Shame, shame …

Stephanie Zvan made a post about a Twitter storm about how shaming is a good and proper thing. It will likely surprise no one that I’m not a big fan of “shaming” as an attempt to change the minds of people or to influence their behaviour. But one of the biggest problems with her post is that she is justifying something that doesn’t actually look a lot like “shaming” at all, and is much, much worse. Let me start by outlining some typical forms of “shaming”, essentially using the emotion of shame to motivate people.

First, you can “shame” by proving to someone that their actions are improper, which triggers a feeling of shame inside them, which they then use as motivation to correct their actions, either by changing their behaviour in the future or, most commonly if you’re using shame in any way, to make restitution for what their actions caused. While this is generally benign, being Stoic-leaning I don’t approve of it. The reason is the heart of Stoic morality: one ought to be able to determine rationally and strictly from arguments what restitution — if any — one needs to make. Knowing that, one should feel sufficient motivation to do right by the love of the right, and so not need any other emotion as motivation. But if one relies on shame as the motivation, then one’s main goal is to eliminate that feeling of shame in themselves. However, the emotion of shame doesn’t have to align with what is indeed right and proper. So if the main goal is to eliminate that feeling, the person will likely pick the options that will eliminate that feeling in themselves the fastest. But the restitution that they really do need to make may not do that the fastest, and in fact may not do that at all. So, in the end, it comes down to the idea that if someone really knows what they did wrong and knows what they need to do to make up for it, then they don’t need to emotion to spur themselves to do it, and if they don’t really know what they did wrong or what they need to do to make up for it, they can’t ensure that what the feeling of shame is promoting is the right thing to do. Thus, shame is superfluous at best and wrong at worst.

Which leads to the second form of “shaming”. This is where someone tries to instill the emotion of shame in someone in order to convince them that they are wrong, by essentially triggering the emotion and then arguing that if they feel shame then they must be wrong. This, of course, completely short-circuits actual reasoning, and so runs the risk of convincing them that they are wrong when they are right. So, as a tool — and Zvan wants shaming to be used as a tool — this can only be used when you are certain that you are right and when actually arguing for your position isn’t going to work. But as this short-circuits reasoning, it’s incredibly dangerous, especially since shame isn’t all that great an emotion at picking things out in the world. While almost all emotions depend on the person for their triggering, shame is actually even more dependent on that, because at best it’s triggered by a subconscious reaction of “I’m wrong and bad” … which depends greatly on what the person thinks is wrong or bad. If one finds a “universal trigger” where by appealing to certain emotions — or empathetic connections — they can trigger shame, then they can use that to justify any proposition. And if they can’t, then this sort of shaming will work better on people who already align with your idea of what is good and bad. Either way, you cut reason out of the picture entirely, which is not a good thing and, generally, not what people who want people to act on the basis of reason and evidence ought to way.

However, Zvan is going for another type of “shaming” here:

Shame is that emotion that tells us we’re failing our tribe. We’re not living up to our part of the social contract.

I’d love to see where she gets that definition from, because typically shame is the emotion that tells us, as I said above that we’ve done something wrong. That might align with “tribal” ideas, but it doesn’t have to.

However, Zvan admits that she’s not using the standard definition:

Some people may use a different word for this. I tend to consider that the kind of language drift that happens when we declare a concept unacceptable. I’m sticking with “shame” just like I stick with “privilege”.

In short: I’m totally aware that almost no one uses the word that way, but I’m sticking with it anyway. For reasons.

Let me use one of those other words to highlight what’s wrong with that idea: honour. And I’ll quote from Aaron Alston’s “Starfighters of Adumar” to show the issue:

…Balass ke Rassa finally summed it up in a way that pleased Wedge: “If I understand, General, you are saying that a pilot’s honor is internal. Between him and his conscience. Not external, for his peers to see”

“That’s right, ” Wedge said. “That’s it exactly.”

“But if you do not externalize it, you cut yourself off from your nation,” Balass said. “When you do wrong, your peers cannot bring you back in line by stripping away your honor, allowing you to regain it when you resume proper behavior.”

“True,” Wedge said. “But by the same token, a group of people you respect, even though they don’t deserve it, can’t redefine honor for their own benefit, or to achieve some private agenda, and then use it to control your actions.”

Zvan wants shame to be something triggered based on external rather than internal considerations: you feel shame when you don’t do what the tribe or society expects you to do. But Balass has a point here as well, in that if shame is only what you feel when you personally think something is wrong then there’s no way for someone to “prove” that you’re wrong, and then correct your thinking. The solution to this conundrum is to drop the “external vs internal” dichotomy, and instead note that shame or honor must be objective. I should feel shame or lose honor based on objective standards. In short, shameful or dishonorable behaviour must have an objective standard to appeal to. That way, if I think I ought not feel shame for something and someone else does, I can appeal to those objective reasons to prove it to them, and they must provide objective reasons why I’m wrong. In theory, the evidence then would decide who is right. But “shaming” typically sets aside reasoning to instead invoke emotions, either the emotion that you have done wrong, or for Zvan the fear of being cut off from society. And that’s incredibly dangerous, as outlined above.

Now, Zvan both claims that shaming is powerful and yet weak:

Shame is one of the most powerful social tools we have.

If you look me in the face and call shame “making you” do something, I will laugh at you. That’s your conscience talking, dude.

Now, this would be fair to say about the first two notions of “shaming” outlined above, as all they do is try to trigger someone’s conscience to get them to act in certain ways. But in order to invoke the fear that one is going to be excluded from or has been excluded from society based on their actions, the threat of exclusion has to be plausible. Whether they agree with society or not, they have to feel that society is going to push them out and remove all of the benefits and protections they enjoy from being a part of society. So, either Zvan is bluffing and can’t really exclude people, or she is indeed making people act the way she wants them to under the threat of societal exclusion. But either way, the threat is what’s doing the work in her form of “shaming”, not the person’s conscience.

As she confirms:

Shame can paralyzing. That’s because it signals that your participation in society is at risk.

If you want shame to work, to change behavior, shunning can’t be automatic. There has to be a way back based on the behavior you want.

Which also makes the link to the shunning used in the honor example above.

No individual is responsible for allowing people back into their society, but someone has to do it. The person who chooses to holds power.

If you can decide to accept someone back after bad behavior, you become a gatekeeper. That may not be an option or what you want, but….

Which is the problem with using shunning as a tool, and leads right to Wedge’s comment: the “gatekeepers” become the ones who get to decide what constitutes shame or dishonor, and so use that to promote their own agendas: right or wrong, conscious or not. Zvan herself tries to use shaming in the tweets:

Shame is one of the most powerful social tools we have. If someone isn’t hurting people, leave that shit alone. (Yes, I’m applying shame.)

If you put our society at risk? If you make decisions that will kill people, hell, yes, I will shame you. I’ll grind your nose in it.

And if they don’t agree that they are putting society at risk? If they think that either it is the decisions of others that are killing people, and they are demanding too much of them to solve that problem? If they disagree that they are invalidly hurting people? If they argue that you are hurting people? Why are we to assume that your views are the proper ones and theirs are wrong? Why do you get to be the gatekeeper for all of society?

If you can prove that what others are doing are wrong, then all of these concerns go away. But if you don’t and instead rely on social disapproval you run into a couple of issues. First, your method won’t work or will at least be less effective on people who are less reliant on societal approval. If you try to, say, exclude people from social institutions and socializing — by, say, banning them from your comment threads — those who need or care about that less can easily say “I don’t care”. Thus, the social shunning has to be quite strong, and thus often has to be threat to one’s livelihood … which then explains the Social Justice love of trying to get people fired for disagreeing with them. The second issue is that this is defined by what at least most of society agree is worthy of shunning. If you threaten to exclude someone for actions that most of society shrug off, the threat of social exclusion becomes toothless … or, at least, it becomes toothless once someone calls their bluff. And a lot of what we’re seeing in the Social Justice world seem to be cases of people calling the bluff of Social Justice activists. Gamergate, the Hugos, and even Trump are people essentially saying that they will still say what they want — right or wrong — because they don’t think that the shunning side can actually do enough hurt to them for it to matter.

Shunning only works when you can muster enough people that the target cares enough about that excluding them from that group matters to them. If they don’t care, then shunning doesn’t work. At all.


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