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Shame on Social Shamers

Social shaming spreads divisiveness in the guise of social change

Source: Rutledge/Shutterstock/Wordle

Social media does a lot of great things. It gives people a voice, distributes knowledge, connects like-minded individuals, locates long lost friends and flattens hierarchies. One trend I’m concerned about, however, is the increasingly widespread use of shaming.

Shaming is not a new social behavior. Long before the advent of social media or even investigative reporting, shaming was and continues to be one of the ways communities, organizations, social groups and cultures reinforce social values and norms. Shaming has power because people are fundamentally social; they care about being included in and accepted by their group. From excommunication to giving three-year-olds ‘time-outs,’ people have used the threat of abandonment to get other people to tow the line.

Not all shaming works on all people, of course. People have multiple identities across the many domains of their lives. I’m a media psychologist, a mother, a researcher, a scholar, a writer, a wife, a friend, an American, a Southern Californian (yes, we make the North/South distinction in this state), a runner (sort of), an Eddie Izzard fan, a professor, a sister, a daughter, a consultant, an artist—I could go on for a long time. The threat of exclusion works in varying degrees depending on the importance of any particular identity or affiliation to our core sense of self or global self-image in a given context.

It’s impossible to lump all the potential “shaming” activities together. They vary from being vicious attacks to rationalized prosocial shaming. I am not saying that pathological shaming, such as revenge porn, is the same as making parodies of Doritos publicizing the use of Palm Oil. But I do have concern over the veneer of self-righteousness that public shaming is taking on without acknowledging the fundamental negative roots of perpetuating shame.

The simple act of a YouTube video intended to shame a company—however humorous-- can have many unintended consequences. Shaming a company or organization may or may not get them to produce their snack food differently but creates an ‘us or them’ boundary that reinforces group affiliation and separateness. It can become about groups, perceived good guys and bad guys and not about issues. Because shaming is a value-based activity, it can lead to situations where people think the normal rules don’t apply to them because they have “right” on their side.

The strengthening of group boundaries, the act of “othering,” can lead to deindividuation, where individuals within a group abandon their moral compasses in favor of the group will. We can all think of examples throughout history to present times where groups behaved badly believing they had some moral right on their side.

Many think of shame as social and guilt as internal. Guilt is learned, situational and often time dependent, as in “I feel guilty because I didn’t call my mother.” But shame is not just an external emotion. It is instinctive and fundamental. Shame strikes at our basic sense of worth, making us feel that we are fundamentally ‘wrong’ or not good enough. Shame becomes part of our global self-schema and becomes a lens through which all experience is filtered.

Shaming is an attack, it triggers our desire to protect ourselves and withdraw. It is not the opening of a dialogue. While I am in favor of highlighting places in society where change is desirable, promoting shaming as a solution hurts us all. Negative emotions make people (and organizations) close-up; they diminish cognitive flexibility and lessen the willingness to consider other points of view. Using social shaming creates exactly the opposite environment to the one that would be most likely to lead to positive resolution. We should consider that we are also modeling these behaviors for our children. Is this how we want our child’s teacher to teach him or her a lesson? Is this the way we want our children to resolve conflict with others?

By shaming, we are ‘othering,’ we are creating divisions, not building bridges. We encourage people to seek revenge not solutions. Do you want Doritos to go out of business or figure out a new way to make their chips? If you say go out of business, then you’ve already crossed over the line, rationalizing borderline-abusive behavior in the name of moral superiority, and are no longer thinking about other perspectives or broader social consequences, such as lost jobs.

The long-term change that we allegedly seek from public shaming is more effectively done by finding answers and spurring people to action rather than doling out punishment. Most shaming is whining without solutions and borders on socially sanctioned blackmail. Expecting change without considering other perspectives may achieve short-term results but it doesn't change anyone’s minds. Moral outrage needs to be accompanied by creating awareness and solutions. Truly, we should be ashamed.

More from Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., M.B.A.
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