An illustration of the pillory and inventory from my 6th grade social studies textbook is etched in my head forever: a caricature image of some sad-looking prisoners with their heads and arms trapped in a wooden board, surrounded by a wild and enthusiastic crowd. This strange medieval practice of public punishment also served as entertainment for the villagers, who mocked and pelted scraps of food at the petty thieves, adulterers and drunken fools on display.
When I imagined in class that I was trapped in a town square with tomatoes slipping across my face, I was relieved that we would no longer publicly shame such people. Fast forward to today̵
I saw the 2018 video on Twitter of a group of demonstrators singing “Shame!” and hurling questions at a table in a Mexican restaurant where Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielson was dining at the time. (Nielson was the primary enforcer of the Trump administration’s infamous child segregation policy.)
As I saw my fellow citizens humiliate Nielson, I felt a wave of justice rise within me. Perhaps she would act differently if she could feel a fraction of the discomfort felt by those affected by her politics.
But when Nielsen stepped down a few weeks later for reasons unrelated to the restaurant event and with no mention of moral reckoning, I wondered: Can public shame really affect a person’s morality and thereby change the way he leads or act?
Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown defines shame as the belief that we are essentially “flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging”. The agonizing experience of shame is an entry-level culture for topics such as addiction, perfectionism and intimacy and is not only tied to acts of violence.
If you have been judged, criticized, or exploited, especially by parents, teachers, or groups of friends, you have experienced shame and understood how his sting is ignited by other people. And if your race, lifestyle, ability, or sexuality deviates from the norms of the prevailing culture, you have likely endured your fair share of culturally appropriate shame.
But shame is not just a feeling, it is also an act carried out to bring about a moral reckoning for the perpetrator.
Psychologist and podcast host Cecilia Dintino recognizes the power that public shame and its punishments such as crucifixions, stocks and stoning have had in maintaining social order and conformity. “Shame is a very strong emotion […]. Its evolutionary role is to set social norms and determine who is or is not in the group, ”she tells Greatist via email.
In other words, when people face the possibility of stigma and humiliation, they obey the rules. Dintino warns, however, that this is associated with high costs: “Because we want to stay in the group, we either adapt to avoid shame or keep the secrets that could throw us out.”
I recently heard a story in my work as a senior executive consultant that made it easy to see how shame is used to create and maintain identity groups and promote secrecy. A senior client and her colleague traveled – wearing masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer – to explore a new office location.
As they walked through the city, they noticed that few people were wearing masks. The looks and looks they received made them feel fearful and even stricter when they wore theirs. At a busy farmers market, a local wore the required mask but under his nose. The colleagues, a pair of reliably pronounced women, kept their mouths shut.
Back in the car, they asked why they hadn’t spoken and corrected them. A feeling of shame and marginalization and the perception of “these liberal minority women” had stopped them, but they wondered if they should have said anything at all.
According to Dintino, if they wanted to make a difference, probably not. When she questions someone’s behavior, she says, “As soon as you add shame, even gentle shame, you invite strong emotions to defend against.” Shame is so painful that the recipient of a shameless shame penetrates deeper into the group, with which he identifies himself in order to create a polarization. “And now,” adds Dintino, “we have reasons for war.”
There are cultural wars everywhere on the internet these days, but in contrast to pillories and stocks, where the moral rules of village society were explicit and agreed, the World Wide Web is a place where groups distinguished by common interests, races, lifestyles, Beliefs, etc. Combine find each other and decide their own standards for shame.
The internet was hit very hard by Gayle King when a viral excerpt from her interview with WNBA star Lisa Leslie suggested that King was trying to denigrate the recently deceased basketball phenomenon Kobe Bryant by bringing up the subject of his alleged rape . While some defended her for her work, King was largely accused of bad intentions and false alliances and publicly cursed by rapper Snoop Dogg. After King’s cloudy-eyed Instagram defense video, the seemingly capricious Internet turned Dogg on for his attack.
In an apology video, Dogg looked really contrite: “I was brought up much better.” The pressure on him to apologize seemed to be working, and perhaps the experience of whipping in the future actually made him more thoughtful.
While some people can really learn to be called shameful, Dr. Elizabeth Olson of the Psychological Wellbeing Collective that this is rare. “Shame usually leads to resistance and defiance rather than cooperation” and “therefore impairs learning and understanding”.
Indeed, studies of the use of shame to punish the offender in restorative judicial practices have largely concluded that shame is ineffective in creating accountability or rehabilitation for offenders.
I’m part of a private Facebook group dedicated to empowering women. In this group, women of all races, ages and backgrounds are often torn apart because of their unconscious bias.
In a violent disagreement, a younger member of the group dismissed an older member by classifying their view as a “boomer”, the older one as ageism, and a shared mission to grow and mutually strengthen one another dissolved, armed as shame became, and prompted women to camp themselves after generation.
In terms of racial identity, I see more willingness for white women to accept shouting out even when shame is used, and I assume this is due to better education about the insidious nature of white privilege. In racially charged conversations, however, each perpetrator and each identity group tries to defend their intent, so that the “conversations” lead to round after round defensive and counter-attacks that defend each other for position, tone and tone To defend the other’s point of view.
I look at this and ask myself: do women in the group actually learn how to live without prejudice, or do guilt and hostility reinforce this? Are they learning to speak with greater respect and appreciation for others, or are they learning to shut up?
If shame is largely ineffective in helping different identity groups build bridges, how can we more effectively deal with our moral outrage?
Olson says, “I think people learn more effectively and are more willing to work together when they feel motivated to change because they understand the benefits of an action rather than being bad for not doing it.”
In my role as a leadership advisor, I’ve found this to be the case. Feedback, which motivates employees to perform at their best, avoids shame and guilt and instead uses questions that help employees draw their own conclusions and see the negative effects of their actions. But it requires a sophisticated ability on the part of the guide to bypass emotional provocations and instead indulge in curiosity.
Questions like, “How do you see why things didn’t go as planned?” or “How did you help?” and: “What would you do differently?” can open the door to fault-free accountability. But it is difficult; When a person perceives that they are being shamed for their actions or perspective, and especially when the feedback is perceived as being related to their identity, they are stimulated to defend themselves and reject the feedback altogether.
I think back to the wild crowd in my social study book and the righteousness I felt when I saw Neilson shame, and I see how satisfying it is to feel like you partake in the repayment. We live in a time when monstrous immoral acts – including the separation of parents and children at U.S. borders, the frequent police killing of civilians, and willful ignorance of government protocols – are repeatedly and without consequence by those responsible.
Perhaps our leap to public stigma and arguments with civilians is due to our inability to hold leaders accountable. It feels good to be able to judge and criticize every time we sense an injustice – perhaps better than to come to terms with our lack of control and the sharp decline in cultural integrity.
To stop the cycle of mutual demolition by public shame, attention must be drawn to shame as being mean and counterproductive. It takes longer training in dealing with emotional reactivity while trying to discern another’s point of view and struggling to connect through genuine curiosity. You have to know which fights and opponents are worth it.
After all, we have to look for similarities. While hate cannot act as a bridge, there is always something in common with humans, 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 treatise on life in an ashram in her 20s. You can visit them at blairglaser.com. Follow her on Twitter: @blairglaser or Instagram www.instagram.com/blair_glaser