‘White Bear’ Sparks Discussion of the Ethics of Punishment and Social Media


Sophia Meruvia

“White Bear” plays a significant role in opening the discussion of the ethics of punishment, and the role social media plays in the topic. The morals involved in deciding who is deserving of punishment critically result in the involvement of the public.

As is true in today’s criminal justice system, where the 6th amendment guarantees “the accused the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury,” punishment and criminal status is quite literally decided by the public. Thus, the public can be easily swayed by social media and technology.

In the episode “White Bear” of the popular British television series “Black Mirror,” a woman named Victoria wakes up with no recollection of the days before. Victoria is continuously followed and harassed by people with cell phones and weapons. This allows the audience to actively ask themselves the question “What did she do wrong? Well, If she is being followed and harassed, she must be deserving of this treatment, for she has most likely committed a notable crime.”

This is true in today’s society and criminal justice system. Today’s criminals are judged based on crimes they have committed, rather than personal character and rehabilitation. This topic is even furthered by the evidence of the list of extensive companies who refuse to hire people with felonies on their record.

Most people harboring felonies must turn to factory, fast food, and blue-collared jobs that may be well beneath their skill set. However, if the goal is full rehabilitation, why does society hold the idea that people who have committed a crime are unworthy of higher skilled professions?

The answer would be the preconceived idea that criminals, no matter the level of crime committed, are unworthy of a life judged by others. This elevates the topic of the ethics of punishment.

In “White Bear,” Victoria is living in a continuous hell – where she must live every day being harassed and tortured. Is this better than being locked up in a cell, or does her mind represent her own personal prison cell?

The audience must ask themselves the question – which is more ethical – a mental or concrete prison? One could possibly argue that being sent to a concrete prison cell is more or less equal to that of adult daycare. A mental prison is far worse and more difficult to escape.

One could also argue that a mental prison is easier to escape through the use of narcotics and therapy, and a concrete prison is where all felons should spend their days.

Victoria shows us, however, that a mental prison is exponentially worse than those four concrete walls. So, how should society go about deciding who gets a worse punishment? What crime is worthy of such torture? Who do we decide gets to live out their days unworthy of salvation?

According to The Ethics of Punishment: Correctional Practices Implications by author Tony Ward, the answer lies in responsibility. Ward writes, “In our view, the difference between the two normative domains is rooted in their relationship to the concept of responsibility.” So further pushing the topic – society holds dear the concept of worthiness of punishment by responsibility.

To simplify that remark, for example – If the populous feels some sort of moral responsibility to keep a criminal off of the streets so they cannot hurt someone in the populous’ community, the populous would feel a greater responsibility to see that the criminal is properly punished.

On the other hand, if the populous was not directly being affected or felt like they would not be directly affected, they would feel less responsibility to keep the criminal away.

Taking a closer look at Victoria’s situation, the populous felt more of a responsibility to harass and torture her due to the fact that, if not punished, she would affect their community even more.

Now, taking a look into how social media ties into the whole topic of the ethics of punishment is easier to understand. When scrolling through Instagram or Facebook and stumbling onto a video on a woman or man being harassed or killed, it only allows the audience to feel like they hold some sort of responsibility for the action being committed.

The audience feels the need to stand up or stop the action. For example, the video of George Floyd sparked protests across the nation – calling for the punishment of the police officers who committed the crime.

According to a BBC report, the reason for such powerful protests was, “In this case, it was a completely unambiguous act of injustice – where people could see this man [Floyd] was completely unarmed and incapacitated.”

People could actively see the crime being committed, and felt responsible for the seeing justice and punishment.

In short, “White Bear” opened up the discussion of the ethics of punishment, and how social media only elevates the situation. Society already has a preconceived notion that punishment is deemed worthy based on responsibility. However the globalization of technology and social media allows for a broader range of responsibility to be held among this world. Could this be society’s saving grace, or the downfall?

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