It’s a rough time to have Facebook Memories turned on, y’all. I spend a nontrivial amount of my morning resisting the urge to simply reshare every post with a shoutycaps I TOLD YOU SO. Still, I guess at least there’s been a lot of progress made over the last year in activism, however incremental?
Im tired, though. Progress comes with pushback, and so much pushback takes the form of “nice people” objecting to the notion that we should call out folks who are, ugh, I don’t have a way to say this that sounds jargon-free so I’ll go all in: upholding kyriarchy. Calling out, they say, amounts to nothing more than public shaming.
In the spirit of the season, I’d like to loop back to something I’ve said a lot: there’s really nothing wrong with public shaming for bad acts.
I want to step away from the word “bad” here, although I did and do feel that it’s not an incorrect word. But for just a minute let’s use “antisocial” instead of bad, and give a working definition of “antisocial” as “against the best interests of a healthy society” not “I want to be alone.”
So what are antisocial acts? Things that are harmful to a healthy society and the people who are trying to live in it. In the case of many antisocial acts, such as rape, murder, theft, or usury, laws have been explicitly written to prohibit and punish those acts.
But laws fall short. They have statutes of limitations. They’re written by humans who don’t always think of every possible consequence.
And society as a whole develops faster than laws can keep up, and frankly, there are social mores that just don’t rise to the severity of needing an entire court system to develop and enforce them, like don’t fart in a closed elevator and don’t post spoilers the first week or two after a movie comes out. Especially if you know your friends care about seeing spoilers.
The way society inoculates itself against antisocial acts is by creating social consequences for them. As we move through society we are indoctrinated with programming designed to give us uncomfortable feelings when we perform antisocial acts. One of those feelings is empathy. When we harm someone else by our words or deeds, we’re meant to feel hurt by hurting them.
But empathy falls short, too. People are inherently selfish – it’s a survival trait – and overcoming that isn’t always possible. Sometimes they don’t see the person they harmed as “fully human” or they don’t see that they’re capable of harm because they think of themselves as nice. Especially if it’s not a direct harm; especially if the harm came from upholding or reinforcing a systemic oppression that they may not have even known about.
That’s where shame comes in.*
I’m not saying shame can’t be weaponized – look at body shaming. Making people feel bad for existing in their own skin is in itself an antisocial act. But making people feel bad for harming others? Is exactly what society is supposed to do. If someone who has been antisocial can’t or won’t feel the internal discomfort of empathy, society steps in with the external discomfort of shame. You are supposed to be embarrassed at the very least about hurting people.
Public shame has a secondary function, too. It informs viewers that there are consequences for the act, so that they can also avoid it. This “proxy embarrassment” is a sign of healthy empathy. Folks with that healthy empathetic response can learn to avoid antisocial behaviors that they haven’t performed and can spread the word that those behaviors aren’t acceptable.
Shame is how we protect ourselves and each other from antisocial acts that the law can’t or won’t or shouldn’t have to protect us from.
Frankly, if I see you roaming around objecting to people being “shamed” for harming others, I’m going to know that you have more empathy for the people being embarrassed than the people being harmed. That tells me what side you think you’d be likely to find yourself on. And you should probably be embarrassed by that.
* A quick guide to non-abusive calling-out for folks with the energy and privilege: You’re calling out the act, so state what they did that was wrong and why. “Saying spirit animal is racist” is fine, “you’re an asshole” is not: it doesn’t identify the behavior you’re trying to prevent. You can move on to “you’re an asshole” after they double down.