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Updated 26 July 2013

The thing I fear the most

How would you cope with total humiliation and a total loss of face in public, asks Susan Erasmus.

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Imagine for a moment you have been found guilty of stealing money, some sex crime, plagiarism, murder, fraudulent activities, non-PC utterances or some other heinous act. It's all over the news. Your career is over and you have to deal with losing the respect of just about everyone you know.

OK, if you're guilty, you most probably deserve this. There are some crimes which are beyond forgiving. You should have thought of this before crossing this line. Out of respect for yourself more than anything else. But thinking seldom comes into it. And people who have no conscience or self-respect  certainly are not going to care about the well-being of others. To them the sin lies in being caught.

At some point in our lives we have all done things wrong. Nobody's perfect. Often we were just lucky that a bad decision didn't have serious consequences, such as running a child over, or setting fire to a friend's house.

Looming punishment
Then, of course, for those who are caught, there is also a looming court case, and a possible prison sentence. Any money they have left over will be spent on lawyer's fees.

On top of everything, the story will grace the front pages of news websites, TV broadcasts, newspapers and radio news bulletins. There could be phone-in programmes in which this could be discussed at length, especially if you are a well-known person. You can run, but you can't hide.

I had a very small taste of this when I was eighteen. Someone also called 'Susan Erasmus' who was about the same age as I was, but also bore a rather striking resemblance to me, appeared in court accused of murder. This was in every newspaper at the time and so was her picture. And for about a week, at least once a day, people would ask me if that was me. It wasn't, but I still managed to feel guilty and ashamed. Heaven knows what it must be like if it is indeed you.

In the stocks
In the Middle Ages, people who sold rotten food would be put in the stocks for a couple of hours with an example of the deficient foodstuff around their necks. If you sold rotten fish, that's what you would be sporting. Or mouldy bread – you get the idea. And anyone could pelt you with whatever came to hand and you could not run away.

I can imagine nothing worse than public humiliation and the dreadful feeling of isolation. We don't do the stocks anymore, but I can't decide which is worse: having your picture on every front page, or smelling of rotten tomatoes for two days.

The public loss of esteem has to be the modern equivalent of excommunication from the church. That was a serious punishment – no one was supposed to associate with you, do business with you, or have anything to do with you. Unless you moved far away, your life was basically over.

Now you don't have that option. News travels fast across the globe. Unless you find some backwater with no extradition treaty with your country of origin, you're stuck.

Imagine having to deal with people whispering about you and surreptitiously pointing at you wherever you go. To me this would represent the seventh circle of hell.

I would rather lose everything I owned than lose the esteem of people around me. And in the end, that esteem is actually one of the most important things we have, and the only thing which makes our continued existence happy and possible. With a bad reputation you won't find a job, you won't have friends, and ultimately your life would be extremely miserable.

But just for one awful moment imagine the hell if you're innocent – but the media doesn't think so. You can't run, and you can't hide. A private life is a luxury none of us really has anymore.

That's why we should all watch our step – especially on Twitter and Facebook. You might as well be shouting out loud in the town square. Never forget it.

Susan Erasmus is the deputy editor of Health24. Read more of her columns .

 

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