“I learned many things in prison that were terrible to learn, but I learnt some good lessons that I needed.”
Oscar Wilde wrote the above quote to his friend Carlos Blacker, who escaped England for France in 1890 after being falsely accused of being a card cheat. Wilde himself, the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, was accused and imprisoned for “acts of gross indecency,” essentially for having homosexual relationships with multiple men.
Blacker and Wilde were two men who are described by Helen Andrews of First Things as “history’s martyrs to shame,” as both British men were publicly smeared and accused of crimes and had their reputations ruined, and were subsequently exiled from their homes. The charges against Oscar Wilde were true while the charges against Blacker were false, but it did not make any difference in the two men’s experiences in public shaming and condemnation.
Fittingly, in a lesser-known historical fact, in 1898, Wilde and Blacker provided critical information in exposing the French military officer who communicated French military secrets to the German embassy. The officer was named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, but, in a scandal fraught with antisemitism, was pinned on a young Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfus. I cannot help but see that Wilde and Blacker may have empathized with Dreyfus as they themselves were once publicly condemned, shamed, and crucified men who went through hell and back.
“Of all history’s martyrs to shame, the one whose example consoled me most was Oscar Wilde. He is remembered today as a gay rights pioneer, but, in the letters he wrote after his release from prison, he never rails against the injustice of the law that put him away,” wrote Helen Andrews of First Things.
Andrews herself had been publicly shamed in her conservative circles: her ex-boyfriend, Todd Seavey, went into a 4-minute rant about her personal failings. “He accused me of opposing Obamacare on the grounds that it would diminish human suffering, which allegedly I preferred to increase…of being a sadistic and scheming heartbreaker in my personal life…he made an impassioned case that I was a sociopath.”
Andrews would later find it difficult to be employed — anywhere. A simple Google search of her name would yield a video on C-SPAN of Todd’s tirade against her that depicted her as a sociopath. The next couple years of her life would be nothing short of hell, and Todd, for his credit, didn’t hold up much better during this time. He, too, had trouble getting a job and had many aspects of his life ruined. When Helen Andrews re-connected with Todd and asked him if he would do things any differently, he said he has become a big proponent of handling things internally and privately.
“In the future, if I get married, if my wife stabs me, you won’t hear me shouting in public about it.”
According to Andrews, in her essay about public shaming and “shame storms,” no one cares about the truth, which was why the experiences of Oscar Wilde and Carlos Blacker were so similar. “There is no content to a shame storm. It is mindless by its very nature. It is indifferent to truth, even in cases where the truth could possibly be determined.”
To be shamed, for both of them, felt like a tsunami hitting a home. In the words of Todd, “at a certain point you have to say, ‘I’m just gonna stand here and hold this piece of plywood and see what’s left standing when it’s over.’”
The publicly shamed are deprived of being viewed as human beings, but rather punching bags for holier-than-thou outsiders to feel virtuous about themselves. The publicly shamed are fundamentally misunderstood, in situations where they are condemned so strongly that no one wants to listen or give them a chance. The publicly shamed have been given up on so many times and have so many knives in their backs that trust issues, betrayal, and devastation are no longer occasional events, but seemingly everyday occurrences.
Let it be known that almost everyone has, at some point, publicly shamed someone else. I certainly know that I have. It feels good. It gives you a dopamine rush. It divides your world into a black-and-white spectacle, where there is only, in the words of Katie Roiphe, the “flawless and the fallen, the morally correct and the damned.” Who doesn’t want to see themselves as one of the flawless and morally correct? Roiphe continues to say that “inherent in this performance of moral purity is the idea of judging other people before learning (or bothering to learn) all the facts.” It feels great to live in the simple world of good and evil, rather than in the convoluted and complicated world where every single person is profoundly good, yet profoundly flawed.
Roiphe herself details how she felt in an instance where she herself engaged in publicly shaming, with a friend, a mutual acquaintance of theirs that had been accused of sexual assault: “the outrage grew and expanded and exhilarated us…I felt as though I were joining a club, felt a warming sense of social justice, felt that this was a weighty, important thing we were engaging in.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that those who are publicly shamed the hardest are so devastated they often turn to suicide: OJ Simpson threatened to kill himself in a young Kim Kardashian’s bedroom at the beginning of his infamous trial. Writer and professor Steven Galloway was put on round-the-clock suicide watch for two and a half years after being publicly accused of sexual assault and wrongfully suspended by his university. Producer Jill Messick, who was outed as a “Harvey Weinstein enabler”, committed suicide shortly afterwards.
The gist of the article is not as simple as “public shaming ruins lives.” Intense public shaming puts lives off course and changes them drastically, but many people have weathered these “shame storms” and come out of them intact, if not better and more compassionate people. These are the narratives we have often neglected and looked past, and ones I now seek to find.
Oscar Wilde, a fellow martyr to shame, found spiritualism and faith amidst his own public shaming. He himself stopped worrying whether the law that produced the charge against him was right or wrong, as that worrying did nothing for him.
“The truth that Wilde came to understand, which he shared with his fellow exile, was that they should accept their chastening in a spirit of gratitude. Nothing had been taken from them that would not be restored a hundredfold if they allowed their experience to do its redemptive work.”
In De Profundis , Oscar Wilde saw his sufferings as an occasion for self-realization and caused him to look deeper in himself for the answers he looked for. Wilde realized that every part of his life in prison had to be transformed into “a spiritual experience,” a form of transfiguring his own suffering into beauty. “For the secret to life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything,” Wilde wrote in this work.
Essentially, that is what Jesus Christ does, isn’t it? The Gospels are a story of Christ making himself into a work of art through the transfiguration of his life’s sufferings in the ministry. Christianity was revolutionary in that it did not condemn sinners, especially ones who were publicly shamed. We are all sinners, but the sin itself is not what is holy, but the transfiguration of it is, according to Wilde. That transfiguration leads us to see the unworthiness of living on our own, and instead see the “sordid necessity of living for others.” In light of his own suffering, Oscar Wilde started to empathize with others that also suffered, and look no further than his aid of Alfred Dreyfus as an example.
That public shaming can be used as fuel and fire for our own transfigurations to become more like Christ. In theological circles, this is called the sanctification. As he was dying, Oscar Wilde converted to Catholicism.
But I find the most redeeming part, if I were to one day be publicly shamed in a devastating manner, to be the ability to empathize with other people who have suffered the grueling reality of walking through life with a heavy scarlet letter on their chest. The company Jesus often kept included the dregs of society: tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. The publicly shamed, whether righteously or unjustly, fall into that category of modern-day society. But the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners were the ones that followed and found Christ because they were the ones that needed a savior the most.
Now, I am not advocating that every person publicly shamed and condemned become a born-again Christian like Oscar Wilde, but the point stands: you are not the same person. You cannot live the same life. That person and that life have been demolished by an excruciatingly painful experience, but that experience is the silver lining to be transfigured into something different, something greater. That transfigured identity is different for every person.
The root words of compassion are the Latin words for “with” and “suffering,” so to have compassion for another person is “to suffer with” that person. What greater way to suffer with someone than to have gone through a similarly painful experience?
Originally published at www.theodysseyonline.com on January 2, 2019.