Over the past year, the United States has experienced an uncontained pandemic, a racial reckoning, and a white supremacist–fueled insurrection. We’ve seen people contribute negatively to society in ways large and small: from refusing to wear masks to attacking businesses that enforce social distancing, to spreading vaccine misinformation. We’ve also learned that, regardless of how abhorrent a person’s behavior is, apparently the worst thing you can do is shame them for it.
“In our quest to scold and lay blame, even when we’re publicly calling out truly bad actors, we’re just making ourselves feel superior,” wrote Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics, in an opinion piece published in the New York Times around the holidays last year. Carroll’s directive was simple: We shouldn’t shame people for voluntarily traveling in the middle of a pandemic. This despite the fact that many knew those behaviors would only hasten the spread of a virus that had at that point killed more than 300,000 people in the United States and has, following a holiday gathering–fueled surge in cases, killed more than 500,000. Carroll himself recommended against holiday travel, in a video shared on Twitter. The line to walk here seems to be: You can give people public health directives, but should they break them, please do not hurt their feelings over it.
Carroll’s piece was yet another entry in the anti–COVID shaming canon, following an October op-ed, also in the New York Times, saying that we should not shame our neighbors for engaging in COVID-spreading behaviors, a September story in the AP that called social media and COVID shaming “a toxic combination,” an August story in Slate by a physician that urged against “falling into the facile trap of shaming,” and a July story on NPR that stated that “shame is a bad public health tool.” More recently, a Refinery29 piece posited that shaming does little more than give people a false sense of control, and a piece published in Gen, a Medium publication, urged us all to refrain from even broadly complaining that, hmmm, it seems like some people are getting the vaccine out of turn, because that’s scolding, and scolding is bad.
Together, these pieces posit that the desire to shame others should—ironically—make us feel ashamed at our own hubris.
The tsk tsking over shaming is in part a misunderstanding of what shame is and the role that it serves in society, according to Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at NYU who spent more than five years studying shame by examining how it can affect behavior in lab experiments. In addition to chronicling her work in peer reviewed studies, she wrote about the subject in the extremely readable book Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool. From her perspective, sometimes shame can be a good thing.
To understand why, it helps to first define shame. Shame is both an experience and an emotion. If you cheated on a test and were caught and publicly named in front of your class, that experience would be shame. If you also felt bad about it, that emotion would be shame. The goal of shame—the experience—is not just to trigger shame, the emotion. It also serves to send a signal to your classmates that cheating is unacceptable behavior. Shaming isn’t merely about making people feel bad. Shame can serve as a cautionary tale for others. Shame is inherently public and social. The point of shame is to hold the individual to the group’s standard; it is how we create and uphold social norms.
Shame is a form of punishment that derives its power from depriving you of your reputation within the society. When people make blanket proclamations that we should not shame others, what they are criticizing, in a very real way, is the ability to make and enforce social norms. Many of those articles that warn against shame, do so partly because COVID-19 is a systemic issue, but that ignores that even in the presence of clear rules and support, it still requires a bit of social cohesion. And as one popular meme points out: Wearing a mask is a lot like wearing pants. The reason many of us don’t stroll through town naked is not because we fear arrest but because we fear shame. It’s worth noting that early research suggests that collectivist cultures—which tend to employ shame more—better contained COVID early on in their outbreaks.
Shame’s function in this regard has mostly been critiqued for a few reasons. One is that in the individualistic culture of the United States, where many of us often don’t live in extended family units, we’re just not that used to shame as a force for good. We’ve mostly swapped shame for guilt. Guilt is a recent invention and is about the individual, not society. Guilt serves to hold you accountable to your own standard. If your home’s a mess, you might feel guilty about it (vs. the shame if your neighbor actually saw your messy pad). And if a young, healthy person concerned for the well-being of their community expresses feeling pretty guilty for going to a bar during a pandemic—we’re fine with it. We similarly shouldn’t fear shame so much. Researchers increasingly think that shame, unlike guilt, may be a kind of basic emotion, like sadness or joy. In one study, for example, undergraduate students were given photos of people expressing various emotions. The students were accurately able to identify anger, disgust, fear, and, yes, even shame. They had no clue, however, what guilt looked like. Shame, it seems, is to some degree an innate part of what makes us human.
The second reason shame has been criticized is that many have conflated shame’s worth as a tool with the norms some use shame to try to uphold. The shame that accompanies sexually transmitted infections, for example, has more to do with the problematic norms around sex that remain in our society than shame itself. The shame that accompanies illness more broadly has to do with the problematic norm that assumes, falsely, that we will all remain able-bodied and healthy and that if we do not, it is linked to some form of moral or behavioral failing. In both cases, the shame isn’t the problem—the norms are. Instead of throwing out shame, we should be more conscious of how we use it.
In spite of the current uproar against it, Americans do routinely use shame as a tool, quietly and comfortably. “We shame poor people all of the time,” said Phuong Luong, a certified financial planner and educator at Just Wealth (and also a friend). In her role as a financial planner, Luong, has helped low-income people access public services. “If you’ve ever gone into an office to apply for public benefits like welfare or food stamps, it can be a really demeaning and stressful experience,” she said. “The quality, tone, and respect in customer service between a private service and a public service is so different. And I think we make poor people jump through so many hoops to show effort and to show motivation, to get what they need.” It’s as if the process was designed to evoke shame.
But shame can work positively as a tool with people or institutions when the thing happening is in fact worth punishing, and other forms of punishment are out of reach. “In a system where formal punishment is missing, that’s when the informal mechanisms step in,” said Jacquet. You can, for example, incarcerate an individual but, “it’s much more difficult, almost impossible to take away the liberty of an entire group like Exxon Mobil,” she explained. You can, however, shame them as climate activists do when they troll oil companies on Twitter. It’s about depriving these companies of their social license and reputation, which, in many cases, they worked very hard to create.
On the individual level, Jacquet points to the policies that some states have publishing the names of residents who owe a significant sum in taxes—in California, it’s more than $100,000; in Wisconsin, it’s $5,000, but those on the top 100 list all currently owe more than $400,000—as another example of effective shaming. The late taxpayers are given letters in advance of the list’s publication, with the expectation that the threat of exposure will get them to pony up (or at least enter into a repayment plan)—and it often does. When the state of Wisconsin launched its tax-shaming program in 2006, it thought it would recoup $1.5 million in its first year of operation; the state ultimately collected 15 times that in that year.
Similarly, the news industry, in part, effects change through shame. For example, after news outlets revealed that Stanford Medicine’s COVID vaccination program left the health care workers at greatest risk of exposure unvaccinated in favor of hospital administrators who were working from the relative safety of their homes, the hospital tossed out the algorithm that had led to the oversight and started over. Sunlight is so great a disinfectant because it comes with a side of shame.
It’s worth pointing out that the rise of the COVID anti-shamer tends to center the behaviors, experiences, and feelings of the more privileged among us. The most visible manifestations of COVID-spreading behaviors, such as hopping on planes to tropical locations and holding large weddings, are not exactly being undertaken en masse by poor people. To borrow from a friend: “Whenever I read stuff about how ‘shaming people is bad,’ I usually feel like it means ‘shame is the worst thing I (the writer) feel.’ ” Being against any form of COVID shaming minimizes the very real risks borne out by, say, a supermarket clerk faced with unmasked individuals. A Texas Monthly article about the plight of wedding photographers during COVID included one wedding that went on with the festivities despite the fact that the groom tested positive for COVID the day before. When the photographer, reasonably upset, decides to leave early, the bridal party accuses her of overreacting and questions what the big deal is. The photographer responds, “Because I could die. My children could die! Just so she could have her wedding day?” The photographer, who has asthma, eventually tested positive. The bridal party didn’t even apologize for infecting her. Perhaps it would have been good if they had been a little more ashamed of what they were doing.
We should not shame people indiscriminately. In her book, Jacquet highlights seven steps to effective shaming: “The transgression should (1) concern the audience, (2) deviate widely from desired behavior, and (3) not be expected to be formally punished.” That means, calling out your cousin for expecting you to attend her indoor wedding this spring, is fair game for shame. Who is doing the shaming matters too: “The transgressor should (4) be part of the group doing the shaming. And the shaming should (5) come from a respected source, (6) be directed where possible benefits are highest, and (7) be implemented conscientiously.” That is, having a conversation with your aunt about why she should wear a mask after seeing Facebook photos of her out and about with a maskless face is more effective than yelling at a stranger to wear a mask. We’re not out of the pandemic yet—in fact, we might be dealing with COVID and all the public health rules that go with it for a long time. We’re going to have to hold up norms like distancing and masking, even as states open up and we’re all exhausted. Shame can help see us through here. In a way, it’s the duty of each of us to look at our communities and do a little scolding.