Secrets of Shaming


By Lisa Autz

Photo via Pixabay.

Our ability to make promises and keep secrets relates to our desire to establish a secure future. Humans exercise such practices for situations like concealing a past drug addiction to get a job or a weight insecurity issue to fake confidence for a date.

Moreover, individuals build binds of loyalty with each other by sharing secrets and building networks of communities based upon trust. The visceral attraction of confiding even adds mystery and adventure to our lives.

But when broken, our societal impulse is to employ a social tool to prevent the crumble of the our secret-keeping morale: shame.

Without the reprimand of laws, shame is one of the ancient tactics functioning to guide our collective behavior. Today, the internet provides a type of digital town square to wag a pointed finger at celebrities, organizations, or other figures for their deplorable actions.

If scaled with a discerning, historical eye, our saturated backlashes on Twitter may be a similar public opprobrium to the shaming of prostitutes in the main square in The Scarlet Letter.

Jennifer Jacquet, a pioneering scholar in environmental social science at NYU and author of the new book, Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool, spoke to BTR about the powerful social and political force of judiciously employing shame.

Jacquet argues that our obsessive attention in humiliating celebrities on Twitter or restaurants on Yelp could be utilized for more worthy causes. Members of society could use shame tactics for publicly disgracing corporations and governments to embrace more responsible behavior.

“Shame as a tool itself is often not the issue,” explains Jacquet. “It’s the problems or issues that we are using it for that we have a problem with.”

Her work focuses on cooperation dilemmas with environmental crises such as over-fishing and climate change. Jacquet devotes an entire chapter in her book to “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Shaming.” She highlights relevant cases in her writing, such as how members of Amnesty International publicly exposed the United States for executing juvenile offenders and explains how The Daily Show and The Colbert Report serve as effective shame outlets.

“It was an attack on reputation exposing the US and seven other countries,” states Jacquet. “It shows that the behavior of a small group of people can affect the majority or society at large.”

The distinction in effectiveness between guilt, a commonly held personal emotion toward the crossing of an ethical norm, and shame is that the latter can cast a wider, more public net in making an entire organization feel ashamed.

Our individualistic culture has cost our society a lessened impact on the force of shame. Jacquet believes that governments love the liberties of self-regulation and autonomy, aspects that guilt tactics allow for them to practice. Blaming others for their actions often fails to stretch past an individual, so organizations can dodge responsibility.

“Guilt is the best form of social control. It’s the cheapest and it’s you regulating yourself. ‘What better system could there be?’” poses Jacquet. “But it’s not really efficient and doesn’t really work at scale.”

Corporations operate in a system that mandates that they make the most profit. Given such an incentive, guilt is just not a large enough societal combatant to influence corporate decision making, according to Jacquet.

The social control of shaming can be influential when addressed at corporations that take part in hostile take-overs or Congress members that deny climate change. The secrets of the morally corrupt in high positions of power should not only be exposed but also put to a healthy, nonviolent public critique.

Protests like Occupy Wall Street, for example, are easily dismissed as failed attempts to revolutionize the growing wealth gap in the nation, but perhaps that was not the protestors’ full intention. The Occupy movement allowed for the beginning of true, citizen opinions on the wealth disparity in the country to be placed on an open platform.

Arguably, the intention wasn’t to immediate change but to bring about a remorse for the way the country continues to allow for such a minor section of the population to have the majority of income.

Jacquet warns that the shaming strategy shouldn’t be taken lightly or scattered across all factors of our society. Shame is a force that can be dangerous when wrongly utilized in individualistic circumstances or on issues that have no clear transgressor.

“Shame should be used less for more personal, individual choices,” clarifies Jacquet. “It shouldn’t be used for homosexuality, as it was in the past, or things like obesity.”

Understanding the specific perpetrator that has disintegrated the trust and respect of a society is essential to beneficially releasing shame onto one another. Obesity, for instance, has no clear perpetrator. Individuals may become obese due to an assortment of environmental and genetic factors.

Jacquet places a specific emphasis on the power of shaming large powers that bring detriment to the natural world, such as banks that fund coal companies that remove Appalachian Mountain tops. Her book seeks to bring a consciousness to how each individual can influence authority figures to act on environmental issues.

Citizens don’t all have to become climate change activists picketing the steps of city hall to help eradicate the structural and political barriers to protecting our environment.

“That’s what is cool about shame,” declares Jacquet. “It can work on the weak against the strong and on systems, institutions, and groups that guilt really can’t.”