I assume most everyone by now has seen the “pet shaming” pictures that circulate on the Internet from time to time. But besides shaming pets, there are a lot of calls to use shame as a means of social behavior control for people as well. In this article, I’ll talk about what shaming is and why it shouldn’t be allowed in a community that aims to be positive and respectful of all constructive participants and viewpoints.
Guilt, shame, and shaming
While most popular definitions of guilt and shame are used interchangeably, psychologists give the two terms an important distinction. Guilt is the emotion resulting from a negative evaluation of one’s actions. In other words, guilt is the feeling that “I did something wrong.” Whereas shame is the emotion resulting from a negative evaluation of one’s own self or self-worth. Essentially the feeling of, “I am wrong.” Importantly though, where guilt almost always requires an action, even if that action is the choice to not do something, shame does not since it is more a judgement about one’s state of being.
While “shame” is an emotion that one feels about oneself, “shaming” is an action that is intended to cause someone else to feel shame for being or doing something that the originator feels is wrong or undesirable. “Fat shaming” or “slut shaming” are probably the most well-known examples, but there are many, many more.
Why do people shame others? Oftentimes, the stated motive for shaming someone is to discourage their unwanted behavior, to encourage them to change whatever it is about them that is deemed wrong, or to encourage others to see the target as a cautionary tale. But just as there is a debate around whether criminal justice should be more about rehabilitation or punishment, shaming is just as often, and I would argue more often, employed solely to punish someone as an end in and of itself.
Why is shaming inappropriate?
The shortest answer to why shaming is inappropriate in a community aiming to be positive and respectful is in the definition of shaming itself: it is an action that is intended to make someone feel bad about themselves or their worth. Making someone feel bad about themselves does nothing to achieve the goal of building a healthy community.
Some people attempt to justify the use of shaming by arguing that it is an effective tool in controlling undesired behaviors. A commonly-used example is that stigmatizing smoking over the past few decades has led to a significant drop in smoking rates in the United States, from 42.4% in 1965 to 16.8% in 2014. And while there is evidence that denormalizing smoking has resulted in a benefit to public health, there is also a correlation between perceived smoking-related stigma and greater depression and anxiety scores in smokers. There is also a significant difference between stigmatizing a behavior, such as smoking, and shaming a person such as in fat shaming, which has been shown in studies to cause an increase in unhealthy behaviors.
Finally, shame has been shown to have damaging long-term emotional effects. It has been connected to depression, anxiety, aggression, and low self-esteem. So in addition to not working reliably, it’s generally emotionally damaging to the target. Overall, it simply isn’t a tool that one should employ when working on creating a positive community.
Ensuring that enforcement doesn’t devolve into shaming
While I’ve been talking about shaming mostly from the perspective of one community member shaming another, it is also important to note that shame should be avoided in designing your community’s systems of enforcement. Examine your policies and procedures around what kinds of behavior you want to encourage or discourage. Do those policies and procedures focus on actions or behavior? Or do they label people as “trolls” or worse? By focusing on actions instead of making a judgement about a person’s worth, you can help avoid the problems that shaming can cause as you work to build a better community.
Shaming is an ugly practice that is born out of individuals’ desires to punish others through vigilante or mob justice. It is designed to cause damage to people’s self-image or sense of self-worth. And it has not been shown to be effective in creating true behavioral change in either the target of the practice or bystanders. Shaming should not be tolerated as acceptable behavior in a healthy community nor should it be used as a means of guiding the direction of a community.
Do you have thoughts on the use of shaming? Let us know in the comments below.