Sunday, September 15, 2019


According to Mirriam-Webster Online, part of the definition of "shame" is: "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety." Dr. BrenĂ© Brown, who has made a name for herself addressing shame, goes a bit further, defining "shame" as: "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection." And I'm sure that there is room enough for a million other shadings between the clinical-sounding dictionary definition and Dr. Brown's more intimate one.

Both of the above, however, can offer insight into why and how people use shame as a tool or weapon against others: leveraging pain as means of altering the cost-benefit analyses of behavior that meets with personal or social disapproval. Personally, I agree with Dr. Brown's assessment that shaming is, generally speaking, ineffective as a tool for behavior change, at least in the modern world. (I would submit that it was likely much more effective when the consequences of being ostracized were more severe. Human mobility means that it's easier to leave a community behind without needing to be entirely self-sufficient.) But this, of course, doesn't stop that many people from using it. As a result, the general debate that we have about shame and shaming is centered more on who is eligible for, or deserving of, being shamed, and who is not.

As I see it, the calculus is as follows: Shame is considered appropriate in cases of willful misbehavior. "Misbehavior" here is something of a nebulous concept; like beauty, or pornography, it is in the eye of the beholder, known upon being seen. As a result, much of the public debate about shame is, in part, a debate over what should be counted as willful misbehavior. When James Cordon took Bill Maher to task over comments to the effect that being overweight (and the health issues that stem from that) is the result of poor individual choices, Slate Magazine's Matthew Dessem cheered the pushback against "fat shaming." This is part of a broader movement to discourage the idea that being overweight is the result of shortcoming, impropriety or something that people have done or failed to do. On the other hand, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, currently in the United States to urge action on climate change, sailed across the Atlantic, rather than flying. This is in keeping with the flygskam, or "flight shame" movement in Sweden, which "suggests that people should feel embarrassed or ashamed to take planes because of the negative impact they have on the environment." Ms. Thunberg is something of a heroine in environmental circles, being seen as stereotypically "speaking truth to power."

But from outside of either issue, is there any more willful misbehavior in one than the other? Is traveling by airplane more within the control of an individual than their weight? I'm not sure. And this is where I tend to have a problem with habits of shaming; in the end, they tend to morph into variations on "you're different, and that's bad." And the assignment of moral significance to observed differences between people a) has never ended well and b) is unlikely to start ending well anytime soon.

But the impulse to shame, and the impulse to seek relief from shame in changing behavior exist for a reason. Small bands of hunter-gatherers likely needed an instinctive means of enforcing certain behavior norms within the group that didn't entail resorting to violence. And shame appears to be tailor-made for this purpose. And one can understand both Bill Maher's "fat-shaming" and Greta Thunberg's embrace of flygskam to simply be attempts to enforce particular norms on larger groups, but for the same basic reasons that hunter-gatherers did: behaviors that make sense for the individual at a given point can be bad for the group as a whole. While people tend to see the United States as being better able to fund health care than the world as a whole will be at dealing with the impacts of changes to the Earth's climate, in the end, the arguments are fundamentally the same. And in both cases, perhaps the real problem with shaming is that there are more effective means to the same ends. They're just also more expensive. And in this, we see perhaps the fundamental allure of shaming, it's a cheap way of combating cost-shifting. So it's unlikely to ever really go out of style.

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