Shame is not a lever lightly pulled

Occasionally, I see people invoking ‘shame’* as a strategy to some end. That people ‘should be ashamed for doing shameful things’ and that ‘shaming people for doing shameful things is good’. I have to admit that I find this mindset somewhat baffling, for a number of reasons.

Without getting into the ins and outs of what shame ‘is’, exactly, I think we can agree that shame is a negative feeling we have in certain situations, related to/overlapping with guilt, or to just generally ‘feeling bad’*. I think that ‘feeling bad’ captures a wide range of situations, but the word ‘shame’ applies when the ‘feeling bad’ is in response to a social response (or a projected potential social response) to an action we just did. An illustration: a child breaks a window and feels shame, even though no-one is around, because that child projects how people will react to her breaking that window. (This article is an extremely simplified overview. For a far more in-depth and technical article, see end note. For those of you with a background in Psychology: I am intentionally conflating guilt/shame/embarrassment as these terms are often conflated in the vernacular. This article is not intended to be an explanation of the difference between those things, but an argument against trying to evoke that group of emotional responses)

There are two important criteria to be evaluated when trying to determine whether or not a particular tactic is ‘good’.

  1. Is it effective? Given the goal that I want to achieve, does using this tactic actually move me towards that goal? Is effective in the long-term, or only in the short-term?
  2. Is it ethical? If the tactic is, itself, harmful, and there is no other less-harmful effective option, then yes this tactic may well be the least unethical choice. Conversely, if there are other less-harmful effective options, then the use of this tactic is unethical.

A quick aside at this point: if something is ineffective, then it’s largely irrelevant whether the practice is ethical or not. We only need worry if something is ethical if it first can be shown to be effective. (The converse is not always true: rarely, all of the available choices may be unethical, but we still need to make an effective choice in that circumstance: thus something being unethical does not render checking its effectiveness irrelevant)

Trigger warning: slightly violent imagery ahead.

An example that clearly falls apart when placed under the above scrutiny: beating people with sticks. (note: I am not equating shaming people with beating people with sticks. This example is purely to illustrate that this approach is successful at filtering out the ‘obviously wrong’, at the least)

If someone is doing something we don’t like, is beating them with a stick likely to stop them doing it? Yes.

Is it effective in the long term? Well, if we factor in the possibility that they may return with friends with sticks to beat us with sticks, then clearly this is an ineffective long-term strategy. The long-term costs here would seem to be that unless I am the only person with access to sticks, then I am (at some point) going to be beaten. So ‘no’ to this one.

Is it ethical? Beating people with sticks is a harm. There is almost always a less-harmful (and effective) method to get people to stop doing something (or to deter them in the future), so this option is unethical.

So: this is only effective in the short-term (at best), and unethical. This is not a ‘good’ tactic.

Compare with ‘reasoning with someone so that they understand what is wrong with their position’. Again, this is an extreme case simply to ‘book-end’ the above tool.

If someone is doing something we don’t like, is ‘reasoning with them’ likely to be effective? History tells us that yes, in the long run, this is often (but not always) effective.

Is it effective in the long term? Well, if people have actually been convinced of the error of their actions, not only will the avoid doing them themselves, but they often engage with their own community to discourage others (I present Nathan Phelps and John Loftus as but two illustrations).

Is it ethical? ‘Reasoning with people’, in and of itself, is not harmful, and thus is ethical.

So: likely to be long-term effective, possibly short-term effective, no negative repercussions, and ethical.

Reasoning with people is, therefore, a ‘good’ tactic.

So is shaming people an effective tactic (or, at least, more effective than reasoning with them)? What does it take to shame someone? Is it even possible to induce shame in someone who does not shame your ideological position?

In order to shame someone for something they have done (I’m including ‘saying something’ within ‘doing’), it’s necessary to the definition of shame that they feel bad that they have done that particular thing. If they don’t feel that what they are doing is bad prior to your attempt to shame them, what would shaming them look like? Is shaming even possible given that, a priori, they don’t see what they’re doing as wrong? Well, it depends.

Let’s imagine that I take a trip to Saudi Arabia with my fictional sister. And let’s assume that my fictional sister enjoys dressing in a casual Vancouver fashion (i.e. summer = short sleeved t-shirts). Under the cultural precepts I’m told are dominant in Saudi Arabia, I should be ashamed that I “let” my sister walk around like that. If a group of locals sat me down and attempted to shame me… How would that work, exactly? Given that I don’t even agree to the grounds of the conversation, how could they possibly evoke shame in me? If they publicly berated me, I would definitely feel embarrassed or possibly humiliated (and certainly seek to avoid their company in the future), but shame? Frankly, I simply cannot imagine feeling that way under those circumstances.

If the goal of the people involved in the above was to simple get me to leave their company (and possibly Saudi Arabia), then the tactic would be effective. If the goal was to make me attempt to control my fictional sister’s dress, generally (i.e. when I’m beyond the bounds of their reach)? Complete and utter failure. Furthermore, insofar as psychological harm is a harm, then this kind of verbal aggression is a harm, and thus (given the less-harmful effective alternatives), is unethical.

Taking a second example of bigotry against women. Let’s take a guy (Takuma) who unambiguously indulges in bigotry against women, and the people around that person want to make him stop. They have a range of choices available to them, ‘shaming’ being one of them. Let’s assume that this guy is capable of feeling shame in this particular set of circumstances. Let’s assume that it requires only a small amount of social pressure (no shouting, yelling, nor even quiet verbal abuse is needed), only simple admonitions of ‘why do you hate women?’

Note here that explaining that he is hurting women isn’t an attempt to shame: it’s an attempt to explain the connection between his behaviour, and the repercussions of that behaviour on the people around him. If this is what a person considers ‘shaming’ behaviour, then they are mistaken as to how to describe what they are doing (c.f. ‘slut-shaming’: no attempt to reason with the people is involved, the goal is to make the women in question feel bad). The general thrust of shaming behaviour is “you are bad [for doing x], and you should feel bad [for doing x]!”

Firstly, it needs to be noted that even within the same culture (even the same family), evoking shame is a difficult undertaking. Shame is an ‘opt-in’ emotion: if I have decided that what you say is irrelevant, you cannot shame me. If I have realised that you are attempting to emotionally manipulate me, then the odds are you cannot shame me (embarrassment and humiliation are still on the table, but not shame/guilt). If I have other friends who are supportive of my actions, it is highly unlikely that you can shame me.

But lets table how difficult it is to actually evoke shame in someone, and assume that we are successful in causing Takuma to feel shame. How does Takuma respond to this?

  1. Takuma reflects on the issue, and (at some point, if not immediately) sees his behaviour as the source of the shaming, and thus his shame. He reduces/stops his bigoted behaviour (or, at least, this particular type of act).
  2. Takuma realises that what he did was wrong, but feels that the shaming was merely aimed at wounding and thus he resents the people who shamed him. He reduces his bigoted behaviour, but no longer listens to the people who shamed them. He will not be shamed by them in the future.
  3. Takuma is unclear as to what, exactly, was wrong about what he did, but is very clear that he has been attacked. He avoids expressing his bigoted behaviour around those specific people, but is otherwise unchanged.
  4. Takuma is unclear as to what, exactly, was wrong about what he did, but is very clear that he has been attacked. He changes nothing, but now harbours a grudge against those people who have (in his mind) unjustly attacked him.
  5. Takuma sees absolutely nothing wrong with what he did, and maintains his behaviour. He no longer listens to people who ‘merely’ (in his mind) attack him.
  6. Takuma sees absolutely nothing wrong with what he did, and maintains his behaviour. He actively enjoys frustrating the attempts of people to manipulate him, and so increases his bigoted behaviour, purely to provoke a reaction.

So assuming that number 1 is the goal here, how likely is shaming going to be to get to that goal? Of course, it’s not merely flat odds (1 in 6 for each), as it’s highly dependent on Takuma’s personality as to which way he goes when pushed, nor is the above list exhaustive of the possible responses that Takuma could make. Shame is something that is highly unpredictable. When you are shaming someone, there are at least two things they may respond to:

  1. Your attempt to shame them (successful or not)
  2. Their feeling of shame should you be successful

When you attempt to shame people, this isn’t a highly sophisticated move that people are unaware of: your blatant attempt at manipulation will be noticed, and reacted against. How your mark reacts against the attempted manipulation is highly specific to that individual (which includes all cultural and social influences of their past).

Secondly, should you be successful in evoking shame in that individual, you have zero control over how they express that feeling. Shame may be a wakeup call for that individual, a realisation that they have done something wrong. However, that feeling of shame make, in turn, evoke a feeling of shame that they are feeling shame. This response can trigger rage, even violence. All highly unpredictable.

Furthermore, even if the person in question withdraws from the immediate situation (a result which one cannot reasonably claim is ‘likely’), should they seek shelter amongst their own ingroup and find it, they will (to some extent) be less susceptible to such shaming in the future: shaming depends on a sense of isolation from ones ingroup. If your ingroup actively/visibly supports your position, shame is highly unlikely to be evoked (even by another a member of your ingroup).

So before we even get to the question of whether or not emotionally manipulating someone to feel bad about themselves and what they have done is ethical, it’s not even clear that such a move is effective (generally).

And finally, you may read all of this and think ‘so what if the long-term effects are negligible, I just want this person to shut up, right now’. Your goal isn’t long-term betterment (generally), but short-term emotional control of a person by appeal to making them feel bad? I believe we have a term for that particular action: bullying. Now, if you want to make an argument that bullying people into silence is ethical, then go for it. But I don’t fancy your chances.


*Whether the goal is shame, guilt, humiliation, whatever, all of the above applies to a greater or lesser degree. Let’s not get hung up on the specific word ‘shame’: the articles linked to below indicate that these emotions are not as distinct as some of us may believe them to be.

[This post draws heavily from “The meanings of shame: Implications for legal reform.”, by Toni M. Massaro which can be found in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol 3(4), Dec, 1997. pp. 645-704 (DOI: 10.1037/1076-8971.3.4.645). Rather than simply duplicate all the relevant footnotes, I would suggest that anyone interested in further reading check out the original paper

Additional reading on the complexities of shame:

Evoking Shame and Guilt: A Comparison of Two Theories; Fromson, Paul M.; Psychological Reports, 2006, 98, 99-105

The Approach and Avoidance Function of Guilt and Shame Emotions: Comparing Reactions to Self-Caused and Other-Caused Wrongdoing; Schmader, Toni & Lickel, Brian; Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 30, No. 1, March 2006 (DOI: 10.1007/s11031-006-9006-0)

Relationship of belief systems to shame and guilt; Harvey, O.J. et al; Personality and Individual Differences 25 (1998) 769-783]


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[This was originally posted on The Crommunist Manifesto]


15 responses to “Shame is not a lever lightly pulled”

  1. Interesting post — very thought provoking. I wonder if one of the reasons that many people are so quick to advocate for shaming as a societal control mechanism is that it gets used so often as a child-rearing technique. It’s so much easier to teach a child that lying is shameful than it is to explain logically why honesty is the best policy.

    But of course, that doesn’t work very well for kids once they’re past five or so. You’d think people would notice.

  2. if something is ineffective, then it’s largely irrelevant whether the practice is ethical or not.

    I don’t think this is true. Just because it’s ineffective doesn’t mean people won’t continue to use the tactic. I can think of some examples off the top of my head – War on Drugs, DRM, Abstinence only education.

  3. I don’t think this is true. Just because it’s ineffective doesn’t mean people won’t continue to use the tactic.

    I don’t think that that’s the point he was trying to make. I think it’s that the fact that the argument is ineffective means it shouldn’t be used regardless of how ethical it is or isn’t.

    Abstinence only sex education fails both to reduce promiscuity which many of its proponents would like but also fails to reduce unwanted pregnancies or abortions. Since it fails the nominal (sometimes people have other goals) goals its proposed for it is a bad policy regardless of the ethical problems of leaving people ignorant to birth control options.

    On the opposite end something like forced sterilization (to be obvious) would be a very effective practice for reducing unwanted pregnancies but unethical. And then comprehensive sex ed would be both effective and ethical so it should be promoted.

  4. Certainly has a lot of application in the ongoing war of atheists (and political parties, and religious sections, and football fans, and etc.,etc.) insulting each other. In fact, it is so widespread that I feel as though it is connected to “groupthink.” I’m no psychologist so I don’t know the correct application of terms, but communities do seem to draw up their own guidelines for admission. Are you the correct race, or are you from the right country, or are you from the right religion, or do you have the appropriate political beliefs, and those not fitting the criteria are clearly kept outside the community and the insults “shaming” fly. Very interesting post and thanks for that.

  5. It seems as though you assume a level playing field in your description of this tactic and the potential results, Brian. You are completely right about the six potential reactions you listed for Takuma, and you are right that the person(s) attempting the tactic of shaming cannot predict his reaction.

    I’ve found, in my own experience, that a lot of the “reasoning” as opposed to “shaming” is centered on 101-level stuff, whether it be Feminism 101, Marriage Equality and Anti-Homophobia 101, Anti-Racism 101, etc. Those discussions can be incredibly frustrating.

    In your example of Takuma saying engaging in bigotry against women. What incentive does he have to listen to reasonable arguments? His male privilege insulates him from seeing powerful persuasive evidence (i.e., his own personal experience). IF he is arguing in good faith, and IF he is open to reason and persuasion, then obviously I would take that tactic with him if I were the one trying to engage him in constructive conversation.

    But if Takuma refuses to accept even the premises of any of my arguments, and continues to engage in bigotry against women – and indeed, is one of those people who perceives an explanation of how his behavior harms women as an attack – and decides to focus his bigotry on particular targets (like me or other women), then what recourse? At this point I would view a shaming tactic as a method of self-defense – anything I could do to get Takuma to leave me alone.

    Can one type of unethical action force another type of unethical action? Or is an unethical action taken to protect oneself made ethical?

  6. mythbri: If he’s not arguing in good faith, i.e. sees you as a member of his outgroup, on what grounds do you think that you could shame him?

    If you are successful in shaming him, on what grounds do you think that the result will be “Takuma peacefully walks away and leaves me alone”? As opposed to “Takuma escalates”?

    The primary issue here is that this tactic isn’t even likely to be effective, hence why I didn’t even address the question of ethics.

  7. And to clarify: I’m not drawing lines around what is and is not “allowed” for people to do.

    If a person is in a situation where they feel in danger, they should absolutely do whatever they think is going to get them out of that situation as safely and quickly as possible. If they happen to know that the person who is harassing them is more susceptible to shaming than anything else, and the shaming will result in them backing off, (perhaps it’s one of their acquaintances), then sure: go for it. In terms of ‘harm prevention’, it would seem to me that bigoted attacks are the greater harm by far.

    But the context for which I usually hear the idea ‘we should shame them’ is not typically with regards to friends and acquaintances, but strangers, and that is the context to which my above criticism primarily applies.

  8. In my experience, people who do things that someone really ought to be ashamed of are usually impossible to make feel ashamed of their actions; worse, they are already proud of them, and sometimes feel better after they rile someone up over having said or done something say, misogynistic or racist etc. Then again, I think people like this can’t really be reasoned with either, so not sure what would work.

    I do think it’s important to realize that some people might be open to reason, if you explain why someone is going to find their behavior or language offensive, though I’m still not sure this gets through to people who refuse to see their own privilege. Or is it just that there’s not much you can do that will work, but shaming definitely doesn’t work?

  9. It sounds like you’re talking about “shaming” purely as something that one individual does to another. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. In a world with six billion people, anything I do will probably be seen by somebody as shameful, so I can’t give a lot of weight to one random person’s opinion. I can’t give a lot of weight to one random person’s logical argument, either, because I probably don’t have time to listen.

    So I’d say that “shaming” only makes sense in the context of a community. Suppose I do something and ten people from a community I belong think that it’s a bad idea. That’s enought to get me to listen to them. Now, suppose they present a logical argument and I disagree with it. I’ll probably just figure that it’s an honest difference of opinion and carry on doing what I was doing. But suppose that they come back and tell me that what I’m doing is considered shameful by the community. I can (1) stop doing whatever it is I’m doing out of loyalty to the community, even if I think the rule is a bit silly, (2) keep doing whatever it is I’m doing, but in private where it won’t bother people, (3) find a different community with like-minded people, or (4) double-down and get ostracized by the community. [Or get put in jail, if the community is a political unit and not a social group.]

    Note that shaming, ostracism, and jailing aren’t done for the benefit of the person targeted. They’re done for the benefit of the community, and they’re justified to the extent that the community is justified in trying to reduce the targeted behavior.

    All that being the case – if we get rid of shaming, then would we replace it with anything? Or would we just jump immediately from the reasoning stage to to the ostracism/jail stage with no warning? For that matter, are we allowed to ostracize and jail people under your ethical system?

  10. I’ve been thinking about this post all day, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I completely disagree with it (and also without my own hastily-considered first comment). Post #10 above does a good job of explaining what’s wrong with the argument.

    The first problem with the post lies in definitions. You say “I think we can agree that shame is a negative feeling we have in certain situations, related to/overlapping with guilt, or to just generally ‘feeling bad’.” Given that definition, the usage of the term as a verb in “to shame someone” is, as you point out, nonsensical – we obviously can’t force someone to feel an emotion.

    But that isn’t the way most people use the word when they use it as a verb. A better definition then would be “to express social disapproval.” An example would be a party where Takuma lets loose a racist or sexist joke. He hopes to get the societal approval – raucous laughter – that he’s received in other social contexts. At this particular party, though, he gets the exact opposite. No one laughs or even makes eye contact. The people who are standing closest to him edge away, or pointedly turn their backs and start new conversations. Perhaps he overhears a few mutters of “Not funny” and “Who invited this guy?” The message is clear: if he wants to be part of this social group, he’s going to have to modify his behavior, or he simply won’t be invited any more. Whether he decides to change his behavior or whether he seeks out a different group where his bigotry will be welcome is a matter of indifference to the people around him: they just want him to keep his racism to himself.

    So if nobody particularly cares which of the responses 1 through 6 they have evoked in Takuma, then the purpose of “shaming” has nothing to do with “creating the emotion of shame.” It’s all about modifying behavior, not attitudes.

    But here’s the important point: even though Takuma’s own racist or bigoted attitudes probably haven’t been changed by his being shamed, by creating a space where his bigotry is absent, the group has increased the probability that actual attitudes society-wide are more likely to change over the long term.

    For example, back in the 40s and 50s, there were plenty of white, upper-class social groups where no one would bat an eye at outright racist humor. Then around the 60s, there began to be people hanging around the outskirts of social gatherings looking disapprovingly at the folks in the middle of the room swapping racist jokes. By the 70s, it was the racists who were standing in the corners, looking over their shoulders to make sure their jokes weren’t being overheard. By the 80s and 90s, most of that humor had largely disappeared from public discourse – though the racists probably still felt free to express themselves in the old ways safe in their own homes. By today, I suspect that even if they still harbor all their old racist attitudes, they keep them to themselves or one or two trusted friends – don’t want to get lectured at by the grandkids, after all. (Well, and they can share them on the Internet too, of course – one of its main uses seems to be to allow people with out-of-step views to support one another.)

    The original racist who grew up in the 50s may have never once felt the emotion of shame at his racist attitudes. However, because society as a whole was able to successfully use the social mechanism of shaming to get him to shut up with his racism in public, multiple new generations grew up and entered the social sphere and learned different rules of social behavior than the ones he grew up with. And now, if his grandkids hear one of those old jokes, their response is “Did people really used to think that was funny?” It was shaming (the verb) that accomplished that progress. You say that’s morally equivalent to bullying; I disagree.

    It would be nice if we could more frequently change people’s behavior by using logic and ethics to persuade them that their behavior is wrong, but that isn’t the species we belong to. We’re social creatures, and most of the time we figure out which way we should go by constantly checking out the people who are flying on each side of us and adjusting our flight to match theirs. That’s why just a handful of seagulls can change the direction of a whole flock.

    To get back to your other example of your fictional sister in Saudi Arabia – as you said, your attitudes probably wouldn’t be altered, but your behavior probably would be. Maybe you’ll avoid the people who tried to shame you because of your sister’s dress. Maybe she’ll start covering up more so that she’ll be able to fit in. Or just maybe, perhaps some of the younger Saudis will admire the way she resists the authority of the elders, and they’ll start loosening up with their dress code as well and turning their backs on those who disapprove – they’ll try to shame the shamers.

    Logic and reason supply the force for social change, but that force is never enough to move the mountain. Shame is the lever that changes the way society behaves. As #10 says, I can’t think of any other force that could substitute for it.

  11. Guilt is about behavior, shame is about self worth.

    When you attempt to shame people, this isn’t a highly sophisticated move that people are unaware of: your blatant attempt at manipulation will be noticed, and reacted against. How your mark reacts against the attempted manipulation is highly specific to that individual (which includes all cultural and social influences of their past).

    Secondly, should you be successful in evoking shame in that individual, you have zero control over how they express that feeling. Shame may be a wakeup call for that individual, a realisation that they have done something wrong. However, that feeling of shame make, in turn, evoke a feeling of shame that they are feeling shame. This response can trigger rage, even violence. All highly unpredictable.

    Shaming is the number one, if not the only one, purpose of bullies.
    This – this isn’t a highly sophisticated move that people are unaware of: your blatant attempt at manipulation will be noticed

    Some people won’t put up with it (me, for instance), and some will commit suicide, because they think it’s true.

  12. My main problem with this article is that it assumes that we only ever have one option in dealing with people. As Greta Christina ably demonstrated in one of her pieces on the ‘accomodationist/confrontationalist’ debates, though, this isn’t so. Sometimes it’s good for one group to use approach A, and others to use approach B. Sometimes it’s even useful to switch-hit, either adopting your course of action according to your reading of the other person’s intent and attitudes, or slowly escalating your approach as gentler methods fail.

    Shaming should definitely not be the option of first recourse; however, if reasoning does not work, then one should find other methods, and shaming is a reasonable escalation. Ethical questions arise mainly in how to go about it. (The debate right now about “Doxing” someone–attaching their internet identity to their meatspace identity–is a hot one right now, precisely because of this latter factor.)

    Also, there is one case where shaming is, in fact, appropriate as a first option: hypocrisy. A hypocrite can be brought low by shaming, and indeed, it’s often the only option available, because by definition, a hypocrite knows that their conduct is wrong, and just doesn’t care. At that point, the societal aspects of shaming mentioned by others above become the only means of restraining their conduct.

  13. I guess I would go further – “shaming” is not a different strategy than many others. It is the emotional response towards disagreement that someone doesn’t approve of. A mother shaming her son for spilling pop, a father shaming his daughter for being provocatively dressed, teenagers shaming each other for Lord knows what, and society shaming everyone. Isn’t it all based on the emotional response of the shamer?

  14. Edward Gemmer,

    Well, you could say that all our behavior is simply the result of our various emotional states, but I don’t think that would be very productive.

    I’d say the answer to your question depends. You might shame someone because you deeply believe the social more that has been overturned is worth defending — say, because you believe rape jokes perpetuate a rape culture, or a parent shaming a child who lies in order to stress the importance of honesty. You might do it because you’ve been culturally conditioned to have an emotion — you are simply SHOCKED that Lady Mary has slept with the Turkish attache out of wedlock, without bothering to consider why it should be such a big deal. Some people shame because they are afraid if they don’t, they will be shamed themselves — as Pope says in “Rape of the Lock,” “‘Twill then seem infamy to be your friend!” And yes, some do it because being the self-appointed enforcers of society’s rules gives them a sense of power — the “bullies” who have been discussed here.

    It is, as you say, a strategy. The OP asked the questions, “Is it effective?” and “Is it moral?” As I argued in #11, it can be effective — if not to the shamee, then to society at large. And the morality depends partly on the morality of the code it seeks to uphold, and partly on the motives of the shamer — but as a tactic, I think it’s neutral.

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