Shame is actually kind of a good thing if used carefully and not evilly

Recently I just read the book Is Shame necessary? by Jennifer Jacquet. I was a bit in two minds about it because I’ve read Brene Brown talking about how awful it is to be shamed, so I thought the answer was ‘of course not’. Turns out the answer is actually ‘Yes, as long as you do it right, also climate change might be a bit a problem’.

Jacquet contrasts shame and guilt, Shame is what is imposed on you from the outside, guilt is what you impose on yourself from the inside. But then she points out: if we want people to change their social norms, their idea of what is right and wrong, then guilt, by definition can never do that. It can only maintain social norms that already exist.

Then we switch to discussing a case study of some change we need to bring about: fixing climate change. Here Jacquet points out that given the huge negative externalities of climate change, a few people making an effort in their own homes, can never fix the problem. If the motivated 10% go out and buy electric cars, ok that could help if that promoted development of electric cars and green electricity till they become cheaper and better than petrol cars and petrol, but not otherwise. If people decide to buy dolphin friendly tuna, that doesn’t actually stop a lot of people not caring and still killing dolphins. Plus they could over fish the tuna leaving nothing for the rest of us.

Further Jacquet points out that when ‘big-tuna’ said, ‘fix the problem by voting with your wallet’ they took away our power to fix the problem by voting with our votes. This message strips us of our citizenship and reduces us to mere market players. The market wants us to leave things up to it, but really, why should we if we don’t want to? Why can’t we, as citizens, decide how we are going to fish and what values should be upheld (‘dolphins are great’). Are we a market economy (using markets as a tool) or a market society (where market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour). Obviously we are the second one but I’d like us to be the first one. (Sandell also discusses this very well).

She then points to some examples of bad shaming and says, isn’t it more the norms people are being held to is wrong, rather the, necessarily, the method used to uphold those norms? I was pretty much convinced by this.

So then we get to Jacquets Seven Habits of Highly Effective Shaming. I feel a bit bad (see what I did there) putting them out here in one list as you should really read the whole book and not my summary, but I’m hoping this will pique your interest or reach the people who wouldn’t read the whole book. But really go read it:

The people doing the shaming should actually be the victims of the behaviour they are shaming.

So if the behaviour only hurts you (food delivered late), don’t try to shame them by telling all your friends, let that one go and focus on the behaviours that hurts you and all your friends (air pollution).

Only bring the big guns (shame) when there is a lot of work to do.

I.e. use shame when there is a big obvious gap between what we people should do and what we expect from them, not just a bit of a short fall.

Use shaming when there is nothing else

I actually have a personal anecdote about this one. Back in the day of e-mail petitions that got sent round from your friends, I was asked to write to the police about a women who had murdered her two children, to demand something. ‘You know what?’ I thought, ‘the police have got this’. The person has been apprehended, she’s under arrest, we have courts and laws and judges that know what to do. This is in hand. I didn’t need to shame that women, or the police. But many times there are no laws that will step in. The banks didn’t break the law when they crashed our economy, or when they poured money into the housing market and drove up house prices in an arms race. There was no law that said they couldn’t spend their bailouts on bonuses… shame was the only tool we have.

The shamee has to care what the shamer thinks.

If the person you try to shame, doesn’t care what you think, you are stuck. So it’s best of people are shamed by their own community, for example a black newspaper calling out non-voters who were mostly black, or Greenpeace targeting seafood practices of Trader Joes fish suppliers because their customers were more likely to care what Greenpeace thought (apparently I don’t know much about social class in US supermarkets). However, then do also give the person being shamed a chance to reintegrate. If someone was bottom of Greenpeace’s list, they can also move to the top and then boast that they hit number 1 on the list.

The audience should trust the source of the shame

So revolving doors really cut down on who can shame. If a TV station airs a piece critical of the Koch brothers (billionairs most people haven’t heard of) but a Koch is on the TV station board and a TV exec shows them the piece before it is aired and allows them to comment… not very credible. And apparently Russian CEOs would only resign or change if British or US paper shamed them, not a Russian one. There might be a virtuous circle to this. People might seem trustworthy because they shame people.

Target your shaming carefully

We don’t have time to sign a million petitions. We need to target shaming to the most important behaviour. Ideally someone could draw up a list. For example, we’ve wasted a lot of time worrying about boiling kettles with just the right amount of water in, but apparently (I’ve lost the reference) this only saves as much energy as not driving for a few seconds. Total waste of time to worry about that. Find the pivot point and hit that with shame. For shark fin soup with many suppliers (fishermen) maybe hit demand (restaurants). For rainforest clearance, when the companies doing it don’t care, hit the nine banks profiting, for companies in a pension fund, target those ones in which the pension fund held over $2million in stock. For tax avoiders hit the people who owe most.

Think through the implementation

How can you get the most bang for your buck? But also make sure you’re not being evil. There’s an example of how a possible drunk driving shaming method claims it works, but is also quite soul destroying, with no respect for human dignity. This is drawn out in the next chapter on internet shaming that suggests a) corporations are better targets than people as they are not people and don’t have human dignity and b) they are probably far more powerful and a far more useful target for change.

So all very interesting. Shaming is a useful tool which partly rests on a discussion each society has, as to what is public vs private data, and, because it requires an audience, shaming will always be a moving target as people change what we care about. Also we should probably do something about climate change.