When is shaming appropriate?
As a fat person, I’ve dealt with a lot of public shaming in my life. I’ve gotten so used to it, I’m more an observer than a victim most of the time. That’s kind of cool because it allows me to think about it abstractly.
I’ve come up with three dimensions for thinking about this issue.
- When is shame useful?
- When is it appropriate?
- When does it help solve a problem?
Note it can be useful even if it doesn’t help solve a problem – one of the characteristics of shame is that the person doing the shaming has broken off all sense of responsibility for whatever the issue is, and sometimes that’s really the only goal. If the shaming campaign is effective, the shamed person or group is exhibited as solely responsible, and the shamer does not display any empathy. It hasn’t solved a problem but at least it’s clear who’s holding the bag.
The lack of empathy which characterizes shaming behavior makes it very easy to spot. And extremely nasty.
Let’s look at some examples of shaming through this lens:
Useful but not appropriate, doesn’t solve a problem
Example 1) it’s both fat kids and their parents who are to blame for childhood obesity:
Example 2) It’s poor mothers that are to blame for poverty:
These campaigns are not going to solve any problems, but they do seem politically useful – a way of doubling down on the people suffering from problems in our society. Not only will they suffer from them, but they will also be blamed for them.
Inappropriate, not useful, possibly solving a short-term discipline problem
Hey parents: shaming your kids might solve your short-term problem of having independent-minded kids, but it doesn’t lead to long-term confidence and fulfillment.
Appropriate, useful, solves a problem
Here’s when shaming is possibly appropriate and useful and solves a problem: when there have been crimes committed that affect other people needlessly or carelessly, and where we don’t want to let it happen again.
For example, the owner of the Bangladeshi factory which collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people got arrested and publicly shamed. This is appropriate, since he knowingly put people at risk in a shoddy building and added three extra floors to improve his profits.
Note shaming that guy isn’t going to bring back those dead people, but it might prevent other people from doing what he did. In that sense it solves the problem of seemingly nonexistent safety codes in Bangladesh, and to some extent the question of how much we Americans care about cheap clothes versus conditions in factories which make our clothes. Not completely, of course. Update: Major Retailers Join Plan for Greater Safety in Bangladesh
Another example of appropriate shame would be some of the villains of the financial crisis. We in Alt Banking did our best in this regard when we made the 52 Shades of Greed card deck. Here’s Robert Rubin:
I’m no expert on this stuff, but I do have a way of looking at it.
One thing about shame is that the people who actually deserve shame are not particularly susceptible to feeling it (I saw that first hand when I saw Ina Drew in person last month, which I wrote about here). Some people are shameless.
That means that shame, whatever its purpose, is not really about making an individual change their behavior. Shame is really more about setting the rules of society straight: notifying people in general about what’s acceptable and what’s not.
From my perspective, we’ve shown ourselves much more willing to shame poor people, fat people, and our own children than to shame the actual villains who walk among us who deserve such treatment.
Shame on us.