The recent controversy surrounding Sandra Fluke compels a dialogue about the emotional impact of public, widespread humiliation on an individual, those surrounding the individual and those that are simply witnesses (i.e. society). What does this pointed degradation do to the psyche of the individual targeted? Equally important, what does it do to the collective psyche of our culture?
Sandra Fluke was targeted by Rush Limbaugh after she made a series of statements to a congressional committee about her oft-controversial belief that contraception should be covered by her student health insurance plan. Obviously leaning towards the left, Sandra advocates for the notion that the government should pay for her birth control plan, thereby reducing the chances of unwanted pregnancy for those who otherwise might not be able to afford this option. In return, Rush Limbaugh eviscerated Fluke on his nationally syndicated radio show. Calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute” who should “post videos of herself having sex” as a sort of “thank you” if the government is going to pay for her sexual activities, Limbaugh did not stop there. He went on to further slam her character by stating that she’s “having so much sex that she wants us to pay for it”.
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There are several heavy, critical issues that are raised by this sequence of events. To be sure, this dialogue raises a controversial political and policy issue that should undoubtedly be debated and examined. This part of it will be vehemently evaluated over the coming weeks and months. The dialogue also raises the question of whether or not Mr. Limbaugh crossed the line with his comments. This will also be repeatedly debated in the coming weeks and months. An issue that will likely receive much less attention is the fallout of public humiliation and its impact on the targeted individual and the collective psychology of this nation.
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I think it must be said, that Mr. Limbaugh did not break any laws. This country allows for the freedom of speech and Mr. Limbaugh passionately and aggressively exercised this right on those days. But there is an ethical question that is necessarily raised. What is the impact? WHAT IS THE IMPACT?
From a psychological standpoint, the impact of public humiliation can be chronic and severe. Take Mark Madoff, the scorned son of Bernie Madoff. He wore the shame and indignity of his fathers’ actions like a scarlet letter. Although none of us could possibly know his state of mind when he chose to take his own life, it is very possible; even likely, that the dishonor brought upon him by the actions of his father was unbearable, and literally fatal. Unfortunately, there are countless more examples. A number of CEO’s humiliated by their public wrongdoings or business failures have also taken their own lives in the last several years. In September, 2011, Jeong Gu-haeng, the CEO of a South Korean savings bank, committed suicide after his firm was suspended Sunday due to flagging funds. In November 2011, Adrian Kohler, CEO of the confectionery business Ricola, confessed to fraud, believed to be of the magnitude of several hundreds of thousands in francs. Two days later he took his own life.