Public shaming as a political strategy

In the social media age, the prospect of being socially shamed has become a real site of anxiety for mainstream culture. Jon Ronson has written a book on the topic, and columnists routinely meet their wordcount by repeating cliches about the dangers of Twitter hordes. The primary anxiety seems to be centered on social media storms coming from the Left, which seem to represent a new weaponized form of Political Correctness. And there are many on the left, particularly in campus activism circles, who are understandably intrigued by the potential power of shaming as a tool.

Tim Burke has already thoroughly addressed the potentials and pitfalls of public shaming. Arguably his most salient point is that “stigma is a dangerous tool generally, and has far more often been a tool of oppression or domination than the other way around.” While he is quick to clarify that this observation “doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no purpose or legitimacy as a goal,” he encourages activists to be more cautious and realistic in their deployment of shame.

As the victim of public shaming, I want to amplify what Burke is saying. Even though people are most worried about shaming from the left, it’s the right that is really mobilized to carry out this kind of thing. They are absolutely relentless and merciless. Literally everything you say in response becomes more fodder for harrassment — above all the claim that you are being harrassed, which indicates your intolerance of criticism and unwillingness to consider other views. Here as elsewhere, whatever you do, however you respond, it proves that your harrassers are the real victims, who are thoroughly justified in defending themselves against you by any means necessary.

This is only one of many repeated rhetorical strategies. Indeed, what is striking about right-wing harrassment mobs is their crushing tedium. The same phrases and talking points are repeated over and over and over — and all with the clear presumption that you have never heard it before. It’s like they workshopped it ahead of time, and in a sense they did. Becoming a movement conservative (or aligning even further right) consists largely in learning the strategies of shaming and silencing, of drowning out and driving out opposing views. For us it might seem like a useful tool, but it’s their native language.

Hence I would like to add my own small point to Burke’s analysis: one danger of using shaming as a tool is that the right is way better at it. In fact, I think there’s a case to be made that they are especially prone to mobilize a shaming campaign precisely when they detect an attempt to shame them. And when it comes to a head-to-head shaming battle, there’s just no way we can win. Given the huge number of divisions and constituencies operating on the left, there’s no way we can generate that kind of lockstep relentless campaign. Nor, in the end, do I think we really want to — certainly not as an end in itself.

5 thoughts on “Public shaming as a political strategy

  1. Thoughtful piece. Been thinking through uses/perils of shaming for a while. Still a fan, but this is something to think about. Wonder if another problem with shaming is that it relies on an operative a priori of inclusion/ingroup, as in “we’re all part of the same” society. Can shaming really work if attempted on someone already perceived as outside the group? Perhaps, the battle-lines are already drawn to such an extent that shaming–as a rhetorical strategy–simply doesn’t have the social purchase suggested by the work of Douglas, etc.

  2. I agree completely and need to add that we keep hearing about Leftie students who police professors, demand trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. Nobody, however, seems to notice that right-wing students engage in all of the same practices to a much, much greater degree.

    I’m a professor of literature and I have to sanitize my reading lists to an extraordinary degree because my Bible Belt students refuse to read any work of literature or warch any film that mention divorce, adultery, profanity, extramarital relations, etc. Which obviously excludes pretty much all of the world literature. I had a student who complained that I created an intolerable environment and insulted her religion by discussing the Inquisition!

    So yeah, the PC police is really not a left-wing phenomenon.

  3. Nice reflections on a terrible experience. Another interesting (term used loosely) are farmers and animal agriculture marketing boards. I’ve said a lot on Twitter, but I’ve only ever been harassed (eg, demands to my employer that they fire me) from the Canadian dead cow marketing group and their various allies. My experience in this regard is not unique. Apparently they call themselves “agvocates” and they are always the victims. I’m glad I’ve missed the ire or GGers, but I only talk about video games on a semi-secret and mostly anonymous account.

  4. I seem to recall that in the widely circulated “I’m a professor and my liberal students terrify me” essay, the one example cited from the writer’s personal experience involved complaints from a right wing student.

    Regarding twitter mobs, I think the major source of anxiety & resentment over those is their apparently random nature. I haven’t heard anyone complaining about organized campaigns with some sort of goal in mind. Then again, I’m pretty down on twitter as a medium in general, so you can all get off my lawn…

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