Justice and fairness have long been a part of how America defines itself. While policies over the course of this country's history have been racist, sexist and problematic in many ways, there is a real and serious commitment (however flawed) to be as free and equal as we idealize ourselves to be. And so, a public reveal and subsequent shaming of what we as a society see as wrong has always been a popular subject. But it's rarely asked whether embarrassing someone in public is really effective — or if it just makes us feel better. A look at some recent examples of Internet shaming reveals a mixed bag of results. 

There was the unseemly fellow who sent pictures of his private parts to an unassuming woman on a dating site. After expressing her displeasure, she sent the pictures to his mother. Mostly people on the Internet thought he got what was coming to him. 

Then there was a braggart on a train who went on an on about how easy it was to cheat on his wife. A fellow passenger took his picture, posted it on Facebook, and asked the Web, "Is this your husband?" The image was shared thousands of times on Facebook, and most people were glad to judge the man guilty in the court of law inside their own heads. He could, after all, have been exaggerating, or just plain lying to impress his friends. Either way it's pretty lame behavior, but is it worth a public shaming? 

But sometimes, the person who exposes what they see as wrongdoing becomes the object of judgment. Adria Richards Tweeted a picture of men she said were making sexist comments at a tech conference (which got one of them fired), and she was torn apart online for reporting what she thought was wrong. And of course, there's that famously cringe-worthy video of the woman who spent eight minutes berating Dunkin' Donuts employees, ending in a racist epithet — which she posted online herself because she thought she had been slighted for not receiving a receipt. Not surprisingly, the Web response to her video was to shame her, which, suffice to say, was not the reason she made the video in the first place. 

We've all had those moments when we'd like to get back at someone for violating the social contract. Mine came years ago when I was enjoying a post-snowboard beer at a resort in Colorado. I was waiting solo for my friend and the loud table next to me was full of guys drinking beer and talking skiing. Somehow, they got from their favorite runs to how much they hated Middle Eastern people, freely throwing around the racial epithet for that group and how the U.S. should just "blow them all up." I was offended, not only because I'm always offended when people use racist language around me (and I always speak up, no matter the race being attacked), but also because my great-grandmother was Lebanese.

I walked over to the table of men (who were fully expecting me to pick one of them up by the looks on their faces) and called them out for being racist, and using language that was derogatory in a public place. I was furious, to put it mildly. I told them about my personal connection to the racist term they had been using, and that they had no right to expect that people of Middle Eastern decent wouldn't hear them. What they said in response was, unsurprisingly, extremely ugly. They attacked me verbally, with every nasty thing they could think of. Nonetheless, I'm proud of what I said that day, and proud every time I speak up against people who assume my white skin and background means they can insult people of various races, religions or sexual orientations. With a gay sister and a Jewish boyfriend, I've got personal reasons for speaking out against pretty much every narrowminded bigot out there. 

For many years, I wished I had been able to record what went on that day. To show racists getting called out and how defensive they had been. There's a part of me that would have loved to have posted that on the Internet, and to shame those men for their horrible words. But now I wonder; who would have been seen as the "bad guy" in my story? It's not entirely clear, judging by the most recent stories of shaming online. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of Internet shaming is not the individual stories and the acts, but the fact that they get discussions going about some of the hardest parts of being American — living with people who are different (or very different) from ourselves. Maybe each story about a woman being harassed, or hearing sexist things isn't about that particular story, but about how we the people are making sense of our world and living together in it. Maybe these discussions and online debates are actually critically important so that we all know how the other side feels about, say, sending unsolicited pictures of genitals, and that will encourage us to be more sensitive and thoughtful about what we do in public — and private.

Here's hoping.  

Related posts on MNN:

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Does Internet shaming work? Yes, except when it backfires
Pointing out wrongdoing has a long history in the United States, and the latest venue is the Internet.