Cersei Lannister prepared to perform a walk of atonement in HBO's "Game of Thrones." HBO

#PermitPatty and the power of online shaming

Public shaming has been having a moment in California. In the last few months, a drumbeat of viral videos has subjected people behaving obnoxiously, at best, and abusively, at worst, to the internet outrage machine.

There’s been, among other cases, the Sacramento man who accosted a Laotian senior citizen for wearing a camouflage shirt; the Cal Poly fraternity member who was photographed wearing blackface; and the Oakland park-goer who called the police over a barbecuing infraction.

Now another tempest has erupted, courtesy of Alison Ettel, a 44-year-old woman who appeared to call the authorities over the weekend to report an 8-year-old girl selling bottled water without a permit on a San Francisco sidewalk.

Video captured by the girl’s mother, identified in reports as Erin Austin, was uploaded to Twitter and Instagram, where it rocketed around the world. Millions of views, a trending hashtag (#PermitPatty), and thousands of news articles later, Ettel’s life has been upended.

As the video spread online Saturday, Ettel told news outlets that she regretted her behavior. But it was too late. She faced death threats. Her company, TreatWell Health, which makes cannabis tinctures, faced calls for a boycott. By Sunday, several Bay Area retailers had pledged to sever ties with it, Leafly reported.

Many of Ettel’s critics saw the bottled water episode as the latest example of white people calling the police on minorities doing everyday things. Ettel is white; the young entrepreneur, Jordan, is black.

Jennifer Jacquet, the author of “Is Shame Necessary?”, said shaming often serves a healthy societal role in regulating behavior. In that sense, anger over the singling out of minorities is highlighting a yearning for a new norm in America.

Even so, she said, the power that smartphones and social media now have to summon society-sized outrage means things can get ugly, fast.

“These individual cases make me uncomfortable,” Jacquet said. “I don’t like to see vigilantism used in quite this way. But taken as a whole, I do think this is a reminder that racism is still a real day-to-day occurence in America.”

Whether the latest rounds of shaming are making a difference is an open question.

Alison Ettel tried to hide behind a wall when she saw she was being recorded.

Erin Austin

Ettel, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed, told the Huffington Post that race played no part in her behavior and that she only “pretended” to call the police after arguing with the girl’s mother about how much noise they were making.

Notably, during the video, both Austin and Ettel seemed cognizant that their personal tiff had the potential to play out on a global stage. When Ettel saw that she was being recorded, she ducked behind a wall. It was futile. “You can hide all you want,” Austin said. “The whole world is going to see you, boo.”

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