranger might carry it out. Just like a contract killing or some high-profile fatwas issued over the years.

Capital punishment, even in the most publicly sanctioned cases – administered by a legal system full of checks and balances – is fraught with miscarriages of justice. Do we really want to risk a death sentence to be carried out merely in the court of public opinion?

‘Throwing stones’ is more than an expression in some parts of the world. It is literally a death sentence for some whose moral sensibilities have offended that majority – carried out by an angry mob.

Are we that mob? And are we convinced we’re that right?

To be fair to some of those accused in cases of overheated dogs left in partially open cars on warm days, it’s clear that many of the accusers have become experts on the effects on body temperatures and canine health. (No excuse for risking living creatures’ health, but certainly degrees of risk should be taken into account when deciding whether – and how much – to publicly shame somebody. No?)

It’s clear that we in the western world haven’t really come that far in the years since Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of an era where the scarlet ‘A’ was puritanically emblazoned on select sinners’ clothing after word of mouth spread like wildfire.

And now technology is making it that much easier to destroy a person in nanoseconds, without a second thought.

In the case of the police, though, I do support the idea of body cameras and audio devices being worn by all officers at all times on duty – with real-time transmitting, if technology allows. This would no doubt protect the officers themselves as much as those whom they are policing.

As for the rest of us, I suggest we assume somebody’s got a camera on us at all times, as well.

While it would be nice to think we’re all on our best behaviour at all times, a few seconds could ruin our reputations in perpetuity.

Yesterday it was the other guy. Tomorrow it could be you.

Lance Peverley is the editor of Peace Arch News.

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