Monday, September 7, 2015

Shame and guilt as tools for environmental activism.


The Ashley Madison hacking scandal caused several people to take their lives over the shame of public exposure. European citizens successfully shamed their governments into accepting further Syrian refuges. Shame, it seems, is a powerful tool but one we view with suspicion because of its ability to enforce existing society norms against individuals. In 'Is Shame Necessary?' Jennifer Jacquet argues citizens can change the behavior of governments and corporations using shame as "a tool - a delicate and sometimes dangerous one - that we can put to use."

The difference between shame and guilt is easy to understand: Shame is public and holds individuals to a group standard; guilt is private and holds individuals to their own conscience. In our individualized liberal democracies guilt and conscience are often held as essential means of self-regulation and of maintaining personal freedom from church and state enforcement.

Jacquet does a good job of exposing the galling sham of green consumption where consumer choice and free market forces are expected to reduce demand for environmentally unsound products. In reality nothing of the sort is happening.  Labeling and certification - the cornerstone of consumer choice - are dubious at best and corporations have embraced green consumption by creating expensive brands of good and services to sooth guilty consciences and increase profit.

Then there are the frivolous media campaigns. Energy efficient light bulbs became policy despite accounting for just 2% of US carbon emission while driving, accounting for 40%, was ignored.  Plastic bag campaigns resulted in designer hemp bags delivered covered in plastic and the UKs 'unplug your mobile phone charger' movement gave the same energy saving as "as not driving your car for one second."

A Norm
If guilty consumer consciences cannot affect meaningful change then we must engage not as consumers but as active citizens willing to shame guilty corporations into compliance with our ethics. Shaming in this context is a non-violent form of punishment, separate from feeling ashamed, to reinforce norms by effecting reputation.

But surely this is a dubious definition? Is an evolutionary mechanism to enforce group cohesion valid when applied to abstract legal bodies?  Surely a necessary condition to shaming is consciousness capable of feeling shame? Certainly activism can generate negative publicity affecting a companies reputation and market share by exposing poor corporate practices. But why call this shaming when it clearly taps into the same market mechanisms as reducing consumer demand? Why encourage a method of group conformity the West has struggled to liberate itself from?

Jacquet is aware of our natural suspicion of shaming and sought to alleviate our fears (unsuccessfully, in my case). Shame, we are repeatedly told, is just a tool to correct bad behavior by reinforcing a group norm; it is the group norm itself we should view with suspicion, not shame. But shame is an irrational emotion: we may rationally reject a norm but still feel shame when called out by a group of our peers. It can take entire generations to strip the feeling of shame from an obsolete norm and powerful groups are far more efficient at manipulating public opinion than concerned citizens and activists. Indeed most of the examples we are given of shaming used for begin purposes involve a powerful figure or group using shame to force a population to accept and adhere to a new norm (One example was a threat of publicly exposing non-voters to their neighborhoods which successfully raised voter participation. I found this less than reassuring).  

'Is Shame Still Necessary?' succinctly dissects the guilty consumer choice dogma as a tool for affecting meaningful change while reminding us of the power of shame and the constant tension of an individualized society grabbing with collective problems. But the main argument of the book - that citizens can shame powerful groups into change - is the nothing but the old trick of generating negative publicity to hurt a profit sheet. Besides, if shame can only reinforce norms, shouldn't we be concentrating on the clash of ideas, of clearing away the clutter and agreeing there is actually a problem we need to address?

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