When shame works and when it doesn’t 

A while back, I wrote an article on social media as a platform for passing judgment. Now I’m thinking about the same problem from another angle — basically, social media often feels a lot to me like my evangelical church did growing up. There’s the same attempt to micro-manage people’s emotional responses. There are declarations that if you like a certain pop culture product, there must be something deeply wrong with you. The parallels exist even down to the level of fine-grained tropes. For instance, one frequently sees declarations that caring about one thing rather than caring about another thing makes you a bad person. This echoes the structure of one of the most famous lines in contemporary evangelical preaching, coined by Tony Campolo: “A lot of your friends are going to hell, and you don’t give a shit. In fact, you probably care more that I just said the word ‘shit.'”

What unites all these tactics is the overall strategy of shaming. It may seem counterintutive to build community bonds through shaming, but really it’s genius — if the community has an inside track on what’s wrong with you, they can also plausibly claim privileged access to the solution. Wrapping up a certain standard into someone’s deep emotional responses, which sustained shaming does, installs that standard as authoritative in a very deep way.

This is where the difference arises. In the case of a church, adults are presumably attending voluntarily, meaning they have chosen to submit to the church’s authority (or at least haven’t chosen to deny it), and for children, the authority of the church usually piggybacks on the authority of their parents. This is the necessary foundation for the shaming strategy to be viable.

Now there are authentic communities of accountability that form in the context of social media. In those contexts, “calling people out” is probably effective and helpful, even appreciated — just as a faithful churchgoer might experience shaming as an edifying exhortation rather than a form of emotional manipulation. Outside of those context, though, the strategy of shaming is deeply misguided and even self-undermining.

That’s because if you don’t recognize the authority of the person attempting to shame you, then they’re not actually shaming you — they’re just weirdly harrassing or insulting you. Think of how parents react, for instance, when a stranger tells them to control their kid in a public setting. Now it may be the case that the kid is misbehaving and the parent agrees it’s a problem. But the typical reaction is defensive. Whatever they in fact say, what they are effectively asking the accuser is, “Who the fuck are you?! What right do you have to interfere with my relationship with my child?”

It’s not hard to understand why something similar typically happens with drive-by “call-outs.” The caller-outer may well be right on the merits — I don’t doubt that this is often, maybe nearly always the case. And the called-out person may well reject the caller-outer’s authority for illegitimate reasons such as racism or sexism — again, this probably happens a lot, and it’s bad. But let’s say that another straight white guy who I don’t know shows up in a Facebook thread and tells me that my love of classical music reinscribes white patriarchal authority. He may be right or he may be wrong — there’s probably a discussion to be had. But my gut reaction is going to be to ask: “Who the fuck are you to judge me?!” Maybe that’s the wrong reaction. Maybe I should undergo counseling or spiritual direction to correct that problem. But it’s an understandable human reaction.

The precondition for persuading someone to change something about their day-to-day life is being part of that person’s life. Even if the random stranger is totally right on the merits, it is still a good principle not to change your life on the say-so of a random stranger, and it is understandable to be offended that the random stranger would feel entitled to that kind of instant deference.

I think we all know this, though, deep down. And in a way, that’s what worries me, because if you’re not really trying to make a positive impact on people’s lives, what you are effectively doing is reinforcing them in the way they are by eliciting the completely predictable defensive response. That is another way of using shame — against outsiders as a way of building community solidarity. And that has its place. I do it. I understand why people do it and why it can be emotionally necessary. But it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really form a stable basis for a distinctively left form of solidarity. And in any case, as anyone who has been publicly shamed on social media can tell you, the right is way, way better at it. It’s what they live and breathe every day. A shaming arms race is a losing proposition.

3 thoughts on “When shame works and when it doesn’t 

  1. A pastiche of references comes to mind, The Truman Show, Inception, 1984 … you have also expressed what I have wrestled with from my background. I found this helpful.

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