The New Puritans
from The Atlantic magazine
Social codes are changing, in many ways for the better.
But for those whose behavior doesn’t adapt fast enough to the new norms, judgment can be swift—and merciless.
Illustrations by Nicolas Ortega
“…The Scarlet Letter. As readers of this classic American text know, the story begins after Hester gives birth to a child out of wedlock and refuses to name the father. As a result, she is sentenced to be mocked by a jeering crowd, undergoing “an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon.” After that, she must wear a scarlet A—for adulterer—pinned to her dress for the rest of her life. On the outskirts of Boston, she lives in exile. No one will socialize with her—not even those who have quietly committed similar sins, among them the father of her child, the saintly village preacher. The scarlet letter has “the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.”
We read that story with a certain self-satisfaction: Such an old-fashioned tale! Even Hawthorne sneered at the Puritans, with their “sad-colored garments and grey steeple-crowned hats,” their strict conformism, their narrow minds and their hypocrisy. And today we are not just hip and modern; we live in a land governed by the rule of law; we have procedures designed to prevent the meting-out of unfair punishment. Scarlet letters are a thing of the past.
Except, of course, they aren’t. Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.
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