How Shame Became the Weapon of the Shameless
Social stigmas are used to keep us from finding our collective power
After delivering a lecture at Berkeley, a 1960s counterculture psychologist took questions from the audience. A young woman stood up to explain that she understood the deep connection between people and our collective responsibility for the world, but she didn’t know what to do next. The psychologist answered, “Find the others.”
Find the others. Restore the social connections that make us fully functioning humans, and oppose all conventions, institutions, technologies, and mindsets that keep us apart. Challenging the overt methods of separation is straightforward: reject the hate speech of racists, the zero-sum economics of oppression, and the warmongering of both tyrants and neoliberal hawks. Our internalized obstacles to connection, however, are more embedded and pernicious. And they all tend to have something to do with shame.
For instance, we are trained from an early age not to talk with other people about money. Our salaries and savings are considered to be as private as our medical histories. Why? The habit finds its roots in the ascent of former peasants. When the aristocracy realized they could no longer keep ahead of the rising middle class, they sought nonmonetary methods of indicating their status, such as nobility of birth. Unable to keep up with bourgeois styles of dress or home decor, aristocrats pushed for less ornate aesthetics. In a reversal of centuries of ostentatious living, it became classy to hide one’s wealth, rather than to display it.
Today, it’s still considered rude to ask someone how much money they make. In certain situations we’re embarrassed if we make too little, and in others we’re ashamed if we make too much. But the whole social convention of hiding one’s wealth or lack of it has less to do with protecting one another’s feelings than protecting the controlling power of our superiors.
The boss gives you a salary increase — so long as you don’t tell anyone else about it. For if you do, everyone else will be asking for the same thing. If you maintain the secret, you’re in cahoots with management, submitting to the same dynamic as an abused child who is paid in candy to keep quiet. The bribe is a bond based in shame, and the bond is broken only when the victim finds others in whom to confide — often people who have experienced the same abuse. The real power comes when they’re ready to say it out loud, as a movement of people opposing such abuse.
Likewise, the power of unions isn’t just collective bargaining, but the collective sensibility that unionizing engenders.
The crosstalk between workers breaks management’s efforts to make them compete with one another over scraps. That’s why taxi apps and internet errand platforms don’t have features that allow the workers to converse with one another about their experiences. Crosstalk breeds solidarity, and solidarity breeds discontent.
Religions, cults, governments, and social media platforms all use the same tactics to control their members: learn an individual’s secrets, sexual proclivities, or identity issues, and then threaten to use this information against them. It’s movie stars’ fear of being outed that keeps them beholden to the cults they’ve confessed to long after they would have otherwise moved on. Some cults use lie detectors to drill down into their targets’ most personal, shameful secrets. But these technologies are just updated versions of the confessionals once used by churches to blackmail their wealthy parishioners, or to shame the poor ones into exploitative compliance.
The happy explosion of new genders, racial identities, and disability intersections flies in the face of social programming designed to stigmatize difference and disadvantage those who can be labeled outsiders.
Shame does have a social function. Shaming those who deviate from the norm helps galvanize unity among the group and enforce adherence to the rules. Frat houses shame new recruits into macho antics, just as pious hypocrites shame their followers into obedience. In more prosocial hands, the same shaming tactics can be used by schools to stigmatize bullying, or by environmentalists to punish polluters. The problem is that people and institutions behaving destructively are not so vulnerable to shame. Bullies are proud of their conquests, and corporations experience no emotions.
Social stigma only truly hurts humans who are being human. It is a counterproductive way of bonding people. Human teams should be based on common hopes, needs, strengths, and vulnerabilities. We don’t get that by enforcing shame, but by embracing openness.
The internet, with its sometimes forced transparency, creates possibilities for the dissolution of shame, and for new bonds of solidarity across formerly impenetrable boundaries. It’s no coincidence that a digital culture with imposed surveillance and inescapable exposure has also brought us gay marriage and cannabis reform.
The things people do become normal when they can’t be shamed into silence about doing them.