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Group Shame

June 4, 2019


Dear Blog readers,


I’m kind of stuck in my new book about shame, so at the advice of my BFF Laura I’m writing a good old fashioned blog post  – or perhaps many! – to try to get through some sticky topics.

I hope it helps! And I know you all are rooting for me, and that definitely helps.

I’ll start with the reasons this is a hard question, then an example of when it happens, and I’ll finish with why it matters to me.






When we think about shame, we almost always consider the individual experience. I want to know how to talk about the group experience instead. I’m stuck on how exactly to do it.

So the question of today is, how does one make the transition between the language of the individual experience to the language of a group experience?

I’ll first list the reasons that we’re more comfortable talking about the individual experience:

  • We each experience shame individually, so we can talk about that as our own experience. We are therefore less willing, out of modesty or just a sense of being factual, to talk about what “people like us” have experienced.
  • Psychology and psychiatry as fields focus on shame of the individual, often in extreme cases involving childhood abuse or neglect, so they become idiosyncratic narratives that couldn’t possibly be what everyone experiences.
  • We are just used to hearing individual narratives, often about tragic heroes and their journey. Those stories obviously become archetypes for something that we can aspire to, but they don’t seem ever to become truly shared, in part because they’re so epic.

Next, the reasons we absolutely must have a concept of group shame:

  • Shame is social. There’s no such thing as shame outside the group experience. Shame is experienced with respect to a norm, and a norm is something that exists in the framework of a group.
  • In some sense, I can restate the above by saying, the individual experience of shame, for each person in a group that shares such a norm, is just a variation on a larger theme. Each person in the group will experience the shame associated to a group norm somewhat differently, but all of their experiences together will comprise the group experience of shame, and we cannot understand the norm without understanding the individual experiences as a group.



When norms change, this concept of group shame is particularly interesting. Consider the #MeToo movement. It’s an example of a shifting norm, where certain types of behaviors, which were kept quiet even though they were technically unacceptable, have become something that we discuss openly.

The discussion is a mess, obviously, because we haven’t yet come to any sort of agreement on what the border of acceptability really is yet (I have way more to say on this but I’ll put it that way for now to avoid changing the entire point of this blogpost).

And yet it’s pretty clear that there’s an associated group shame that is a direct consequence of the rise of #MeToo, namely the group shame being felt by men who feel newly scrutinized by the shifting norm. And to be clear, I’m seeing very different reactions by different men who have had different kinds of experiences. It’s fair to say that the men who should be feeling the most amount of shame probably aren’t the ones who are, for example.

But the reason I brought up this example is that, as a group, it’s really happening. There are reactions, and they run the gamut from deep, abiding shame to defensive outrage to non-defensive activism, which probably most of you wouldn’t recognize as shame at all.



Why bother talking about group shame? I’m convinced that, depending on the type of shame, we can more or less predict what will happen with that shame at the level of social experience.

I’ll go into my taxonomy of shame in another blog post, but for now I’ll just present my list of types: punching down, punching up, and punching nowhere.

In the case of punching down shame, which you can think of as bullying shame, the result of group shame will be exploitative, whether it’s getting fat people to join Weight Watchers (i.e. profiting) or silencing rape victims in the military (i.e. maintaining power).

Maybe the most important thing about group shame is that, statistically at least, it works really well. Fat people keep feeling shamed about their bodies and they keep diligently signing up to pay for a solution that won’t work. Assault victims know they will not be heard.

The question then becomes, what has to change for that dynamic to change? Or to make things really explicit, what would need to change to make the weight loss industry unprofitable? For the military to actually address the problem of rape and sexual assault?

In some sense I already know the answer: the underlying norm itself needs to change. But that’s too abstract. I want to talk about it as the group dynamic itself changing, which of course ends up being the individuals in the group experiencing changes.



Comments/ questions welcome!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 4, 2019 at 8:06 am

    I suspect (but I’m not an expert in the field) that this is mixing up a number of things. I think that the group shame you’re talking about is a mixture of two different things: particular individual shame for their historic actions that would be condemned, whether then or now using new standards; and guilt for inaction when they knew (or should have known) about some shameful act. The closest I can get to group shame is a common or shared fear of being publicly shamed for one or both of the above.

    I see nothing convincing about the attempt to connect shame and power, as shame exists even when no-one else knows and there is no power dynamic. It is true that some people will exploit any tool to achieve or maintain power, and fear of shame is one such tool.

    But I’m a practitioner and not a theoretician so I may be missing some subtleties here.


  2. June 4, 2019 at 8:22 am

    Yes. So rooting for you on this one as in many things. Looking forward to the blogs and thinking about them.


  3. Brian Hitchen
    June 4, 2019 at 11:05 am

    You say that we are more comfortable talking about individual experience of shame but is that right? We are often comfortable talking about the shame of someone else since that doesn’t trigger a painful personal memory. We view it from a distance.
    I suspect that real group shame my be very rare in the lives of most people. If we were involved in an extreme incident, say a racist attack, either physical or verbal where we were in a group – the mob mentality – where we shelter behind the mob. Later on we may feel real shame at our actions but that would probably still be individual shame.
    I am 70 years old and live in the UK and have lived through some major social changes – racial, sexual and gender equality is now front and centre. These issues have been examined and laws have been passed to outlaw discrimination, Of course it hasn’t stopped the discrimination but at least it is becoming less socially acceptable and that’s a start.
    I don’t believe the #Me Too movement could have happened without 2 things. Firstly the wide-spread use of social media to raise the issue and make it public and second the bravery of the first wave of high-profile victims standing up and say “enough is enough.” When they started this the medial tried to down-play the issue and say they were just individual cases. The use of social media was key because this bypassed the traditional media who had been aware of the issue but had chosen to ignore it. Once the campaign gained traction, the media had to play catch-up and get on board.
    But is this group shame? I really don’t know. Certainly the individuals who have been caught out should feel individual shame and we may, as a society feel shame that this happened in the first place but I’m not sure that this is really group shame. Do we feel group shame that slavery happened? Or that the Native Americans were treated so badly or, in my case, that the British Empire did some of the things that it did?
    Your final point about punching up, down or nowhere is interesting. Bullying is very corrosive and does so much harm and we have seen this throughout history. If someone has a body that metabolises efficiently and turns sugar into muscle so that they can run fast we reward them. If someone has a body that metabolises sugar into fat we bully them. How can one be right and the other wrong? Do we simply have to wait for society to catch up? It is a complex question and I have no answer but I hope that my further questions will at least get some more debate.
    I am sure you will get the answer and I wish you well and look forward to reading your book once it is published.


  4. Christina Sormani
    June 4, 2019 at 11:06 am

    If one wishes to devise proactive measures against group shame and the development of a new norm, perhaps one might examine history. I’m not an historian but here are a few examples which are clearly far more complex than I can describe in a few paragraphs. Perhaps they might be viewed more as a launching point for debate than firm statements.

    One method I can think of from relatively recent history is embracing the word l “queer”: taking a word that is used to shame a group and transforming the word into one of pride. That’s an example where a group is wrongfully shamed and steps forward out of that shame together.

    If you are concerned about the successful shaming of a group that should be ashamed: one might look at the abolitionist movement. How did they successfully convince some slaveowners to free all their slaves at least in their wills? How did they convince enough white men (who did not own slaves themselves) to feel enough shame to vote against it? How did this ultimately lead to violence: setting such a strong new norm in the North that the white men from the North were willing to fight to end slavery.

    Note that the techniques used by the abolitionists are actively used by the prolife movement. They’ve done a careful study of how shame works and have mastered a method which not only convinces some women never to have an abortion themselves but to vote against other women having them. Keep in mind that anything you write about these methods of successful shaming can be used on others. Keep in mind also that many believe abolitionism ‘s success had nothing to do with shame at all.

    Another example of historical interest was the introduction of the notion of chivalry by Eleonore of Aquitaine. This new norm of behavior for gentlemen set the expectation that they court women for their love rather than just arranging a marriage with the fathers or seducing/raping them into submission. This is not to say the latter came to an end but that romantic love was at least expected of gentlemen pursuing ladies in court. Was this achieved by shame or by setting a new example? Eleonore was a powerful woman who had no father and was well protected. The only way to become her husband was to court her. She set the rules for men courting her and then spread the rules by insisting that men treat the women in her court in the same way.

    I would say that shame is not only wrong even when used for a good cause, but ultimately ineffective leading to a visceral and possibly violent reaction when those in power are shamed. Better to try and set a new standard through example. Rather than writing how we can use shame to set new standards, one might write about how we can dismantle shame by embracing our uniqueness and turning the words used against us into symbols of pride.



  5. June 4, 2019 at 2:05 pm

    Since groups differ across the spectrum, what is considered shameful, is different from group to group?

    In addition, one specific identified type of individual probably feels no shame for anything they say or do: malignant narcissists, narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths.


  6. June 4, 2019 at 5:08 pm

    Even if I don’t yet think of myself as a member of a group, which already has a sense of people being bonded with each other (e.g., #MeToo), I might think of myself as discovering or recognizing, for the first time, a quality, or call it a category or modifier (in the sense of adjective or adverb), that I didn’t previously associate with myself, but now have come to feel describes me accurately.

    In other words I wonder if my experience as part of a shamed group starts off with thinking of myself as fat, or too old to matter, or incompetent at math and foreign languages. Then if (or at least especially if) someone else who applies to herself or himself one of those shame labels sticks up for an un-shamed view of the category (a friend of mine had a wonderful way of saying, “And your point is …?”) that I can more clearly think of myself as a member of the group in question.

    Hearing the righteous anger of someone else who claims my category and disclaims or scoffs at the shame draws me into a bonded, social group. With that new perspective, I don’t care as much about the shame. I move on to anger.

    Shame is a social tool that can serve good ends or bad ends. The anger that pushes back against shaming can have good consequences (refuting prejudice, moving society away from irrational and harmful norms) or, in the case of shameless malignant narcissists to take one example, bad for society.

    My 2¢.


  7. BringData
    June 4, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    This topic is fascinating. I need to think on it a while more…


  8. JV
    June 4, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    Maybe some are missing the point of “group shame”. How about the female group? Shame is epigenetically programmed into girls/women from birth…intergenerationally. The double standards. The sexual slurs. The demonizing of feminists. The shame of Eve and religion’s placing all sin upon women.
    That women could vote for Trump says a lot. They don’t want to identify with other women…the “bad” women.
    So, yeah. I’m feeling a little bitter about the Trump era…the Karl Rove, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon right wing War on Women. Those that don’t understand it haven’t read enough theology, philosophy or history.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. jimb2
    June 5, 2019 at 2:39 am

    You seem to be talking about shame as a negative. Taking the long view, it seems to be general positive – though clearly open to abuse. For example, the MeToo movement aims to modify behaviour using shame. The risk of shame stops all sorts of crimes from being committed and curbs antisocial behaviours. If there was no risk of being shamed, a lot of bad stuff would be normalized, I doubt that civil society could exist at all. Most/enough people are not particularly honest with themselves and can justify all sorts of things. On a cost basis, policing is preferable that waiting for crimes to occur and incarcerating transgressors. Self-policing is best of all. The alternative to shaming is legal process, which is extreme, expensive and clunky, and, to me at least, a method of the last resort for a sane society.


  10. June 5, 2019 at 6:58 am

    Here’s the definition of shame: “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior”…

    And here’s the problem with individual or group shame: in order to FEEL the “humiliation or distress” elicited by shame one needs to be CONSCIOUS of “wrong or foolish behavior”…. Our current POTUS is– from all evidence– completely unselfconscious and can therefore feel no shame. Many in groups not only fail to understand that they are engaged in “wrong and foolish behavior”, they believe they are engaged in righteous behavior.

    I just read an essay in the NYTimes describing how Peter Thiel believes that “competition is for losers” and that “monopoly is the condition of every successful business”… Which leads to this question: how can shame exist in a world that believes in Social Darwinism?


  11. darwinspiggybank
    June 6, 2019 at 2:34 pm

    Shame is a fascinating subject – corrosive and complex in equal measures. I feel it is much more pervasive that most people think as it operates at the boundary of established societal laws and our individual morality/ego. I was having a beer with two female friends recently. One is an Afghani Muslim and the other is Japanese. Both used the term “shame” a lot to explain their childhoods, which were bound-up by dozens of unwritten social rules and obligations – cleanliness, parental respect, dress-codes, eating habits, body shapes, religious duties, school friends, homework, boyfriends et al. Their parents often told them “what would the family or neighbors think?” to trigger humiliation. The weight of all these interconnected shame circles became overwhelming. These shame ‘nudges’ seem to start at a very early age and gradually layer into a complex Venn diagram, which we seem to innately learn to navigate (or not). Maybe shame can be broken down into three broad categories:

    1. Public shame (governments, religions, schools, commercial entities) who use shame to control the masses – medieval stocks, excommunication, perp walks, prison sentencing, community service. The media obsession with body shapes, gender norms and suppression of new ideas also falls into this category, but is more covert.

    2. Private shame, where we suffer humiliation alone from non-pubic relationship/interaction with one other person: predatory boss, controlling spouse, bad friend, bullying family member or stranger. Private shame can be highly toxic and is often suffered in dangerous silence, but often suppressed by powerful organizations which shame their victims – the Catholic abuses and Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation fall into this category. Fortunately, these became public through brave victims and social media, and now have become part of “public shame” (we hope…)

    3. Familial/Peer shame, which sits somewhere in between these two categories and occurs when we are shunned by a close social group which is semi-private: our family, the “mean girls”, bullying work colleague, malicious sport-team etc., where confidences have been broken.

    All these types of shame seem to be deployed to exert power and control across the social groups by Alpha Males/Alpha-Females (supported by their enablers), but maybe they operate in different ways?


    • Katharina Hathaway
      June 16, 2019 at 6:54 pm

      I’ll have to agree with you on this. As much as I do not want to experience the “gut-wrenching” that shame can bring, it does work to keep many people from doing acts that are shameful. Maybe it’s the people that “have no shame” that we should worry about. This seems to suggest there are two kinds: self-generated when we’ve done something “shameful”, and externally generated that can be used for a positive social end (stop that terrible behavior) or a negative social end (I’m going to exploit your feelings to control or manipulate you). It’s so much more complicated than shame = bad, or shame = good.


      • June 16, 2019 at 7:22 pm

        The question I think no one is asking is “Who decides what is shameful?”


  12. Moeen
    June 6, 2019 at 11:00 pm

    Hey, good to see you posting again.

    Shame is a pretty interesting and complex topic. In my view shame essentially boils down to an understanding that the shamed party should feel guilty for some action or behavior, and that in shaming them you are making the party realize what they have done wrong. So, in essence, the only difference really between individual and group shame is the size of the party being shamed. Since shame relies on guilt, it doesn’t work on sociopaths or psychopaths, and will only work on narcissists to the extent that they care about what they are being shamed on.

    In order for shame to be effective, in the long run, it has to be balanced with compassion, and an understanding that an action or behavior is truly wrong, otherwise it falls apart. Shame can easily be taken to an extreme where it’s no longer serving it’s intended purpose and is doing more harm than good. For example, take the case of the Japanese hostages from the Iraq War that were shunned on their return (https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/22/international/asia/for-japanese-hostages-release-only-adds-to-stress.html). From the article:

    “You got what you deserve!” read one hand-written sign at the airport where they landed. “You are Japan’s shame,” another wrote on the Web site of one of the former hostages. They had “caused trouble” for everybody. The government, not to be outdone, announced it would bill the former hostages $6,000 for air fare.

    One has to wonder if the shaming in this situation is doing anything positive.

    Extreme shaming has become prevalent enough that Jon Ronson wrote a book about it called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, which I highly recommend, especially since you’re writing a book on shame. On his website for the book http://www.jonronson.com/shame.html he includes links to talks he’s given discussing the topic, and they’re definitely worth watching.

    Looking forward to more of your stuff!


  13. June 28, 2019 at 10:08 am

    As a South African living abroad for more than 27 years I still feel group shame for what happened there – even if I was not complicit by commission since part of me could argue I was too young, but there is guilt by omission- not knowing, not acting, not being involved in changing society. Never mind the personal shame of never feeling good enough based on some unattainable parental ideals where someone else was always smarter, more social, sporty, kinder, whatever.
    And living in Asia society is drenched in shame.


  1. June 7, 2019 at 6:49 am
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