Forever etched in my mind is an illustration of pillory and stock from my 6th grade social studies textbook: a cartoonish image of a few sad-looking captives, their heads and arms trapped in a wooden plank, surrounded by a feral and elated crowd. This strange Medieval practice of public punishment doubled as entertainment for villagers, who jeered and threw food scraps at the petty thieves, adulterers, and drunken fools on display.
In class, imagining myself locked up in a town square with tomato sliding down my face, I felt relieved we didn’t publicly shame people like that anymore. Fast-forward to today’s digital landscape, and all one has to do is log on to any social media platform to see that, indeed, we still do.
Twitter is where I watched the 2018 video of a protester posse chanting “Shame!” and hurling piercing questions toward a table in a Mexican restaurant where then Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielson was dining. (Nielson was the lead enforcer of the Trump administration’s infamous child separation policy.)
As I watched my fellow citizens humiliate Nielson, I felt a surge of righteousness rise within. Maybe if she could feel a fraction of the discomfort felt by those affected by her policies, she would behave differently.
But when Nielsen resigned a few weeks later, for reasons having nothing to do with the restaurant event and without mention of a moral reckoning, I wondered: Can public shaming really put a dent in someone’s morality and therefore change the way they lead or act?
Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown defines the feeling of shame as a belief that we are essentially “flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging.” The excruciating experience of shame is a starter culture for issues of addiction, perfectionism, and intimacy, in addition to being tied to acts of violence.
If you’ve been judged, criticized or exploited, especially by parents, teachers or groups of friends, you’ve experienced shame and understand how its sting is ignited by other people. And if your race, lifestyle, ability, or sexuality is divergent from what is considered to be the norms of the dominant culture, you’ve likely endured your fair share of culturally appropriated shame.
But shame is not only a feeling, it’s also an action performed to bring about a moral reckoning for the offender.
Psychologist and podcast host Cecilia Dintino recognizes the power that public shaming and its punishments like crucifixions, stocks, and stonings, has had in keeping societal order and conformity. “Shame is a very powerful emotion […]. Its evolutionary function is to set social norms and determine who’s in or out of the group,” she tells Greatist via email.
In other words, when faced with the possibility of stigma and humiliation, people follow the rules. But, as Dintino warns, it comes at a high cost: “Because we want to stay in the group, we either conform to avoid shame, or keep the secrets that may kick us out.”
I recently heard a story in my work as an executive leadership consultant that made it easy to see how shame is wielded to create and sustain identity groups, and encourage secrecy. An executive client and her colleague traveled — with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer — to explore a new office location.
As they walked around the town, they noticed that few people were wearing masks. The stares and glares they received made them feel anxious and even more stringent about wearing theirs. At a bustling farmer’s market, one local was wearing the required mask, but under her nose. The colleagues, a pair of reliably outspoken women, kept their mouths shut about it.
Back in the car, they questioned why hadn’t they spoken up and corrected her? A feeling of shame and ostracization, and being perceived as “those minority liberal women,” had stopped them, but they wondered if they should have said something anyway.
According to Dintino, if what they wanted was to make a difference, probably not. When challenging someone’s behavior, she says, “As soon as you add shame, even gentle shame, you invite powerful feelings that must be defended against.” Shame is so painful, that in order to avoid feeling it, the recipient of a shame scolding will dig deeper into the group they identify with, creating polarization. “And now,” Dintino adds, “we have grounds for war.”
There are culture wars all over the internet today, but unlike pillory and stock where the moral rules of village society were explicit and agreed upon, the World Wide Web is a place where groups who bond through shared interests, race, lifestyles, beliefs, etc. find each other, and decide their own standards for shaming.
The internet came down very hard on Gayle King, when a viral snippet of her interview with WNBA star Lisa Leslie made it appear that King was trying to denigrate the recently deceased basketball phenom Kobe Bryant by bringing up the subject of his alleged rape. While some defended her for doing her job, King was largely accused of evil intentions and false alliances, and publicly cursed out by rapper Snoop Dogg. After King’s bleary-eyed Instagram defense video, the seemingly fickle internet then turned on Dogg for his attack.
In an apology video, Dogg appeared genuinely contrite: “I was raised way better than that.” The pressure for him to apologize appeared to work, and perhaps the experience actually made him more thoughtful about lashing out in the future.
While some individuals may genuinely learn from being called out in a shaming way, Dr. Elizabeth Olson of The Collective for Psychological Wellness says it’s rare. “Shaming typically induces defensiveness and defiance rather than cooperation,” and therefore “interferes with learning and understanding.”
In fact, studies of using shame to punish the offender in restorative justice practices largely conclude that shame is not effective in creating accountability or rehabilitation for felons.
I’m part of a private Facebook group devoted to empowering women and in this group women of all races, ages, and backgrounds commonly tear into each other for exhibiting unconscious bias.
In one heated disagreement, a younger member of the group dismissed an older member by classifying her view as a “boomer,” the elder called ageism, and the shared mission to grow and empower each other dissolved as shame was weaponized, triggering women to camp themselves by generation.
Where racial identity is concerned, I see more willingness for white women to accept being called out even if shame is used, and I assume this is due to better education on the insidious nature of white privilege. But frequently in racially charged conversations, each offender and identity group strives to defend their intent, so that the “conversations” result in round after round of defensiveness and counterattacks, piling on in defense of each other’s position, tone and viewpoint.
I watch this and wonder: Are women in the group actually learning how to live without bias, or does the blame and hostility reinforce it? Are they learning how to speak with greater respect and appreciation for others, or learning to keep their mouths shut?
If shame is largely inefficient in helping different identity groups form bridges, what are more effective ways to deal with our moral outrage?
Olson says, “I think that people learn more effectively and are more willing to cooperate when they feel motivated to change because they understand the benefits of an action, rather than because they are bad for not complying.”
In my role as a leadership consultant, I have found this to be true. Feedback that motivates employees to excel steers clear of shame and blame and instead utilizes questions that help workers draw their own conclusions and see the negative impact of their actions. But it requires a sophisticated ability for the leader to sidestep emotional provocation and lean into curiosity instead.
Questions such as: “What’s your perspective on why things didn’t go as planned?” or “How did you contribute?” and, “What would you do differently?” can open the door to blame-free accountability. But it’s tricky; if an individual perceives they’re being shamed for their actions or perspective, and especially if the feedback is perceived to be linked to their identity, they will be stirred into defensiveness and reject the feedback altogether.
I think back to the wild mob in my social studies book, and the flush of justice I felt watching the Neilson shaming and I see how satisfying it is to feel you are participating in payback.
Being able to condemn and criticize every time we sense an injustice feels good — maybe better than coming to terms with our lack of control.
Stopping the cycle of tearing one another down through public shaming requires drawing attention to shame as mean and counterproductive. It demands prolonged training in managing emotional reactivity, while trying to see another’s viewpoint, and fighting to connect through genuine curiosity. It necessitates knowing which fights and opponents are worthy.
Lastly, it requires keeping an eye out for common ground. While hate cannot act as a bridge, in humans, there is always common ground to be found, even if you have to look hard for it.
Blair Glaser is an executive leadership consultant, licensed psychotherapist, and storyteller. She is working on a memoir about living in an ashram in her 20s. You can visit her at blairglaser.com follow her on Twitter: @blairglaser or Instagram www.instagram.com/blair_glaser