Creative Arts with Patrick Moore

Shaming as a Tactic for Political Change?
August 24, 2016, 3:09 pm
Filed under: Literary Criticism, nature, Political Philosophy, Sociology

There is a new book that suggests shaming is a good way to hurry environmental changes. I want environmental changes as badly as anyone, but I think shaming people for the pollution they cause is likely to backfire. Is there a better way to help the world into better balance?


a photo I shot in 2002 of a man pondering big questions..


My reading of the American founding documents leads me to urgently protect others’ rights to their views and voices. I consider this “tolerance” to be one of the primary values of being liberal, which I consider myself. I would be a hypocrite if I were to shame someone for speaking their views. It seems that we liberals do a lot of the shaming, as I will describe below. I apologize to all the people who have been shamed for speaking their views. You have a right to have different values and ideologies than mine, and to say what your values are without being bashed for speaking up. If I am a vegetarian, I protect your right to say what you believe about the merits of meat and the meat industry. For me to reply, “meat is murderer, so you are a murderer,” is not an exercise of my free speech, the way I read the founding fathers. Shaming is a method of suppressing others in speaking freely, in my opinion.

I am glad this is coming up now. I have been thinking about the irony of shaming ever since early last year when that book came out: Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool by Jennifer Jacquet.   While I disagree with Jacquet’s recommendation of shaming as a tool for political change, I can’t argue that shaming works to make political gains, at least when you look in a short enough term, say, a decade or two. If you look ahead more decades, or centuries from the shaming event, you see backlash that in some cases is worse than the gains.

I would like to advance two ideas about shaming. 1) I think shaming is incongruent with liberal philosophy. Any movement that behaves incongruently with its own principles is bound to block the fulfillment of its aims. 2) Furthermore, being shamed is horrible! It borders on abuse. Shaming has awful side-effects! Being shamed is traumatic. Traumatized people are likely to act out in terrible ways, decades later.

New trends in the year and a half since the shame-promoting book came out, I believe, show some of this trauma coming to the surface, not just in America but worldwide. Three articles from the current issue of The American Interest show this. The first article by Jonathan Haidt tells how after Brexit, many countries are thinking it is more important to preserve what little securities we have here in our own nation, than to press into global issues and risk losing our little securities. Those who want to focus on the needs at home (nationalists) are then judged by globalists as small-minded. A later article by David Blankenhorn tells how Trump Supporters feel judged. Another article later by Henry Foy tells how some Polish people feel they are being shamed by “Bicyclists and Vegetarians” for maintaining their traditional views including one-man-one-woman marriage. I urge you to read these three excellent articles at:


I offer a solution. Do not shame.

Less effective, you may argue? Perhaps in the short term. I believe in the long term, however, refraining from shaming will be more effective at fulfilling the aims not only of liberals but of all humans.

Below I first describe how shaming has been used to oppress the South for two hundred long years, then how shaming is currently being used deliberately, to battle the planet-murderers. Then I describe how the book To Kill a Mockingbird uses shame in a surprising way. While I am glad slavery was abolished, I don’t think the war between states has really come back to balance yet. While I want humans to stop polluting the earth, I predict a judgmental approach won’t succeed in the long term. While I am in favor of equal rights for all humans, I think uplifting one group by oppressing another will just have a see-saw effect with no lasting progress. Finally I offer what I think are better ways forward.


Shaming the Slave-Holding South in the 19th Century

Shaming has been going on in America for about two hundred years, I think. Before and during the War Between the States, abolitionists shamed slavery supporters, using namecalling, predictions of God’s judgment, threats of damnation, and other shaming tactics. Some reply, yes but it worked! Nobody doubts the public shaming humiliation did weigh on the side of Lincoln’s winning a second term and the North winning the war. Yes, slavery was abolished, which is a good thing. What was not yet a topic for public consideration at that time (that we now have the luxury to consider) is a new question:

Was there a way to get slavery abolished without oppressing a different population, ongoing?

The South went from pre-war abundance to post-war poverty. Some historians say the South has never yet bounced back from that blow. While I am glad slavery was abolished, I am sad that to accomplish this important gain, the North came to oppress the South morally and economically. How sadly ironic that, in attempting to free one group of oppressed, another group was oppressed. Later I will show how the shaming over slavery of the 19th Century continued into the 20th Century, over the civil rights movement. I will use the book and movie, To Kill a Mockingbird to show this.


Shaming in the Climate Change Debate

Those who see climate change as human-caused, tend to bash those who see climate change as natural fluctuations.

I love nature and I intend to make a difference to restore balance. But not by actions like shaming that cause more imbalance.

Since I love nature I do a lot of research and reading about how to change things for the better. Unfortunately most (or it seems all) the writing has adopted the language of war. It’s now a battle over the environment. Those who see climate change as natural fluctuations are now the enemy. If you were to do a wordlist of any environmental article or book you would get a high repetition of war terms. How can you wage a war for the goal of a peaceful state? That makes no sense to me.

Yesterday while reading State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? by The Worldwatch Institute , I came across the word

ecocide. What is ecocide? Homicide is murder of a human. Genocide is murder of a whole race of humans. Genocide is considered horrific, a crime far more shameful than mere homicide. The word, genocide, is spoken now or written in a kind of shock-awe, because if the shame sticks to someone, the person is now a perpetrator of the worst imaginable crime and will be brought down, caused to fall from power, hung for war crimes or worse. So what is ecocide? It is the murder of an entire ecology–all humanity including all animals, all plants–everything in the ecosystem. If homicide holds shame, and genocide holds more shame, than how much shame comes with the term ecocide? If ever there was a loaded term…

I am a volunteer Friday Docent at a natural history museum. A docent interacts with people not as a teacher, telling them what is what, but as a facilitator, allowing the person to make his or her own discoveries. The museum’s mission is

“to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding…”

The mission statement was written in 1959. In 2015 the museum decided to take a stand on global warming. The museum now declares that climate change is human caused and not just a natural fluctuation. In particular the leadership at the museum would like us docents to promote energy that comes from other than fossil fuels.

I was inspired to volunteer at this particular organization because of its mission. I felt conflicted being asked to support a position that is generally considered to be liberal, when at least half of the visitors would be arriving with the opposite political position. Also, I don’t want to be “a liberal” when I’m at the museum. I just want to support people, without letting any of my ideologies slip out.

Does boycotting the fossil fuel industry match the museum’s mission statement? Mabye they overlap some percentage. Still, how can you get someone to harmonize with nature, while you are not harmonizing with that person?

I believe that climate change will come to balance faster and fuller by helping others to first feel inspired by nature, then to resonate naturally and feel love of nature. Once they are in this state, I trust them to come to their own conclusions. There is no need to tell people what to think, when they are already being natural.

Telling people what to think is always risky. Even if we tellers-of-facts are not being judgmental or shamey, I have seen too many people feel shame, when told their view is wrong. I am not willing to risk accidentally shaming someone by telling him or her that climate change is x y and z. I do wear a button that says, “Ask me about Climate Change,” as the museum’s leadership wishes. When people do ask, I ask them what they think. I support their thought processes. I connect with them person to person using the help of nature around us. I respond to the person in words, expressions, and energy so they feel competent, smart, reasonable, and capable of resonating with the natural world. Then I trust them to draw their own conclusions.


Shaming in the Civil-Rights Era

In the book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Atticus Finch first establishes himself as holding the moral high ground by saying often to his daughter, Scout, morality depends on seeing things from other people’s perspectives. Fantastic! Wonderful! He is like the previous century’s abolitionists, taking the moral high ground by stating all men are created equal. Atticus walks the talk: he demonstrates his empathy principle in a dozen ways throughout the book. Unfortunately there are at least two times he goes against his own principle, which undermines the books big message. Bob Ewell is a white, “uneducated” Southern man who accuses a black man of abusing his daughter. Atticus is the lawyer defending the black man. The author leads us to believe the black man is innocent and the drunk Bob Ewell abused his own daughter, then later accused the black man of doing it. Atticus calls Bob Ewell “trash,” and teaches shaming to his daughter (who is narrating):

Atticus tells Jem, “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance… (p. 221)

Now, trash is inanimate. Trash is not a person. This is something we have learned since the 60s, that when an oppressor wishes to abuse a person, the first thing he does is to label the person as a non-person, like, “He’s an animal. He’s a monster.” For a non-person has no rights, and you can do what you want to them. “Trash” is not a human being. In fact, trash isn’t even an animal or monster, which at least are living beings. Atticus is saying Ewell is not a person. Trash is only inanimate but that kind of inanimate objects that real people throw away. Not only average trash but “sickening” trash. Atticus is saying that Ewell deserves to be discarded and never seen again. Trash should be destroyed, like the rabid dog that Atticus shot earlier in the book. But trash is even less lovable than a poor afflicted dog. Atticus adds that Ewell is “low-grade.” Is Atticus following his own moral philosophy of seeing things from the other person’s perspective? In ten examples in the book, yes Atticus applied empathy, in two of those cases, Atticus applied the principle even to Ewell. But this time Atticus breaks his own rule.

To Kill a Mockingbird has one more example of Atticus shaming the Southern Man. Outside, after the court finds the black man guilty, the judge reaches to shake Atticus’ hand, but Atticus reaches past the judge to shake the hands of several black people. Why can’t he shake everyone’s hand, if equality is what we’re after? Apparently equality is not what Atticus was feeling in these two moments. Equality, yes–for the oppressed blacks. But for “ignorant” Southern whites–no.

Did the author intentionally write Atticus with these two incongruencies? Or was Harper Lee unaware of these tiny inconsistencies in Atticus’ moral philosophy? One may guess she did not see Atticus’ loathing Ewell as a flaw in his philosophy. Perhaps Lee also saw people like Ewell as “trash” and wished to publically humiliate those like him in the form of a best-selling book and movie. Apparently the author was reclusive and never said what she intended in her story. I don’t know that anyone ever asked her this question. I haven’t read any critiques of TKAM written prior to Lee’s death that have asked this question. Perhaps it would have been taboo to bring it up while she lived? On the other hand, we may ask,

Did Harper Lee intend that one day we would see the two incongruencies in Atticus Finch, an otherwise perfectly-moral man?

If Lee intentionally wrote Atticus this way, this would make it indeed great literature, the greatest. For who among us is perfect? Even Jesus threw tables around when he felt morally indignant. But if this was her intention (to show Atticus’ inconsistencies), nobody knew this during the civil-rights era.

The 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird had a huge influence on the civil rights movement. Gregory Peck’s performance showed disgust so convincing that any viewer comes away from the movie just as disgusted. The movie escalates the shaming of Bob Ewell so effectively, that it helped to change the State laws in the South and enforcement of Federal laws to make life safer for black people in the South. So again you could say, yes, shaming works. Shaming on the big screen works even better than shaming using a novel. But again I ask, at what cost? Was there a way to restore the naturally equal rights of one group of people in the 1960s without oppressing another group of people? Maybe again in the 1960s, we didn’t yet know enough to see that shaming is hypocritical to liberal aims and ineffective in the long run. There might have been another way, but the time was not yet right to implement it.

Speaking of Southern Man and Popular Culture, musician Neil Young sang a potent rock song called Southern Man in the 1970s that shamed the Bob-Ewell-type Southern Man. The band Lynrd Skynrd wrote a retaliatory rock song called Sweet Home Alabama. In the 70s I took sides with Neil, against Skynrd. Other rockers took sides too. I had never been to the South and had done no research other than Neil’s song, but the song seemed to be all I needed to take a stand. Maybe we didn’t know any better then. Who started it? You could say the Southern Man started it by treating the Black Man as a lesser-than person, or even a non-person. But how does it help for Neil Young to make the Southern Man into a lesser-than person or a non-person? From Lynrd Skynrd’s perspective it was Neil Young who started it…


Who’s Responsible?

Who is more accountable for the escalating tension, is an important question to ask. David Blankenhorn asks this question in his article Listening to Trump Voters in this month’s American Interest:  Blankenhorn asks the question with regard to Trump Supporters. If they feel traumatized by decades of having their ideology described in shameful terms like “racist,” with momentum on the side of accelerating liberal advances, who is to blame for their electing a liberal-slayer?

Let’s say… let’s guess that the answer to Blankenhorn’s question is, we liberals are at least partially accountable. Liberals have made huge advances for several decades since Reagan, sort of leaving conservatives behind in a lot of ways. And how do the victors treat the defeated? With more leverage, with more hateful terminology, with threats to completely dismantle everything they once held dear, their very identities. To force liberal ideologies into schools and courts, to change the very balance of the country for good. It must feel like being cornered, like facing extinction at the hands of gloating, condescending executioners who judge you without even understanding you.

What could we liberals have done differently? Or better, what can we do differently now? Because let’s say Trump doesn’t win the presidency, but all these people are still feeling traumatized, shamed, disgruntled, resentful. They feel like they don’t have a voice and when they do voice their opinions they are ridiculed. The answer is, don’t ridicule. Don’t shame. Listen. Hear. Value the person who has the opinion. Ask how they came to have that opinion. Be curious. Be nonjudmental. Let them have the moment to share what they think without thinking of winning the argument. It’s okay to have conversations that are just learning about another person without debating the competing views.


Take a Stand

I am not suggesting we rest on human rights. There is a huge difference between stopping something that goes against human rights, (or natural rights), which I advocate, and shaming the ones who had participated. Shaming is considered by many experts in family-and relationship-psychology to be a form of abuse. Some might say, even if shaming borders on abuse, it is far less abuse than what the others are doing. This may be accurate. But even as a less-intense form of abuse, I stand by the concept that shaming is a) mildly abusive and therefore incongruent with a philosophy of abuse-stopping, and b) while it may “work” in a decade, shaming has many unwanted consequences in following decades, that will in time outweigh the benefits–especially when other ways also “work,” ways that do not leave resentments or festering traumas.

What other ways? Something like the museum’s mission statement. Listening with curiosity. Listening–not just waiting until it’s my turn to say what I want, but really wanting to understand the other. What led to that view? Wow, my view is a lot different, I wonder how we got to have such differences? Nonjudgmentally. With compassion for the person as a person, not as a political party, class, age, region or other label. You get the idea.