Monica Lewinsky has been making the case for years, with an eloquence and intensity born of bitter personal experience. Shame can crush an individual. It can pick up on a passing mistake and amplify it beyond recognition, with no clear end point. It can, quite literally, drive a person to death. There is no question that shame has become a genuine emotional problem in the age of social media, arguably one of the most pressing emotional issues in American society today.
The #MeToo movement has made it clear that for too long shocking behaviors have persisted in casting rooms and television studios, highlighting the vital importance of shaming in bringing these offenses to light. Add to this four years of a President who has no clear moral compass, and the need for shame in various facets of American life becomes abundantly clear.
The dilemma, if briefly stated, is inescapable: It is possible to make an almost equally compelling case for a need for more shame and for a need for less shame in the contemporary United States. Many of the same people eager to bemoan the shaming of certain individuals pile on relentlessly in shaming other behaviors. There may be no emotion, currently, that is at once so ubiquitous and so disputed.
Part of the problem, of course, is the familiar issue of intense partisanship. It is easy to identify hapless victims of shaming by the other side, while blithely engaging in the same emotional strategy in hopes of bringing that same other side to its knees. Liberals eager to jump to the defense of Lewinsky or a victim of gay-bashing show little mercy when it comes to an utterer of the n-word or an excessively randy co-worker. Not surprisingly shame may seem just fine when deployed on behalf of your own values; it’s lack of agreement on values that causes much of the problem, and we have no fix in sight.
Beyond this, however, there is confusion about the meaning of shame itself, and this is where a further discussion of where this emotion stands in contemporary American life might prove quite helpful. There is no magic solution to the problem of shame—partly because there is no imminent solution to the nation’s deep cultural divide. But a look at the various faces of shame will perhaps suggest some effective ground rules.
Two preliminaries help set the stage. First, Western society (not just the United States) is unusual in its disdain for shame. While shame has been modified almost everywhere—no society widely uses the public stocks anymore to humiliate offenders—many regions continue to accept the legitimacy of shaming as a matter of course. The Chinese, for example, openly use shaming in school discipline: In one televised episode, a boy who had damaged some school equipment was made to wear a tawdry “shaming sweater” for the rest of the day to highlight his misdeeds before his classmates. A comparable strategy in the United States would almost certainly bring a level of parental protest that would get a teacher fired. Polls of East Asian parents show a near-majority agreeing with the importance of shaming children, while the same scenario elicits essentially no support in the United States.
In evaluating the complexities of contemporary American shame, it is really useful to be aware that alternatives exist. They have clear drawbacks: Shaming societies tend to generate greater conformity, possibly a greater reluctance to innovate, and currently their proclivities can feed authoritarian political systems. But the American dilemma is not a universal one, and it has its own downsides.
Indeed, the Western campaign against shaming is itself a modern phenomenon, and this is the second preliminary to keep in mind. Before the late 18th century, there is no indication that West European or North American approaches to shaming were at all distinctive. But Enlightenment emphasis on the dignity of the individual generated a radically new approach—and one that continues to shape much of our thinking today. It was an American founding father, Benjamin Rush, who articulated the new wisdom most clearly in stating, in 1787, that “shaming is universally acknowledged to be a punishment worse than death.”
The revolutionary sentiment, furthermore, was not just idle talk. Within a few decades American states began abolishing the age-old institution of public stocks. Parents were urged to avoid using shaming in child discipline, because of the potential for damaging self-esteem (a modern term first used in the 1850s). A bit more gradually, schoolteachers incorporated some of the same wisdom, abolishing classic practices like the dunce cap.
The point is clear. The contemporary concern about the damage shame does has been recognized for quite a while, though it is distinctively modern and disproportionately Western. The result has been a measurable diminution in a host of behaviors that once seemed commonplace. And the anti-shame movement has steadily added momentum: the shaming of unwed mothers or gays, to take two vital examples, has visibly diminished, again with Western societies usually in the lead.
The precedent of attacking shame in the name of individual dignity has of course been greatly enhanced in recent years. Testimony of individuals like Monica Lewinsky joins with the publicity given to tragedies such as the suicide of a Rutgers student publicly identified as gay by a roommate. Psychologists studying shame uniformly point to its (usually) harmful results. Convicted criminals who are shamed often relapse in part because of their resentment of the emotional burden—in contrast to those exposed to the kind of guilt that can be addressed through better behavior. Fat shaming more often than not drives individuals to eat more, in response to this needless emotional distress. Currently, amid the coronavirus pandemic, evidence suggests that attempting to shame people who refuse to wear masks simply makes them more defiant. Shame elicits pushback from both individuals and groups who find the emotional attack both painful and unwarranted.
At least in a Western context, where individuals are taught to resent shame, evidence mounts that the emotion is not only offensive in principle but counterproductive in practice. It is tempting simply to join the chorus, perhaps noting the progress that has been made but emphasizing the work still to be done to achieve greater agreement that shaming is bad.
There is, however, another avenue to explore, and because it is somewhat less familiar it demands more attention than the more commonplace case against shame.
We can begin with the obvious flip side of the emphasis on the longstanding modern credentials of the attack on shame: If shame has been under scrutiny for more than two centuries, why has it survived so well? Why does the problem continue to seem so pervasive?
Several explanations may combine. Some people are simply nasty and enjoy the opportunity to inflict harm on others. Modern technologies have visibly increased opportunities for random shaming, often directed against individuals with whom the attacker has no personal contact. An individual tweets a flippant comment while visiting Arlington National Cemetery, and a host of counter-tweets swarm, some truly outraged, others simply delighted at the opportunity to cause pain. There is little question that social media have made shaming a greater problem.
Then there are conservatives who simply do not buy into the fashionable dismissal of shame. In recent decades some American jurists have argued that shaming is a vital means of punishing certain kinds of offenders, from shoplifters to drunk drivers. Some parents agree, like the father who registered his daughter’s disobedience on Twitter (the issue was choice of clothing), ultimately causing her suicide. Even relatively moderate politicians like Jeb Bush have publicly mused that it would be good to restore shaming to inhibit adultery and other behaviors that threaten family life.
Add these factors together—the innovations of the Internet, nastiness, sincere conservative concerns—and a part of the dilemma is resolved. The offensive against shaming has encountered a variety of impediments, which is arguably all the more reason to press it forward more vigorously.
This is not, however, the whole story. Shaming also persists because it serves vital social functions and because, even in contemporary Western society, it can work, or at least seem to work. This other side to the argument, focused on shaming not so much as individual punishment but as social practice, is what makes the current issue so complex—and so intriguing.
We need to step back from the personal impact of shame—while not forgetting about it—and take a different look at the emotion. After all, if most human societies routinely used shame for centuries, and some still do, there may be something to the phenomenon beyond misguided venom.
In this light, the purpose of shame is the expression of group values that cannot be adequately implemented by other means—such as force of law. The group itself may enhance its sense of identity and cohesion through shaming, but the main point is the effort to enforce rules that are at once important and resistant to more bureaucratic mechanisms. Further, while shame unquestionably punishes and causes pain, its fundamental purpose is not punitive but preventive. Shaming seeks to reduce undesirable behaviors by making the adverse emotional consequences abundantly clear.
This is why, against popular impression, successful shaming regimes actually do not have to shame very often. The classic Puritan impulse to shame adulterers, for example, was only rarely deployed because of widespread awareness of potential community reaction. This means, in turn, that the pain involved was far less common than often imagined.
It is the social function of shame, and the way it can play out in practice, that most fundamentally explains why shaming continues to occur even in a cultural context that is in principle hostile. Three scenarios suggest some of the ongoing results.
First, in some cases, even today, the disciplinary function of shame is not easy to replicate by other methods. Schools offer a prime example. American teachers have clearly learned that extreme shaming is no longer acceptable. But faced with limitations on other forms of discipline—corporal punishment most obviously—and confronted with situations where more positive appeals to pride and self-esteem do not fully suffice, mild shaming may seem an inescapable option. Thus many school districts feature daily evaluations of students, expressed through colored stars made public to classmates and parents: green for good behavior but red for bad. The “bad”, pretty clearly, is meant to be remedied or, even better, prevented through the impact of mild shame.
Second, shaming plays a seemingly vital role in efforts to enforce human rights internationally, where no other reasonable measures seem available. Amnesty International thus routinely relies on shame to induce governments to rescind harsh punishments (like stoning for adultery) or release imprisoned union leaders. Shaming was central to apparently successful campaigns to induce Nike to change exploitative labor practices in Southeast Asia during the 1990s. To be sure, some governments resist global shaming—for example, the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq, or China with its oppression of its Uighur minority more recently—but the effort will surely continue.
Third, shaming can still seem essential in the domestic realm, where deeply-held principles confront the inadequacy of purely legal implementation. Thus anti-abortion groups feel intensely compelled to shame women as they head into a clinic, hoping as well to deter others from even showing up. Black Lives Matter, though using laws and courts where possible, openly cry shame to mobilize public support against police abuse, bringing a long tradition of invoking shame against racism into the contemporary era. Shaming is also deployed against other signs of racism, such as use of the n-word, punishing individual offenders but, even more, seeking to deter misbehavior in future. Shaming of this sort undergirds much of so-called cancel culture.
The conclusion is clear: Shaming is awful; it is desirable; its extremes can be disciplined; it is inevitable.
There is a final complexity to add to the mix before we talk about ways in which irreconcilable features can be, partially, reconciled.
Shame may have a particular role in modern democracies, in supplementing voting as a means of disciplining, or attempting to discipline, political behaviors. This is a relatively new angle, provoked by some of the disruptions of the Trump presidency, but it deserves some exploration.
Traditional monarchs, essentially by definition, were above most public shaming. Only egregious loss in war might threaten the kind of public outcry that could disgrace a king. On the other hand, many monarchs were constrained by codes of honor with an established upper class, where shaming might be deployed.
Modern authoritarian regimes use shame abundantly to punish dissent. The famous show trials of Soviet Russia were prime examples of shame-supported discipline. But there are more contemporary instances as well. The rulers themselves, however, rise above shame, often more blatantly than monarchs did, either through misinformation or sheer assertions of power.
Democracies might seem to have little need for shame as a political instrument, given the discipline of the ballot box. But clearly many democracies have sought to use shame as a supplement—for example, in both Britain and the United States, in seeking to enforce some standards of sexual morality or financial ethics on political figures between elections. Shaming may also be essential where regional political figures should be brought to account even when their own constituencies remain complacent: In the summer of 2020 for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez worked, with the classic goal of punishment and prevention, to shame a Florida Republican for using sexist language, even though the majority of his own district was unconcerned. Shaming may be a vital supplement in seeking responsible political behavior in a democracy.
Today, however, democratic shaming is challenged by the emergence of an elite class, “masters of the universe” types, who glory in their immunity to shame. Their attitude was perfectly encapsulated by a German financier who noted, quite simply, “shaming is for sissies.” This is the kind of attitude that fueled the misbehavior by banks and Wall Street that led to the 2008 financial crisis, and that has been embodied by Donald Trump, an ardent shamer who accepts no shame himself. The combination of shame, democracy, and claims of special exemption add yet another component to the evaluation of this complex social emotion.
How, then, does all this add up, beyond the obvious fact that it seems unrealistic, possibly undesirable, to claim hostility to every form of shame and at the same time clearly unacceptable to welcome shaming with no boundaries or concerns?
No tidy compromises emerge. One of the reasons for discussing shame is to highlight the kind of complex, ambiguous problem that invites contemplation and debate rather than decisive formulas.
Some conclusions can be ventured, however. The first is the most familiar from the anti-shame school. It is vital to remember how painful shame can be, a pain often exacerbated and prolonged in the age of social media. Compassion and moderation are essential. The lessons are all the more essential in situations where the shamers feel deeply that their cause is morally vital—which means shame from the liberal as well as the conservative side. The need for care applies in all directions. The many experts who urge the downsides and frequently counterproductive qualities of shame deserve careful attention.
This is all the more true in that shame now so often carries arguably excessive economic consequences, with companies ready to abandon any employee, vendor, or client who brushes with shame without much regard to the clarity or magnitude of the offense. The caution on the liberal side is also enhanced by the need to recognize that, rightly or wrongly, the American heartland already feels shamed by the coastal elites for higher levels of religious devotion and other qualities that arguably are not legitimate emotional targets. This does not mean that shaming for offenses on the right need be abandoned—there is little chance of that in any event, given the passions involved—but that there is extra need for moderation.
The wounding qualities of shame deserve consistent attention. This is even true in international relations, for there are clear examples of shaming efforts that worsened national behavior, just as there are counterexamples in which shame has provoked human rights reform. We know enough about shame in a variety of contexts to be careful, especially when we feel particularly righteous.
This said, shaming the little guy, of whatever political persuasion, warrants more care, particularly when social media are involved, than shaming the powerful or, even more obviously, the corporate. While it remains important to be accurate, and to be open to explanation, the importance of shaming in dealing with corporate misbehavior, often backed by consumer response, is particularly clear-cut in the contemporary world. The power and resiliency of the target matters.
Contemporary shamers, however justified, also need to be reminded of the importance of reintegration, a concept quite familiar in societies that are more comfortable with shame but which risks getting lost in the current American or Western context.
For it has become all too easy to assume that a shamed individual is branded for life, regardless of the precise nature of the offense or of efforts at apology and rehabilitation. To be sure, some tough individuals have written of their ability to live through shame: a tenured professor, for example, who inadvertently sent pornography to a class managed to live it down after a few years. But they have often done so from a protected position.
More generally, once we recognize that some shaming is inevitable, we can more clearly remember that, depending on the magnitude of the offense, shaming should usually have a clear end point. After the Chinese student mentioned earlier wore the sweater for most of the day, he was explicitly allowed to take it off before class was dismissed—a sign that he had paid his dues and could reenter the community. Similarly Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter was ultimately allowed to take her letter off, though she chose not to do so. Reintegration may seem hard to contemplate for targets of current opprobrium such as office-place sexual abusers or individuals guilty of racist language, but it is vital to consider how second chances might be allowed—particularly in those common shaming situations where no formal trial or defense has been involved. Along with initial moderation and compassion, reintegration offers an opportunity for balance in an emotional/social equation that can easily become unbalanced.
At the same time, particularly in a society so heavily weighted toward the rich and powerful, we must be deeply wary of individuals or groups that seem to be immune to shame, whether openly or not. Just as some shaming is inevitable and productive, so the ability to feel shame, and even better the capacity to anticipate shame in advance of a misdeed, is a vital component of responsible behavior in a contemporary democracy. “Shameability” should clearly be added to the qualities of good character we seek to identify in political or corporate leadership. We can start by recognizing that we seem to have a problem in this regard.
Just as I would want to raise a child without relying heavily on shame—a child who also learns the bad effects of shaming the vulnerable—so I would also want a child who had enough experience with shame as to feel it and wish to avoid it. Understanding of these complexities must start fairly early in life.
Shame can play a vital role in helping to guide good behavior, even though, when hauled out for specific notice, it has a lot of bad press. At the same time, it can clearly incline toward excess, making the righteous feel even better than they merit, particularly in a society more comfortable with condemning shame than examining it carefully. Anti-shaming efforts, even under the ironic banners of “shame the shamers,” are often fully justified.
We must also recognize contemporary issues that have made the classic Enlightenment attacks on shame more complicated: the pervasiveness of the Internet and the lack of agreed-upon manners for its use; the intense partisanship that so complicates moderation in virtually every category; and the existence of a group that seems to rise to power by taking delight in ignoring shaming constraints. All of this warrants attention in discussing the role of shame in the United States today.
Some shame, however, is with us to stay. The continued deployment of the emotion despite 250 years of criticism is a fact that simply must be acknowledged. Shame is part of group life. Appropriately handled, it can help regulate behaviors that might otherwise run unchecked. It plays a role in dealing with racism. It should serve as a moderating force in political life. And it will surely factor into any effort to promote responsible stewardship of the environment. This is why, along with due care, it deserves recurrent discussion as a constructive force, including its role in the kind of improvements we should be aspiring to in the next phase of our political life and in the evaluations of contemporary leadership.