Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses For An Old Tool

Paperback | January 12, 2016

byJennifer Jacquet

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A trenchant case for the use of public shaming as a nonviolent form of resistance, Is Shame Necessary? explores how one of society’s oldest tools can be used to promote large-scale political change and social reform. Examining how we can retrofit the art of shaming for the age of social media, Jennifer Jacquet shows that we can challenge corporations and even governments to change policies and behaviors that are detrimental to the environment. Urgent and illuminating, Is Shame Necessary? offers an entirely new understanding of how shame, when applied in the right way and at the right time, has the capacity to keep us from failing our planet and, ultimately, from failing ourselves.

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From the Publisher

A trenchant case for the use of public shaming as a nonviolent form of resistance, Is Shame Necessary? explores how one of society’s oldest tools can be used to promote large-scale political change and social reform. Examining how we can retrofit the art of shaming for the age of social media, Jennifer Jacquet shows that we can challen...

Jennifer Jacquet is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University and recipient of an Alfred P. Sloan fellowship. She works at the intersection of conservation and cooperation, focusing on the human dimensions of large-scale social dilemmas, such as overfishing and climate change. She lives in...

other books by Jennifer Jacquet

Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool
Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool

Audio Book (CD)|Feb 17 2015

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 7.98 × 5.18 × 0.63 inPublished:January 12, 2016Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307950131

ISBN - 13:9780307950130

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What Do We Mean by Shame? Exposure is the essence of shaming, and a feeling of exposure is also one of shame’s (the emotion) most distinct ingredients and intimately links shame to reputation. For our purposes, an audience is a prerequisite for shame, even if that audience is imagined. While there are personal forms of shame that are experienced privately, this book is about not the shame and inner turmoil you would feel if your father brought home an inflatable sofa (trust me), but the shame you would feel if your friend saw it. This book focuses on the shame that is possible because an audience is exposed to a transgression. Moreover, it is most interested in the public act of shaming rather than the emotion of shame.   Shame can lead to increased stress and withdrawal from society. Shame can hurt so badly that it is physically hard on the heart. But shame can also improve behavior. A 2009 study of 915 U.S. adults found that half could recall at least one meeting with a doctor that left them feeling ashamed, most often for smoking or being overweight. Of those who reported feeling ashamed, nearly half then either avoided or lied to their physician in subsequent meetings to evade any further shame, while the other half said they were grateful to the doctor, and about one-third of the patients said they even initiated improvements in their behavior.   Some people do not feel shame even over the ghastliest of crimes. (In 2011, Reginald Brooks, who twenty- nine years earlier had murdered his three sons while they slept, extended the middle fingers of both hands while strapped to the gurney in an Ohio execution chamber, as his ex- wife and the mother of his children watched through a glass window.) At the other extreme, the sting of shame for some people, even for minor offenses, can be crippling. (Writer Jonathan Franzen blamed shame over his first marriage, sexual inexperience, and general innocence for his decade-long writer’s block, when semi-autobiographical sentences made him “want to take a shower.”) At its most efficient, a sense of shame can regulate personal behavior and reduce the risk of more extreme types of punishment: conform to the expected behavior or suffer the consequences. The threat of shaming often provokes a fear of feeling shame.   Shame Versus Guilt In contrast to shame, which aims to hold individuals to the group standard, guilt’s role is to hold individuals to their own standards. For cultures that champion the individual, guilt is preferable to shame, because shame means worrying about the group. Guilt is advertised as a cornerstone of the conscience. It needs only an internal voice nagging its owner, sending reminders about how awful violence, stealing, or dishonesty can make us feel.   The anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead were the first to draw a distinction between guilt and shame cultures—they claimed that most Western countries fell into the guilt category while Eastern countries relied more on shame. Benedict’s 1946 book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, in which she examined Japanese culture without actually going to Japan (the war prevented it), attempted to show that the Japanese used shame as the primary means of social control. China was later filed in the shame category, too, for, among other reasons, the cultural importance of “saving face.”   In the West, however, we tell ourselves with a certain amount of smugness that we have been unshackled from shame’s constraints. There are a few reasons that this might be at least partially true, and one has to do with the sense of self. Western cultures are more individualized, leading people to see themselves as independent and autonomous, acting according to one’s internal compass, whereas people from Eastern cultures are more likely to describe themselves in relation to others. Western cultures also generally lack the tight-knit hierarchy that probably existed in our prehistoric past and still arguably exists to a greater degree in some Eastern cultures, as anthropologists such as Benedict and Dan Fessler have pointed out. (Yet it’s also not surprising that shame in the West is frequently associated with poverty—one proxy for low rank in the social hierarchy.) Also, Western societies tend to have a worldview that encourages tolerance of a greater range of certain behaviors, which means we perhaps more often disagree over which behaviors warrant shaming. Many Western countries have also gotten rid of shaming punishments against individuals, especially shaming by the state. It’s probably safe to say that we all prefer to live without the fear of dunce caps, whipping poles, or hot-iron branding. It is even tempting to think of shaming as we might wisdom teeth or Puritan doctrine—as a vestigial sign of something that humans needed in tougher times.   However, as novelist Salman Rushdie reminded us, “Shame, dear reader, is not the exclusive property of the East.” When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States after a series of sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, he confessed that he was “deeply ashamed.” After pulling off Wall Street’s biggest swindle and before receiving his 150-year prison sentence, Bernie Madoff told the court that he was “deeply sorry and ashamed.” After rapper Kanye West stole the microphone at the MTV Video Music Awards from Taylor Swift, the winner of the best female video category, and declared that Beyoncé (whose hit “Single Ladies” came out that year) had made one of the best videos of all time, West said he was “ashamed.” Did these Western icons feel guilty? Hard to say. Did they feel ashamed? Without having measured their stress levels, it’s difficult to be sure. What we can say is that, at the very least, they wanted us to think they did.   Where Shame and Guilt Fit into Punishment Shaming, which is separate from feeling ashamed, is a form of punishment, and like all punishment, it is used to enforce norms. Human punishment involves depriving a transgressor of life, liberty, bodily safety, resources, or reputation (or some combination), and reputation is the asset that shaming attacks. These deprivations can be active, in the sense that something is taken away—such as through capital punishment, prison, torture, fines, and pickets—while other deprivations are passive, such as when something is denied, which is the case with ostracism or the silent treatment. (A survey of two thousand Americans showed that two-thirds admitted to using the silent treatment on someone close to them, while three-quarters said they had been the victim of the silent treatment.)   Humans have devised intricate nonviolent punishments. Charles Darwin, for instance, wrote about tribes in South America for whom long hair was “so much valued as a beauty, that cutting it off was the severest punishment.” There is solitary confinement, which in American prisons can last for decades. When my brother and I would fight, my mom used a nonviolent punishment of making us sit on the stairs and hug each other for twenty minutes. Shaming punishments can be violent or, most often today, nonviolent. Again, the definition of shaming we are using involves the exposure—threatened or actualized—of a transgressor in front of a crowd. These punishments might be nonviolent, but that does not mean they aren’t painful.   Punishment can be inflicted by the person or group against whom the transgressor transgressed, or by a third party, or by oneself (guilt acts as a form of self-punishment). Generally, punishment carries a cost to the punisher, like the energy needed to perform the punishment, as well as some risk of retaliation. Punishments that are extra dangerous or risky are considered costlier. Sometime in our distant past, we realized that mere exposure to public opprobrium could be used where physical, often violent elimination from the group had previously been required. The emergence of shaming as a social option would have reduced the cost of punishment, because mere exposure that served to damage an individual’s reputation in front of the group could have negative consequences—for instance, members of the group might choose not to cooperate with the shamed individual in the future. Shaming and ostracism are closely linked, but shaming is less costly. And unlike transparency, which exposes everyone, shaming exposes only a section of the population.   When and how did shaming emerge? The first hominids, like many other social species, could keep track of cooperation and defection only by firsthand observation. As group size got bigger, and ancient humans grappled with issues of cooperation, the human brain became bet­ter able to keep track of all the rules and all the people. The need to accommodate the increasing number of social connections and monitor one another could be, according to the social-grooming hypothesis put forward by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, why we learned to speak. With language, we no longer needed to see someone’s behavior to learn about it. Language allowed humans to manipu­late social status using gossip, which provided further fuel for a system of reputation and shaming. (And this might not be unique to humans—some scientists suspect that parrotlets, for instance, can identify one another as individuals by their calls and can attach a note of approval or disapproval.) It also meant the crowd concerned with the miscreant’s behavior got bigger, because the behavior no longer had to be seen, but could be heard via gossip. Individuals could be exposed to the crowd for transgressing without being physically present.   Negative gossip—a subcategory of shaming—can be considered one of the first lines of defense against a transgressor and was probably as important in human prehistory as it is today. Anthropologists have shown that two-thirds of human conversation is gossip about other people—Polly Wiessner found this to be true in her studies of the !Kung bushmen in Botswana, and Robin Dunbar and his colleagues also found the two-thirds rule held for conversations in a British university cafeteria. Wiessner classified only 10 percent of the conversations she heard as praise; the other 90 percent was criticism, a lot of it in the form of jokes, mockery, and pantomime. The transgressor or one of his close relatives (it was almost always a he) was often within earshot, indicating that the gossips expected the verbal shaming would bring him into line. Negative gossip is often employed with the assumption that it will make its way back to the transgressor either directly or indirectly, by influencing others not to be cooperative toward the transgressor.   Spoken language was just the first tool to facilitate gossip. The next communication upheaval occurred with the rise of writing. Since the arrival of writing, there have been, according to Internet scholar Clay Shirky, five major advances in communication technology: movable type and presses, the telegraph and telephone, recorded media, broadcast media, and digital technologies, including the Internet. Each time communication was transformed, shaming was as well. At first we had only gossip among humans that occupied the same physical space; now gossip gets worldwide exposure and can travel via print and digital media, over telephones, television, and cyberspace.

Editorial Reviews

“Powerful. . . . An incisive argument. . . . [Jacquet’s] results are fascinating.” —Chicago Tribune“A sharp dissection. . . . [Jacquet] exposes the ways shame plays into collective ideas of punishment and reward, and the social mechanisms that dictate the ways we dictate our behavior.” —The Boston Globe“Thought-provoking.” —The Economist “This wonderful, important, and timely book shows us that the glue that really holds society together is not laws and diktats but honor and shame. Jennifer Jacquet has identi­fied and articulated the social tools by which it might just be possible to encourage better long-term behavior from those big players . . . who are otherwise able to find their way around the law.” —Brian Eno“Provocative. . . . Jacquet systematically explores the nature of shaming and some of the psychological evidence that shows why it works. In doing so, she makes a strong case for the value of shaming for shaping and enforcing social norms.” —New Scientist “[Jacquet’s] arguments are backed by interesting research and her moral conviction is refreshing, particularly given how destructive the emotion she analyzes can be.” —Los Angeles Times “[Is Shame Necessary?] mines the possibilities of shame to be used as an agent for positive change. Where the book lands is as unexpected as it is revelatory.” —Gawker “In this thought-provoking, wonderfully readable book, Jacquet argues that shaming is far from obsolete and can be an effective weapon wielded by the weak against the strong.” —Robert Sapolsky, author of A Primate’s Memoir “[Jacquet’s] argument is supported with persuasive stories and a thumping set of statistics.” —The Daily Telegraph “[A] concise, well-paced, relevant, and witty work”. —Brooklyn Rail “Shame is no longer unfashionable, thanks to Jennifer Jacquet. This book describes, in sparkling prose, how important a sense of shame is to civilized life.” —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow “Thoughtful and measured.” —Huffington Post “A book that gives shame a good name—and just in time—because it reinforces our better angels, cements our communities, and, crucially, because our planet needs us to feel it. Well argued, beautifully written, sophisticated, and down to earth.” —Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together “A sharp examination of the role shaming plays in our society and its effectiveness as a tool for change.” — “Intellectually stimulating. . . . A sharp and surprising dissertation.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)“Jacquet trenchantly and engagingly analyzes how we might resurrect one public emotion—shame—and put it to good use in our collective lives, influencing public discourse and public policy.” —Nicholas Christakis, coauthor of Connected “[A] diligent examination.” —Financial Times “An astute how-to and defense of shame. . . . After describing useful techniques for applying shame, the book turns to the specific areas where it could be put to good use.” —Publishers Weekly