When Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter is read by modern Americans, it tends to provoke snickers, sneering, and judgmental tut-tutting at those awful Puritan prudes who would force an adulterous woman to wear an outward sign of the shame of her sin for her entire life and endure communal shunning over her violation of a social norm that we, in our own era, would not even regard as a crime. We would never do something like that today, would we? But actually we do, and — in appropriate cases — we should. And it’s high time we stopped pretending otherwise.
That thought came back as I read the story of Aaron Schlossberg, a Manhattan lawyer who committed a sin last week — letting fly a racially incendiary tirade at Spanish-speaking workers in a crowded Madison Avenue restaurant — and had the misfortune of having it filmed and widely disseminated. For this, at least for the moment, he has been shunned as surely as Hester Prynne was, complete with government officials bidding to permanently end his livelihood:
Schlossberg was then kicked out of his office building, while lawmakers petitioned the New York state court system to review his behavior and potentially revoke his law license.
And on Friday, dozens of protesters rallied outside his building while a mariachi band played.
The 42-year-old also lost at least one client over his tirade…
This is very much the same impulse that motivated the Puritans. Bigotry is more a sin than a crime, but a sin that we subject to harsh moral judgment, and that we rightly see today as corrosive of society and a contributor to worse problems, like sudden explosions of violence. In other words, we see it in exactly the same terms that the Puritans saw adultery, which could trigger violence, blackmail, and produce illegitimate children who could face infanticide or become wards of the state. Hawthorne’s novel amply explores the grave social consequences of Hester Prynne’s adultery, not all of which are the fault of the Puritan authorities: She raises her child without a father, her husband returns and seeks revenge against her lover, and the secret eats at her lover from inside. And just as today, the punishment is unequally distributed: Her lover’s identity is publicly unknown, so she wears the scarlet letter alone (just as Schlossberg is punished not just for his sin but for the happenstance of it going viral), yet it is also visited on her innocent dependent child.
Morally, Schlossberg deserves public moral condemnation, although of course it’s fair to ask — just as Hawthorne implicitly asked — how far we should go, and how indelibly the stain should endure. That’s a question our criminal justice system has wrestled with for years, but in some ways it’s an even harder one to answer when there’s no point at which an offender can say he has paid his debt to society. And of course, as critics of the Puritans fairly noted, we should consider leavening moral justice with mercy and some humility about our own sins.
But what is striking is the fact that the sorts of people most eager to exact punishment on Schlossberg are precisely the same folks who would lecture us no end about how terrible it is to be morally judgmental and how backward the world of the Puritans was. What we see today in the moral furies over racism is that the human need to enforce social norms against sin remains, and still extends beyond just the letter of the law. People who say they don’t want to judge sin invariably just want to judge different sins. They may denounce moralizers for hypocrisy in being against sin without being sinless, but theirs is the true hypocrisy. We have always needed moralizers, we have always wanted to be moralizers, and we always will.