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Is Shame Necessary?
LET'S put shame to work for a good cause. That's the provocative assertion of Jennifer Jacquet, a conservationist at New York University. In Is Shame Necessary? she argues that we need to rely more on shame, and less on guilt, as a way of putting pressure on people and institutions to act in environmentally responsible ways. While guilt is a private emotion, a failure to live up to one's own standards, shame occurs when a transgressor is held up to public disapproval. And that, Jacquet says, makes all the difference.
For one thing, institutions such as governments and corporations lack the capacity to feel guilt but they can be shamed into changing their behaviour. The private nature of guilt also means, though, that people can find their own ways of salving their consciences, often in trivial ways. "Consumers are swept up in using reusable bags and mugs and turning off the lights," she writes. "This is like taking vitamin C after fracturing your skull in a car accident: it is not wrong; it is just so far from what is needed to actually fix things."
Shaming, by contrast, gives citizens a way to shine a light on the worst offenders, the bad apples that cause harm out of all proportion to their numbers. Think of the US and China and their carbon emissions, or the American coal-mining companies that level whole mountains in Appalachia. The bad publicity that results can sometimes change policies, much as the campaign for dolphin-safe tuna did in the late 1980s.
Jacquet systematically explores the nature of shaming and some of the psychological evidence that shows why it works. In doing so, she makes a strong case for the value of shaming for shaping and enforcing social norms.
She is less successful, though, when she goes on to lay out a set of best practices, which she calls "The 7 habits of highly effective shaming". These are likely to strike most readers as a bit obvious. We should expose the misdeeds to people who care and who the transgressor cares about, customers, for example. Then pick a big misdeed not a small one, and choose a spokesperson to do the shaming that the audience trusts. Do we really need "best practices" that suggest we focus our efforts where payoffs are likely to be greatest or did we know that already?
We can forgive Jacquet this lack of sophistication because of the relative newness of her topic – her book is the first I know to address shaming in such detail. As such, it makes a valuable contribution by drawing our attention to the potential value of this strategy whenever we seek to change how institutions behave.
Shaming may be less desirable when directed at individuals, though, because the collateral damage is so great. This is the central point of So you've been publicly shamed. Here, Jon Ronson, a well-known writer (think The Psychopath Test) and broadcaster, explores in gripping detail several notorious examples of people who have been publicly shamed for misdeeds great and small. In several cases, Ronson was the first journalist that the "shaming victims" spoke to.
For example, he talks to Justine Sacco, a woman who tweeted a clumsy, racially tinged joke to her 170 followers that later went viral. Sacco, by Ronson's account a basically well-intentioned person, soon found herself hounded as an international pariah, fired from her job and forever branded as the worst sort of racist (just Google her name). For anyone with even the tiniest public presence, examples like these are the stuff of nightmares.
And these days, that means almost everyone. Ronson's book is a powerful warning against mob rule on the Internet. "We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it," he writes. Readers are likely to come away sharing Ronson's conviction that this is not something we should be proud of. His book and Jacquet's stake out two corners of a conversational space that it's high time society entered.
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