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The Positive Side of Shame

A computer science PhD candidate uncovers significant privacy-violating security flaws in large companies, then shares them with the media to attract negative coverage. Google begins marking unencrypted websites as unsafe, showing a red cross in the URL bar. A nine-year-old girl posts pictures of her school’s abysmal lunches on a blog, leading the local council […]

A computer science PhD candidate uncovers significant privacy-violating security flaws in large companies, then shares them with the media to attract negative coverage. Google begins marking unencrypted websites as unsafe, showing a red cross in the URL bar. A nine-year-old girl posts pictures of her school’s abysmal lunches on a blog, leading the local council to step in.

What do each of the aforementioned stories have in common? They’re all examples of shame serving as a tool to encourage structural changes.

Shame, like all emotions, exists because it conferred a meaningful survival advantage for our ancestors. It is a universal experience. The body language associated with shame — inverted shoulders, averted eyes, pursed lips, bowed head, and so on — occurs across cultures. Even blind people exhibit the same body language, indicating it is innate, not learned. We would not waste our time and energy on shame if it wasn’t necessary for survival.

Shame enforces social norms. For our ancestors, the ability to maintain social cohesion was a matter of life or death. Take the almost ubiquitous social rule that states stealing is wrong. If a person is caught stealing, they are likely to feel some degree of shame. While this behavior may not threaten anyone’s survival today, in the past it could have been a sign that a group’s ability to cooperate was in jeopardy. Living in small groups in a harsh environment meant full cooperation was essential.

Through the lens of evolutionary biology, shame evolved to encourage adherence to beneficial social norms. This is backed up by the fact that shame is more prevalent in collectivist societies where people spend little to no time alone than it is in individualistic societies where people live more isolated lives.

Jennifer Jacquet argues in Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses For An Old Tool that we’re not quite through with shame yet. In fact, if we adapt it for the current era, it can help us to solve some of the most pressing problems we face. Shame gives the weak greater power. The difference is that we must shift shame from individuals to institutions, organizations, and powerful individuals. Jacquet states that her book “explores the origins and future of shame. It aims to examine how shaming—exposing a transgressor to public disapproval—a tool many of us find discomforting, might be retrofitted to serve us in new ways.”

Guilt vs. shame

Jacquet begins the book with the story of Sam LaBudde, a young man who in the 1980s became determined to target practices in the tuna-fishing industry leading to the deaths of dolphins. Tuna is often caught with purse seines, a type of large net that encloses around a shoal of fish. Seeing as dolphins tend to swim alongside tuna, they are easily caught in the nets. There, they either die or suffer serious injuries.

LaBudde got a job on a tuna-fishing boat and covertly filmed dolphins dying from their injuries. For months, he hid his true intentions from the crew, spending each day both dreading and hoping for the death of a dolphin. The footage went the 1980s equivalent of viral, showing up in the media all over the world and attracting the attention of major tuna companies.

Still a child at the time, Jacquet was horrified to learn of the consequences of the tuna her family ate. She recalls it as one of her first experiences of shame related to consumption habits. Jacquet persuaded her family to boycott canned tuna altogether. So many others did the same that companies launched the “dolphin-safe” label, which ostensibly indicated compliance with guidelines intended to reduce dolphin deaths. Jacquet returned to eating tuna and thought no more of it.

The campaign to end dolphin deaths in the tuna-fishing industry was futile, however, because it was built upon guilt rather than shame. Jacquet writes, “Guilt is a feeling whose audience and instigator is oneself, and its discomfort leads to self-regulation.” Hearing about dolphin deaths made consumers feel guilty about their fish-buying habits, which conflicted with their ethical values. Those who felt guilty could deal with it by purchasing supposedly dolphin-safe tuna—provided they had the means to potentially pay more and the time to research their choices. A better approach might have been for the videos to focus on tuna companies, giving the names of the largest offenders and calling for specific change in their policies.

But individuals changing their consumption habits did not stop dolphins from dying. It failed to bring about a structural change in the industry. This, Jacquet later realized, was part of a wider shift in environmental action. She explains that it became more about consumers’ choices:

As the focus shifted from supply to demand, shame on the part of corporations began to be overshadowed by guilt on the part of consumers—as the vehicle for solving social and environmental problems. Certification became more and more popular and its rise quietly suggested that responsibility should fall more to the individual consumer rather than to political society. . . . The goal became not to reform entire industries but to alleviate the consciences of a certain sector of consumers.

Shaming, as Jacquet defines it, is about the threat of exposure, whereas guilt is personal. Shame is about the possibility of an audience. Imagine someone were to send a print-out of your internet search history from the last month to your best friend, mother-in-law, partner, or boss. You might not have experienced any guilt making the searches, but even the idea of them being exposed is likely shame-inducing.

Switching the focus of the environmental movement from shame to guilt was, at best, a distraction. It put the responsibility on individuals, even though small actions like turning off the lights count for little. Guilt is a more private emotion, one that arises regardless of exposure. It’s what you feel when you’re not happy about something you did, whereas shame is what you feel when someone finds out. Jacquet writes, “A 2013 research paper showed that just ninety corporations (some of them state-owned) are responsible for nearly two-thirds of historic carbon dioxide and methane emissions; this reminds us that we don’t all share the blame for greenhouse gas emissions.” Guilt doesn’t work because it doesn’t change the system. Taking this into account, Jacquet believes it is time for us to bring back shame, “a tool that can work more quickly and at larger scales.”

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