Why shaming your enemies is a lost cause

Who among us can say that they don’t get really mad when people refuse to use their brains properly? Especially strangers on the internet. There is an irresistible temptation to shame the person into thinking better, often by trying to show them how their actions or beliefs or words are harmful or hypocritical or just intensely moronic.

But how often does this work, really? Basically zero percent. People often dig in even deeper, finding that the attempted shaming proves their original point.

Here’s the thing: shame is externalized guilt. That’s why it doesn’t work to convince people to change their minds. Allow me to explain.

When I regret that Ian has no more Oreos to eat because I ate the last one, I feel guilt. But when Ian goes “Wow, how could you do such an unkind thing as eating all the Oreos so that I have none to eat?” I feel shame.*

For shame to work, I have to agree with the premise. I have to be guilty about the thing and then have someone else also reflect that guilt at me. I have to agree that it would be good for Ian to have any Oreos, and I have to agree that it was unkind of me to scarf them all down in one sitting. (As it happens, I agree with those premises. For now, at least.)

If, on the other hand, it is my firm belief that the Oreos were mine to begin with, and he deserved none, and it was actually right and good for me to eat them all less than 24 hours after the biweekly grocery shop, then I would simply toss my head back and laugh at his attempt to shame me.

See the problem? I have to agree with a premise before I can be shamed by it.


There was a great example of this in Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. As it says on the tin, the book is about people who have been publicly shamed for dumb and/or awful things they have done and/or said. The typical example is a Very Bad Tweet leading to a big internet pile-on leading to a need to change one’s name and move far away if one ever hopes to find employment again.

But the book included a fascinating counterexample to all the shamings: a video came out showing Max Mosley, president of a car racing federation, engaging in sexual shenanigans with Nazi overtones. That would be more than enough to send most people packing into a very deep hole for the rest of their lives, but Mosley (although he did lose his position), simply refused to be shamed, saying:

Had I been caught driving excessively fast on a public road or over the alcohol limit, I would have resigned the same day. As it is, the scandal paper obtained by illegal means pictures of something I did in private, which, although unacceptable to some people, was harmless and completely legal.

He refused to accept the premise that what he had done was shameworthy. He refused to feel shame or be shamed. Again, this did not stop him from losing his public position, nor did it preserve him from all of us knowing what a racist he is (on top of sounding like a real ass). But, as Ronson shows, Mosley’s disagreement with the basic premise that what he did was shameful deflated the scandal, and everyone moved on rather quickly. Far more quickly, at least, than they tend to do in cases where the shamed person actually agrees to feel shame.


Now, extrapolate this to a situation in which someone is expressing abhorrent political beliefs, and you’d like them to stop. More importantly, you’d probably like them to change their mind and come over to your side, right?

But how often is it the case that you have seriously different political beliefs than someone who also shares your premises? Shared premises tend to lead to similar beliefs. The problem is typically that we begin at different places, facing different directions. Shaming someone about failing to go West does no good if their response is simply “Yes, I am going East, you absolute nincompoop.”

An example in the news now is about COVID-19 (because, unfortunately, isn’t everything more or less about COVID-19 now?) In the same awful, simplistic way that everything tends to go, we are sorting into two major moral/political camps about what to do: Side A holds that physical distancing measures, including the closure of nonessential businesses and the wearing of facial coverings, should continue for some time longer to flatten the curve and save a large number of lives. Side B holds that those measures are misguided (or an overreach of authority, or unconstitutional, or tyrannical, or unamerican, or what have you). Side B also often, but not always, seems to believe that the seriousness of COVID-19 has been exaggerated, perhaps to grease the skids of tyranny.

If you read the comments, as I do,** you will find that people are all trying to shame each other into agreeing on this issue. When I say “shame,” I don’t just mean discussing an issue passionately: I mean things like accusing others of being bad people, of being selfish or greedy or heartless or braindead. Things that feel pretty good to type while your blood is hot after having read that someone believes that. Things that you are pretty sure will get them for once and all; things that will turn them into a repentant pillar of salt as soon as they open that notification.

And friends, it does not work.

You cannot shame Side A into “resisting tyranny,” because Side A believes to its core that these extraordinary public-health measures are not tyrannical—in fact, they demonstrate that we are a society that still remembers how to care for its vulnerable members. And you cannot shame Side B into “caring for the vulnerable” because (1) they are caring for the vulnerable by trying to ensure that tons of people don’t die of despair/starvation and/or (2) other people’s health is less important than our freedoms. Or something.***

This is an unprecedented event in all of our lives. There is no rulebook, and there’s a lot of uncertainty.**** We’re essentially having a debate about the value of human lives, plus a debate about various scientific concepts almost none of us has half a real clue about, plus a debate about the foundations of our economic system, completely live without notes and (with apologies to Carlin) half of us are dumber than average. That is not a great set of circumstances for consensus and copacetic coping, even if we weren’t also extremely grumpy at the same time.

On top of all of this, some asshole on the internet is trying to shame me for not sharing his completely wrong worldview? Not today, buddy!

All this to say: if we want to convince people to follow certain standards (which I would submit is actually a pretty important goal in a time when it is evident that other people’s behavior will have a direct, possibly mortal, impact on the whole group)—we can’t do it by shaming people about not upholding moral standards that they never professed. Shame is externalized guilt. If someone isn’t guilty about believing X, they sure as hell aren’t going to be ashamed about it, no matter how cuttingly you write that riposte.

But on the other hand, I highly suspect that a lot of us don’t actually want to convince the other side, at the end of the day. I mean, sure, that would be nice, in the abstract. But our real goal, whether we’re aware of it or not, is often to let off steam; to make ourselves feel a bit more certain of our own rectitude; to bond with likeminded folks; to reinforce each other’s strength in the face of great difficulty. And conflict with the other side actually really helps us by these metrics. So in that case, carry on.

I’m left, as I often am, in my little lonely idealistic bubble furiously wishing people would attempt to convince each other, and failing that, would just pipe down a little, because y’all are noisy and mama is getting a headache.

*Not presently a true story.

**Do as I say, not as I do! Do not read the comments!

***I know my completely neutral tone makes it hard to decipher, but I have a hard time giving Side B a fair shake. That, or they’re a bunch of nincompoops and should be ashamed of themselves.*****

****Drink!

*****Just kidding.

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2 thoughts on “Why shaming your enemies is a lost cause

  1. Pingback: You are not a dog. | PsychoPomp

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