“Shame is absolutely necessary”

Man wearing hat with card "Bread or revolution"

Jennifer Jacquet argues that shame is often our most potent instrument to enforce social norms and punish those that go against them. For her, shame is not just a strong emotion but a powerful political weapon.

Your book is called „Is shame necessary?“ Is it?
Shame is absolutely necessary. At the same time, it is a very dangerous and fickle instrument. It is difficult to characterize it in any general way.

Jennifer Jacquet

Jennifer Jacquet is an assistant professor at New York University and the author of “Is Shame Necessary?”. Read more about her on her website.

Because it can be completely different things depending on the situation or context it is being used?
There is certainly a dose-response issue, as well as an issue of proportionality. Sometimes a very mild form of shaming is being used for a severe transgression and vice-versa. Especially online we see a lot of intense shaming for sometimes very little reason at all. The cases that we are most drawn to are cases where the shaming is really disproportionate. Cases where shaming is used against innocent victims. That’s in part why we paint shame with a broad brush and label it a bad thing. That was my impetus for the book. I wanted to show that sometimes shame can be a positive thing.

In the book, you argue that shame is very often a weapon of last resort. How effective can it be, especially in an arena like international politics?
We should think about it as a tool of last resort, but on the other hand it might sometimes be the only available option – especially in international politics with issues like climate change commitments or human rights violations. Reputation is something indispensable and something every political actor cherishes. Shaming bad actors can sometimes be the best way to express social values. In the past, there were more sanctions, like trade sanctions, tariffs, and boycotts, that could be used but these have been diluted over time by agreements made, for instance, at the WTO. Reputation has become one of the only areas where countries and citizens can push back.

“Shame works in relation to norms”

Have shaming tactics worked in international politics? The UN is one big naming-and-shaming-arena and yet is often powerless.
There is evidence that it can work. There is evidence that in the absence of shaming campaigns, things would be much worse in areas like human rights. It is not a perfect tool but no form of punishment is. The problem on the state-level is that states have no conscience and sovereignty grants them a certain moral immunity, which can make them more impermeable to shame. We might expect that companies built on public reputation would be much more vulnerable to shaming than countries. Globalization has created so many regulatory vacuums. In some cases, we can’t wait for legislation to catch up. Shame is our best option to try to regulate certain kinds of behaviors.

The problem with international issues like climate change is that they are not just linked to one or two states but to almost all of them which makes shaming harder.
Shame often has more traction in small groups, but the real thing that mattes is how widely held the beliefs are. An issue like climate change is relatively new. Shame has a lot to do with rules and shared social values, and it helps if those rules have been established for some time, such as the rules of war or human rights or an obligation to vote. When shame fails, it is most often because the standards have not been established firmly enough. Shame can only work if there is a norm or standard that is disrespected, but I have confidence that action on climate change is reaching a new and global moral imperative.

But norms are very different and often in conflict: A bank manager has a responsibility towards his shareholders to make a maximum profit but that is often in conflict with his responsibility towards society at large.
Quarterly returns used to be the gold standard of publicly traded corporate metrics. Now more and more corporations, including banks, are keeping track of other things, including reputation with the public and its customers. This is what has led to the success of groups like BankTrack, which exposes the banks that are most heavily invested in coal and other fossil fuels. Partially as a result of their work, which relies on shaming, several very big banks have vowed to stop investing in new fossil fuel operations. I agree with you that profits and larger social values are in conflict, and the banks are, more and more, going to have to choose whose side they are on.

“Donald Trump is the perfect bad apple”

In the book, you talk a lot about “bad apples” – individuals that go against norms and thereby ruining the advantages of obeying the rules. If someone will start smoking in a non-smoking environment, other smokers might be inclined to do it too. It becomes contagious.
And it’s not just about contagion but also sometimes, in certain problems, just a few bad apples can ruin things for everybody else. A very good example is the trade in endangered wildlife. You might have 99% of people against the trade in endangered species, and not participating in it. However, just 1% of people engaging in the trade are capable of driving many animals to extinction. Carbon emissions are another example: if big polluter countries like China or the US are not on board to reduce emissions, other countries will be less inclined to curb their emissions since they would be paying the price for the damage done by others, while the bad apples went on polluting.

Benjamin Franklin argued that it takes many good deeds to build a reputation but only one bad deed to lose it…
…unless you are Donald Trump. He is a perfect example of a bad apple. Now people think it’s acceptable to be racist, misogynist or not pay taxes. His dismissiveness of the system has made certain kinds of behaviors and attitudes socially acceptable to a large group of people. He is changing the rules, but also our attitude toward the rules.

Would you agree that there are always ways to cope with shame and losing your reputation?
The very rich and the very poor seem to be the most immune to shaming. The poor because they have nothing to lose and the rich because they are insulated from the shame or can always try to buy themselves a good reputation. Coping with shame is easier for groups or states because they do not feel ashamed because they lack a consciousness. Shame is a very personal emotion, and individuals have a harder time coping with it than groups do.

You argue in the book that shame works because it can scale whereas a feeling like guilt does not. But often companies try to escape the shaming by putting guilt on individuals – the consumers. The shamed have become the shamers.
That is the consequence of neoliberalism in which individual consumption is at the core of everything. Chevron ran a campaign in Washington D.C. in 2008 that read “I will unplug stuff more” or “I will take my golf clubs out of the trunk of my car” with an individual’s face above the statement. The problem of high emissions that is produced by companies like Chevron and Exxon is blamed on individual consumers. The consumer became the scapegoat. That is an absurd view of responsibility given how locked into a system of fossil fuels we are, in part because of the efforts of major fossil fuel corporations.

Shame can also be misused by one company to harm its competitors and gain a market advantage.
Yes, you see fossil fuel companies jockeying for their place on the hierarchy, like how BP tried to call itself “Beyond Petroleum”. You can shame companies like Exxon or BP or you can just stigmatize fossil fuels, which means that any company involved with fossil fuels will be considered partly responsible. I think moralizing the commodity is a smart move. We stigmatized slavery itself, not only the companies that participated in it.

“Shame is being overused”

I sometimes feel that shame is being overused by consumers today because they see that it works against companies. Shaming a company on social media has much more public effect than calling a customer hotline and blaming them there. But once you have a hammer, everything resembles a nail and shame is being used for the most banal things.
Yes, that is a problem. Shame is being overused, and we’re using it excessively against each other, too. There is even an app that alerts your friends every time you hit the snooze button in the morning. Shame is most powerful and should be reserved for serious social problems that we all share.

Because it is being overused we might reach a point where shaming is being shamed.

We are already there. There is a documentary about the politician Anthony Wiener who was involved in multiple sex and infidelity scandals. There is a great moment where a woman screams “We don’t care about his private life, we are from the Bronx”. She was shaming the shamers. There is a backlash against the overuse of shame. We all have things that we can be shamed about and we have to be careful to not become a society of finger-pointers, but rather aim shame well and cautiously at those genuinely doing the most harm to widely held social values.

Filed under Shame
Max Tholl

Max likes reading, writing, music gigs, cats, and pickled beets – though not necessarily in that order. He hails from Luxembourg, is terrible at board games, a mediocre cook, but can hum the Turtles theme song in four different languages. Max was an editor for The European where he met Lars. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram.