The Sins of the Few Cause the Punishment of the Many

closeThis post was published 13 years 5 months ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

Finally, I’ve decided to blog about this issue. It starts in elementary school, and continues on a larger and larger scale as we go through life. I’ll start off with an anecdote.

The setting is a third-grade classroom (no, this is not a reference to Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes). The class is small, only about ten students. One of them is acting up. The teacher, in an effort to get him to behave, threatens to revoke the entire class’s recess period if he doesn’t settle down.

What’s wrong with this? The actions of one student could result in the punishment of the entire class. I can remember that actually happening at least once, being kept inside because one kid was misbehaving.

That is perhaps a good way to teach about dependency — most people in the world rely on other people in their community — but it isn’t the best way, in my opinion. It would be better for discipline to simply keep the one student in for recess and let them watch their classmates, and more importantly their friends, have fun without them. I believe that would be a better way to teach about consequences.

For me, that was years ago, in the mid- to late-1990s. Fast-forward to 2008. I still see this sort of thing happening. High school, the Internet, whatever. (I can’t speak for the office environment yet.) They all use this technique — “group dynamics” it’s called — to enforce rules. The music teacher at my local high school, where I go to play in the orchestra, says that the entire class will have to stay after school if the two percussionists in the back (for example) don’t stop goofing off and start paying attention.

Lorelle VanFossen of Lorelle on WordPress brought up the topic of national censorship yesterday, and I noticed a distinct trend. Her very point was that a few disparate bloggers on are responsible for getting the entire domain blocked in countries such as Brazil, Turkey, and China. There are three million blogs on, and the actions of a few stupid, irresponsible idiots (pardon my French) are getting them all removed from the view of millions of potential readers.

Once again, we see group dynamics at work. It should be the individual blogs getting blocked, and their authors being sued or otherwise punished (fined, jailed, whatever). The 3,000,000+ other blogs should remain untouched. Once again, I find punishing the whole class for the misbehavior of one or two students to be a very bad way of dealing with bad behavior.

To answer Lorelle’s question, I am concerned about being banned. I’m concerned when is banned (that’s where I’m hosted right now). National censorship of entire websites happens all the time. The news has carried far too many stories on things like: Iran blocking YouTube, Indonesia blocking YouTube, China blocking and the BBC, Pakistan blocking YouTube, and a bunch of other things that are usually temporary, but all-too-often permanent. (Those aren’t necessarily all real examples; I forget who blocked what.) When the changes spill out to other countries, that’s worse; Pakistan misconfigured a block and it spilled to the rest of the globe.

But I can only be concerned about things I hear. If I don’t know that is about to be (or currently) banned, I can’t very well complain about it.

Lorelle’s post was the source of inspiration for this one, and I thank her for it. I certainly hope that the world will soon stop making the group responsible for the individual’s actions, and instead begin making the individual responsible for h(is|er) own behavior.


I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.


  1. I whole heartedly agree with your comments on punishing those directly responsible for their own behavior. However, let us take this to a more practical level of example where this may be much more appropriate. What do you do when you have 115 students and 40 of them decide to hack into the schools learning management system (LMS), steal a final exam, and pay someone to get the correct answers so that they can cheat on the exam. You have the evidence of the theft, but you cannot get the name of the specific individuals responsible. Options: 1)Do you give the exam anyway and hope the the person who told you about it will not provide the correct answers; B) Write an entirely new exam of the same format (this could take several hours and the exam is the next morning), or C) Write a comprehensive essay exam (which you utterly hate giving to an introductory level course because the likelihood of passing is nil). These are your only options. Canceling the exam and giving grades based on what they have done to that point is NOT an option. If you knew who the perpetrators were, you could just punish them and them only. However, when the vast majority of the students know of this and no one is willing to talk, you might find that punishing ALL, which would include those who were not aware of the issue, is the only thing left. Hence, you will most likely give the comprehensive essay exam and thereby punish everyone. Why? Because you don’t have the necessary time it takes to write a really good parallel exam to the one that was compromised. The essay format is the only viable option. This is the situation I am being faced with this evening. However, I know these students don’t do well with essay format. That means, I will be essentially punishing many (all) for the sins of the few. Your examples above are good examples of when it is inappropriate. However, to balance things out, try considering when you (or others) don’t have other options available to you.

    • There are, of course, always going to be exceptions. I excuse myself somewhat for not touching on such cases, as I’ve grown a lot in the nearly 7 years since I wrote these words, but I know that some situations do not allow for singling out the offender(s).

      I always appreciate comments, no matter how old the post, and comments that make me revisit my opinions are doubly welcome.

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