Home > #OWS, rant > When is shaming appropriate?

When is shaming appropriate?

May 12, 2013

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.

  1. When is shame useful?
  2. When is it appropriate?
  3. 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:

Actual public campaign in Georgia

Actual public campaign in Georgia

Example 2) It’s poor mothers that are to blame for poverty:


I saw this on the NYC subway

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

Let’s go back to parenting, which everyone seems to love talking about, if I can go by the number of comments on my recent post in defense of neglectful parenting.

One of my later commenters, Deane, posted this article from Slate about how the Tiger Mom approach to shaming kids into perfection produces depressed, fucked-up kids:


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.

Mohammed Sohel Rana

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.

Categories: #OWS, rant
  1. Abe Kohen
    May 12, 2013 at 7:54 am

    It’s teen mothers, not poor mothers, who are the targets of the campaign. It’s the 14 year old pregnant mom who showed up in her 9th grade math class (which I taught) once every few months. She wasn’t getting an education and neither was her unborn child. Do you think we should be encouraging teens to have babies? I would like to shame the teen boys who get these girls pregnant, but the boys are almost always either unknown or out of the girls’ lives – hit and run, so to speak.


    • Thads
      May 12, 2013 at 9:04 am

      Still, many things are reprehensible about that poster: the unfounded imputation of causality, the flagrant appeal to emotion, the reinforcement of stereotypes. Conceivably, a few teenaged girls, after seeing that poster, might change their minds about having sex. To that extent, it functions like the shaming of the Bangladeshi slumlord: it is aimed at girls who don’t yet have babies, not those who do. But I doubt it’s very effective. Imagine lecturing a typical teenaged girl at risk of getting pregnant in these terms. Would you convince her? Talking of probabilities and long-term outcomes is more likely to reach a mature, prosperous audience and strengthen their smug sense of superiority. Besides, other forms of collateral damage are possible here that are lacking in the Bangladeshi case. Suppose a son of a teenaged mother sees that poster; how would it make him feel about himself?


      • Leon Kautsky
        May 12, 2013 at 9:20 am

        @Thads: lol. The poster is aimed at easily shamed teens.

        We don’t need to be encouraging teenage motherhood and teenage mothers, in this day and age, are typically terrible mothers and generate externalities when their kids grow up and commit crimes, have kids as teens, consume welfare,etc.

        “Suppose a son of a teenaged mother sees that poster; how would it make him feel about himself”

        I think most people are remarkably blaise about the sins of their parents, but tbh this shouldn’t even be a consideration because the damage has been done.


        • Thads
          May 12, 2013 at 9:32 am

          It’s a straw man to say, as both commenters do, that we shouldn’t be encouraging teenage motherhood. Neither Cathy nor I ever suggested that we should. The question is how to discourage it in a compassionate and effective manner. This poster is not compassionate, and I suspect it’s not effective either.

          Regarding the latter part of the comment, if society expects you to mess up your life, and you are confronted by posters on the subway explicitly telling you so, it surely increases the likelihood that you will mess up your life.


    • Ruthi
      May 12, 2013 at 2:25 pm

      But that 14-year-old is /already pregnant/ and the poster (and it’s associated texts) is not giving any advice on how to 1) finishing your education and provide for your child as a teenage mother or 2) how to prevent pregnancy in the first place. The money could’ve gone towards comprehensive sex ed or towards programs supporting teen parents, which actually do some good.

      By which I mean: paying for free condoms for teens would’ve gone a lot farther than paying for shaming posters.


  2. May 12, 2013 at 9:08 am

    You said it yourself, Abe. The ad’s primary impact is not on the teenager who hasn’t gotten pregnant yet, but might need to take preventive measures. The impact is on the teenager who is already pregnant, or the 22-year-old who gets on the subway and has to explain the poster to a 7-year-old son. Actually, depending on how one defines the phrase “you had me”, it’s difficult to know if the ad is targeting teenaged fathers. Some would argue that couples can “have” babies. Others would say that only females do the actual “having”, in which case, this ad lets males completely off the hook. I don’t know if a shaming campaign serves any purpose, but if you assume the ad to be shaming only females and assume that to be a good thing, I don’t know why you would refrain from shaming the fathers of the pitiful looking children in the posters, just because their identities might be unknown. By the way, the ad, in making no specifications at the circumstances of conception, also takes a swipe at young rape victims. Seems like there must be way more productive ways than this to educated the educable.


  3. May 12, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Seems like if we took a fraction of the energy that goes into fat-shaming, poor-shaming, slut-shaming; etc. and devoted it to mean-shaming and screwing-people-under-shaming, we’d be on our way to creating paradise.


  4. Albatross
    May 12, 2013 at 9:13 am

    I think shame could solve all of these problems to a greater or lesser degree. Why would fat people and teen Moms be immune to shame? Why would CEOs be susceptible to it?


    • Ruthi
      May 12, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      It’s not just about being immune to shame, but having the power to change what you’re being shamed for. CEOs have a ton of power and control over whether or not they do evil deeds.

      Being overweight is often something that has more to do with your body’s natural equilibrium rather than your lifestyle, and in a society in which we refuse to properly educate teens on sexual health, it is not the potential teen mothers who have the most control over inacting change. It would do more good to shame those who decide that restricting access and knowledge of birth control and condoms is a good idea, since that is what could actually make a difference.


  5. me
    May 12, 2013 at 9:25 am

    I think you wrote a great post. I also think you should not accept comments on it, and should delete the ones already here, including mine. Shame is internal, and you can’t fix shame by externalizing it. Just my opinion.


  6. May 12, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I don’t know if shaming really “works on” any particular person who has engaged in any particular behavior, or is in the process. Best to focus more on reasons to feel good about productive behaviors than on reasons to feel bad about problematic behaviors–which often results in loathing of self, not of the problem behavior. When we need to affirm what we are against, we should call out those who have engaged in it, with the focus ever-so-slightly more on the behavior than on the perpetrator. This holds somewhat more hope of a perpetrator changing ways, and of others avoiding problematic acts to begin with. In many circles, we encourage Narcissism and fail to call out both nice people and not-so-nice people, when we fail to see the distinction between feeling good or bad about things we’ve done and feeling good or bad about our “awesome” or “awful” selves.


  7. May 12, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Shaming might be more appropriate and solve more problems in collectivist non-western cultures where people see themselves as interdependent rather than independent. Many of us in western cultures no longer feel shamed for failing to uphold cultural standards we haven’t internalized. When we fall short of our personal standards of behavior, many of us feel guilty.

    Confronting people who display self-destructive behaviors or who color outside of society’s lines is one of the best ways for both parties to learn and grow. You have to be taught to receive such criticism in a loving way. That rarely happens. As a result, we don’t confront bad behavior as often as we should – further enabling the perpetrators. Be thankful when you get some honest feedback – even when it hurts and provokes shame or guilt.

    I’ll not forget the public shaming I endured after I rudely walked between my 5th grade teacher and the principal when they were having a conversation. I internalized that behavioral standard and didn’t make that mistake again! Maybe the mid-western U.S.where I grew up was a bit more collectivist in the 60s.


  8. Patrick (orthonormal)
    May 12, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    Quite agree. Here’s an interesting post in a similar vein, about when it’s good to label something a disease versus a character flaw:



  9. Josh
    May 12, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Great post.

    As you say, shaming is typically, often intentionally, nasty. It should not be used against vulnerable people, especially kids or the poor though, as you point out, it often is.

    On the other hand, there are times it is appropriate. Robert Rubin is a good example. In general, people who are powerful and who put themselves out as models should be shamed when they are not.

    A President who claims to be concerned about climate change but does little about it deserves to be shamed for it.

    There are few other effective tools. Shaming may not work in these cases but I think it may have an effect, even if indirect. Yes, Ina Drew may not feel shame, but it does help to set societal norms. Even it Ina doesn’t care, it would helpful if schools didn’t consider it acceptable to hold her up as a role model.

    Henry Kissinger is being given an award.

    It would be good if people attending were made aware that he is a war criminal.

    Clearly it is true that these people (Ina Drew, Henry Kissinger) will ignore it. But raising this still establishes societal norms. The flip side of shaming is who we hold up as heroes. If our culture admires violent people and shames the poor, it has effects on future behavior. For instance, we can’t pass reasonable gun control.

    Societal norms matter a lot. We need to start to call out unacceptable behavior for what it is. We should start with the most powerful in society, not the least.


    • Abe Kohen
      May 12, 2013 at 5:15 pm

      The difference is that a lot of what you call shameful behavior is not universally accepted as such. The norms you describe are far a leftist agenda. The problem of teen pregnancy is not a right wing or left wing agenda. That it inordinately hurts the poor, over multiple generations, is all the more reason why we need to address it. If you have better solutions to that problem, please put them forth. But ignoring it just because it primarily effects the poor is unethical, and not a societal norm that we can afford to condone.


      • Josh
        May 12, 2013 at 6:05 pm

        I agree that teen pregnancy is a problem that should be addressed.

        What I meant to indicate is that I don’t think it is morally acceptable to try to solve it by shaming children (which teens are).

        I do think shaming people in power is a different matter.

        I don’t see how stating that Obama has said he would address climate change (you can see that on the White House web site) or that he has done little about it betrays a leftist agenda.

        I agree that Kissinger is probably not viewed as a war criminal by most people and may have been a bad example. But, if so, shaming him just won’t work.

        My basic point is that it is one thing to shame Obama, Boehner, Pelosi, Bill Gates, Lance Blankfein, Robert Rubin or people of that ilk and something else to shame a teenage mother.


      • Thads
        May 12, 2013 at 6:11 pm

        The good news, incidentally, is that teenage pregnancy rates in the USA are at all-time lows and are half what they were 20 years ago.


  10. Abe Kohen
    May 12, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Most people of both right and left will agree with the following:
    1. Teen pregnancy is detrimental to the teen mother
    2. Teen pregnancy is detrimental to the child
    3. Teen pregnancy is detrimental to society.

    So the question is how to reduce teen pregnancy. One person suggested condoms and sex ed. I believe NYC already does that. So then the question remains what else can be done? The City has come out with a campaign targeting BOTH females and males. Cathy showed one of those ads, but there are others, and at least one targets the “dads.” I think it MIGHT be effective. Even if only a few teen pregnancies are averted, in my mind it’s worth it. What’s wrong with appealing to emotion? You think the girl got pregnant without emotion? If others think other types of ads might be more effective, then, please, please let the City know about it.

    I have never been the type of person to say this is not my problem. I care much more about teen pregnancies than about TBTF.


  11. Abe Kohen
    May 12, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    How do you edit a post? “The norms you describe are far a leftist agenda.” should have been written as: “The norms you describe are from a leftist agenda.”.


  12. May 12, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    You, Math Babe, have a conscience that allows you to be shamed. “Actual villains” do not. Their shadow denial is so deep and complete that they would instead be likely to act out shame better than even you could to get whatever it is they want. Maybe the Wisdom of Crowds knows this and therefore knows that attempts to “shame” assholes is not likely to be a fruitful proposition. In any event I disagree with your “shame on us” conclusion in this otherwise interesting post.

    As to feeling shame about being “fat person” as you label yourself, I can’t relate as I’m what my wife calls a “skinny person.” But I am a “bald guy” and I tend to feel deep shame (inferiority?) around that — at least that’s all marketing to bald guys is intended to make us feel like. But then I get over it. I love God more than my image, bald or fat or skinny or anything cloaked in duality.

    What do you think of humiliation as opposed to shame? The former, at least to me, seems to be what your post should have been on: “When is humiliation appropriate?” I don’t know that shame is ever appropriate. Humiliation? Yes, bring it on! And let us forever prevent putting those without the capacity to know/feel it in places of public office and fiduciary duty.


  13. Higby
    May 12, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    See Bruce Schneier, Liars and outliers, Part III on A Model of Trust.

    Bruce is a cryptographer and he shares many of your concerns. He adds a scaling dimension to the characteristics treated here, which results in emergent thresholds, etc. See Figure 6, books at google.

    The larger argument — which your work with hedge funds clearly demonstrates — is how institutional pressures tend to push out individual moral responsibility.

    A lot of this has to do with the history of the liberal self, and how we construct individuality and individual responsibility. See James Block, A Nation of Agents, and also his new book on education.


    • May 13, 2013 at 6:16 am



    • Higby
      May 13, 2013 at 9:54 am

      And then this — posters as rhetoric. Posters do one thing — they are self-legitimating, but ONLY if people read them.

      Graphic rhetoric, like the figural rhetoric of Florence Nightingale’s rose shaped statistical charts, are persuasive instruments that usually fail to persuade, but instead attest to their relevance and power. Furniture in the perceptual environment, that’s all.

      To single out one such rhetorical attempt to persuade only gives it that much more legitimacy.

      Historical studies of propaganda abound. These examples will, one day, find themselves among the rest.


  14. dbk
    May 13, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Did anybody else go to the site listed on the first illustration (“Fat kids become fat adults”)? I was prompted to do so because I noted that it had a “.com” rather than a “.gov” or “.org” suffix; anyway, looks like the URL is for sale (what does that mean?). However, there is a Georgia organization called “Strong4Life” which is running a broadly-gauged campaign for healthy living based on 4 “pillars” (high-quality diet/exercise/limiting sweet drinks/very little television). I then had a look at the campaign’s dietary suggestions, which include making 50% of one’s daily consumption “vegetables and fruits” (fresh, I assume), eating only lean meat/poultry/fish, limiting starches to whole grains, etc. Then I checked the SNAP allotment per person for the state of Georgia, which is 135.90 p/m, approx. 4.50 per day.

    While obesity is extremely complex given that it has both genetic and environmental-behavioral roots (or a combination of these), the fact that 40% of Georgia’s school-age children are overweight would suggest environmental/behavioral causes are involved. I then had a look at Georgia’s child poverty rate, which is high (26%). If I were poor, I would find it hard to follow the campaign’s dietary suggestions (“put food of every color on the table”, “include [at least] one vegetable and one fruit with every meal”, “select lean cuts of meat”, etc.) on 4.50 a day – perhaps not impossible, but hard, because the type of cooking involved means what we used to call “cooking from scratch” – nothing from a can, nothing preserved, nothing ready-made – and is thus time-consuming. A care-giver (male or female) who works 10-12 hours a day at minimum wage (i.e. eligible for SNAP) is going to be hard-pressed to invest the time involved in preparing the sort of food suggested on a daily basis – not to mention putting in a minimum of one hour of active exercise, as the site urges them to do.

    I think an interesting clash among “Big” interests is shaping up: “Big Ag”, which has profited from contributing to cheap, tasty, unhealthful, mass-prepared food becoming a national way of life; “Big Pharma”, which profits from drugs designed to counteract the health consequences of obesity, and the health insurance industry, which profits from a healthy population reasonably free of obesity-related illnesses.

    Clearly there are no easy answers to societal issues with so many (conflicting) interests at stake, but I’m with Cathy on this one: shame on each of us (and I include myself here) who does not call out the real culprit here: poverty on a scale not seen in the U.S. since the 1930s, and in particular, those who have brought it about over the last 30 years.

    To close with a recent personal anecdote: Child #2 recently completed a year working for a public agency in the field of health/dietary education of primary-school children. One scheduled event was a presentation to a school about re-thinking what one drinks each day (recommendations: water, milk). After the presentation, a complementary lunch for all was provided – fried chicken from a fast food chain, and soft drinks from a major producer. What message did these 8- and 10-year olds take away?


    • May 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      Right on!


      • Abe Kohen
        May 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm

        I have refrained from commenting on the weight issue as I struggle with it myself and I have no one to blame but my father (genetics; mom is skinny and healthy at 93) and MYSELF!


        • May 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm

          Note that even in your description of understanding why you’re overweight it involves “blame”. Do I blame myself for being good at the piano?


        • Abe Kohen
          May 13, 2013 at 12:36 pm

          I know that in order to obtain my “desired” weight I need to restrict my caloric intake and increase physical exercise. I also know that no amount of playing the piano, at my current age, will make me a pianist. So I know who to blame on not restricting my caloric intake. (I do kickboxing and lots of walking.)


  1. May 13, 2013 at 6:38 am
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