My sailors made a mistake. They indulged in the splendors of a Thailand port visit but failed to report back in time for muster. A lapse in judgment, to say the least, and once caught, they began the traditional journey of naval discipline. They were first met with a disciplinary review board (DRB), which the command master chief and a group of senior enlisted sailors chaired, with many of whom my sailors had never interacted with. This was followed by an executive officer inquiry (XOI), and finally, they found themselves faced with an official meeting with their commanding officer in the form of a closed captain’s mast. The ship’s triad wanted not only to punish the wrongdoing, but also to diminish the chances of future mistakes. The punishment came and went, but months later I would still hear them reminisce about the incident with contempt. Their anger was not so much about the penance, which they rightfully accepted the consequences of, rather it was about the theatrical public shaming on their behalf—a show meant to set an example for the rest of the command.
This story is far from unique, and often retelling it aids in speeding up a late-night watch, but rarely do Navy leaders pause to question the merits of publicly shaming sailors. Seeing a scarlet badge emblazoned with the word “Restricted” on the uniform of the sailor in question sparks clichéd imagery of a troubled student wearing a dunce cap. It takes every bit of military bearing not to scoff when reading “Sailor awarded nonjudicial punishment” in the Plan of the Day. Public shaming is wrong—learned in grade school—and yet the world’s strongest military cannot help but partake. Junior enlisted service members are adults, even when they may not act like it, and it is time they be treated as such. That is not to say the Navy should avoid punishing sailors altogether, quite the opposite. Instead, the Navy needs to abandon the public spectacle being made of nonjudicial punishments, though open masts and announcing punishments in the Plan of the Day, and honor the often cited, but rarely practiced adage: praise in public, punish in private.
Before explaining why shaming is ineffective, it is important to distinguish it from an interchangeably used word: guilt. In technical terms:
It has been assumed that shame involves a global devaluation of the self, whereas guilt involves a condemnation of one's unethical behavior and a concern about its bad influence on others. Correspondingly, behavioral studies have revealed that shame is associated with concerns over one’s own self-image and causes hid[ing], escap[ism], and repair[ing] of one's own image.
Though shame and guilt are both responses to the violation of moralistic integrity, guilt results in acceptance and apology because of the focus on one’s own behavior. As Philipp Wüschner says: “Shame makes a person want to hide from the world but at the same time thwarts [their] agency and thus keeps [them] captive in a position of discomfort. . . . guilt also implies that we have damaged somebody or something and that we are now somehow indebted to them and need to seek ways of restoration.” Optimistically, one would believe the Navy punishes wrongdoing not out of retribution, but rehabilitation. If this is true, then open-door punishment, or as the French philosopher Michel Foucault calls it, “punishment-as-spectacle,” is failing sailors.1 The resulted embarrassment overshadows the command’s intention of discipline and, worse still, it runs the risk of making martyrs out of malefactors.
Despite the honor, courage, and commitment that dictates a sailor’s values, they remain human, and to be human is to err. The fact is, my shipmates faltered in judgment, but the possibility exists that those appointed over them also made a mistake. A pardon in captain’s mast casts doubt on the judgment and authority of the DRB or XOI that precede it. It could be argued that this is an example of the system working; the opportunity to plead their case to various levels in the chain of command gives sailors the chance to showcase innocence or guilt. While this is true, and a pardon from the commanding officer is coveted, it does more to undermine the process than anything else.
The command triad is not a system of checks and balances; the power is the captain’s and the captain’s alone. If sailors are pardoned by their commanding officer, this adds a layer of skepticism to the judicial capabilities of both the chiefs’ mess and the executive officer. For sailors facing punishment, this is the best-case scenario, but it comes at the cost of most of their leaders’ credibility. Handling the situation in private—as it should be done—spares all parties from needless scrutiny. Sailors are spared from ostracism while their leaders remain free from undue cynicism.
While my first sea tour took me around the world and introduced me to countless naval traditions, it was my first open captain’s mast that had the most profound impact. I have forgotten the names of the individuals involved and only vaguely remember the crime. Despite the details fading over time, the punishment was unforgettable—three days in the brig with nothing but bread and water. I can only imagine the public showing was meant to dissuade repeat offenses, yet the archaic punishment only served to lower morale and incite sympathy for the punished. To quote Foucault once more,
Something violent aroused and accompanied the procession along its entire course: anger against a justice that was too severe or too indulgent; shouts against the detested criminals; movements in favour of prisoners one knew and greeted; confrontations with the police.2
Their shame became a badge of honor while the punishment was perverted into a symbol of an unfair system. Any lesson to be learned was immediately subverted and repeat offenses became inevitable. The open mast was meant to showcase the consequences of violating the rules; however, the spotlight also illuminated the flaws of all those involved. If the sole benefit of shaming is that it exposes unjust crimes, then the Navy is doing its sailors a disservice by making them pawns in a game of trial and error.
Admiral Grace Hopper famously said that the most dangerous phrase one could utter is “we’ve always done it that way.”3 The military has been conditioned to accept shaming as a proper form of punishment. While conduct unbecoming of an officer or chief petty officer is handled behind closed doors, the conduct of junior enlisted personnel is addressed in the open. The very same master chief who carried out my shipmates’ DRB was later found guilty of the same infraction they were, and yet the visibility of his punishment was radically skewed.
Punishments should result in betterment and reflect the desire to uphold the investment made in everyone. Punishment-as-theater fails to do this in every regard. The unnecessary spectacle of open masts belittles sailors and fails to constructively reform anyone. At best it gives sailors something to brag about after the fact, and at worst it causes them to withdraw completely. By no means should the Navy turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, but sailors should be free to face consequences while leaving their shipmates out of it. A career development board is a vital tool in a sailor’s career that aids in clearing a path to success for junior and senior sailors alike, however those sailors may define it. For noncriminal offenses, this standard meeting should be used as opposed to a DRB. Forgo the unnecessary inclusion of chiefs with no prior knowledge of that sailor or their character. If official escalation or punishment is required, so be it, but even in instances of criminality, anonymity should be respected at all costs. Leave the red badges, public announcements, and voyeurism out of an individual’s road to redemption.
Shaming is easy, but it does not work. Discipline combined with respect is arduous and time-consuming, but the payoff is worth the effort. Leaders will maintain their earned reputation rather than becoming targets of ire, and sailors will no longer be shunned or defined by their mistakes. When we know better, we do better, at all levels.
1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York, NY: Random House, 1995).
2. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 258.
3. Surden, Esther. “Privacy Laws May Usher in 'Defensive DP': Hopper.” ComputerWorld 10, no. 4 (26 January 1976).