Why Shaming Doesn't Work (And What To Do Instead)
In my previous post, I spoke about shaming and preaching, and why it’s not okay to shame others; to force them into sharing your beliefs (however right your beliefs may be); to bully them by saying things like, “how can you share about BOOKS when the world is burning?”
It was mostly a moralistic standpoint because I believe shaming is hurtful and can harm people more than you’d imagine.
In this post, I want to take a more pragmatic stand and outline why it just doesn’t work. And maybe suggest an answer or two to the inevitable question, “But how else will I convince them that the cause I support matters?”
Before that, a tiny deviation: What exactly IS shaming?
According to Brene Brown, a pioneer of shame research, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” Shaming, therefore, is making people feel that way. Instead of blaming a person’s actions (or in the case of a lot of social media “activism”, their inaction), shaming is when you blame the person themselves.
So, shaming would be telling someone:
“If you don’t do/think/support this, you’re a shitty human being”, or, “If you’re not talking about this, you’re an oppressor.”
Shaming is also assigning labels like “racist” or “homophobic” or “transphobic”. However true those labels may be, slapping them on someone directly is shaming, and it simply doesn’t work.
Why doesn’t shaming work?
Well, it doesn't work because attacking someone rather than pointing out their actions with empathy makes people defensive. Since the problem itself is no longer being addressed (“you’re a horrible person!” almost never addresses the horrible action itself, does it?) the person being shamed is more likely than not to just dig their heels in.
If someone says to me, “Do you have no humanity? By staying silent, you’re basically the oppressor only!” or something similar. More than anything else, this is likely to make me dislike the person talking. I might think something along the lines of, “So it’s now criminal to have my own life to take care of?”
I will certainly not think, “Okay I’m convinced. I have humanity, so I’ll talk about this issue.”
And I will certainly not take any action when someone attacks my very personality, except probably cutting ties or at the very least, losing respect for the shamer.
That’s natural. We’re only human, after all. We don’t like being told we’re bad. Even though we might be bad.
Besides, do you really want people to share because they’re afraid you’ll shame them in public otherwise? Do you want them to do things they don’t want to do just because you forced them and not because they genuinely believe?
I know I wouldn’t.
Of course, none of this hints at what can actually be done to win people over to your cause.
Well, the answer is simple, really. You might have even seen this coming. You do it with kindness, empathy, and mutual respect.
It’s hard to be empathetic towards people you think are in the wrong, especially when you’re angry. But being unkind will not help your cause. Remember that.
Instead, to get people thinking and to convince people that you’re right (or that they’re wrong), start with trying to understand their perspective. Let them know you respect what they think, but that if they think a little more, what you’re saying would also make sense.
Respect their mental space and boundaries, and acknowledge (within yourself, first) that doing something wrong might not make them bad people.
In the context of activism, you could show empathy by saying something like:
“This is what’s happening. It’s terrible and awful, but our only weapon right now is to educate yourself. So,” (and this little part is the most important) “IF YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT FRAME OF MIND TO DO SO, please educate yourself. And please spread awareness in any way you can.” If possible, also talk about why you think sharing about an issue on social media will help. Because many people believe it doesn’t.
Acknowledging your audience’s boundaries means you respect them. And that you’re not assuming things about them. Telling them to share, BUT ONLY IF THEY CAN, is respectful, kind, and empathetic, and it works exponentially better than harsh words and anger.
Try it. You’ll see.
If you have the patience, here are some resources that really opened my mind on the topic of shaming!
Brené Brown’s podcast episode on Shame and Accountability opened my eyes to shame, accountability, and much more. As a renowned researcher on the topic of shame, she’s one of the best people to turn to for info on the topic.
This article by Psychology Today is one of the things I referred to while writing this post.
This interactive chatbot is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen, of an empathetic conversation about a relevant issue! Try it out whenever you have the time.
This brilliant piece covers everything: why we shame, why it might be problematic, why it’s not effective, and what to do instead.
This article outlines the difference between shame and accountability. It’s only tangentially related to the topic, but it’s perfect for “further reading”!