Normally, I would not comment on Brené Brown’s blog post on public shaming.
Were I to tell you how bad it really is I would risk looking disrespectful and uncharitable.
Yet, Brown, whose name I first heard a couple of days ago is a star on the TED circuit and claims to be speaking for the latest in psycho research on shame. This makes it more difficult to remain silent.
The truth is, if Brown’s essay had been written by a college sophomore it would be barely acceptable. Written by a college professor it is barely excusable.
Brown was especially agitated over the recent New York City subway campaign that has tried to stigmatize teen pregnancy. Our mayor recently put up a number of posters that try to discourage unmarried teenage girls from having babies. It has not threatened girls, but has asked them to take a cold hard look at the reality of teenage pregnancy.
Many people applauded the effort, myself included. Richard Reeves wrote an excellent column in the New York Times explaining how shame can be used to sanction bad behavior and to encourage good behavior.
Brown objected to what Reeves said, because, in her mind shame is bad. It is all bad all of the time. It makes people feel bad; it makes them do bad things; it causes every kind of bad behavior.
Brown may call it science, but she is trafficking in mindless moral absolutes.
If she were consistent she would be promoting shamelessness, but that would require more thought than she has apparently put into the issue.
Of the two great emotional sanctions, shame and guilt, Brown clearly prefers guilt. She even believes that people change behavior because they feel guilty.
In her words:
The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors.
When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. Of course, you can shame someone into saying, “I’m sorry,” but it’s rarely authentic. Guilt is as powerful as shame; it just doesn’t have the paralyzing and debilitating impact that prevents shame from being an effective agent of meaningful change.
Clearly, the majority of shame researchers should be looking for another line of work.
I apologize to those of you who have read this before, but apparently one needs to repeat oneself.
Guilt differs from shame because guilt involves breaking a law. True enough, guilt comes from bad behavior, but no one feels guilty about bad manners.
Guilt is a form of anxiety. It is the anticipation of physical punishment. When criminals are pronounced guilty and punished the punishment attenuates the guilt feelings. The punishment for crime is most often physical, as in incarceration.
Someone who wishes to palliate guilt might practice self-flagellation, or its moral equivalent: self-criticism.
You pay the debt of your guilt by being punished. Palliating your guilt does not involve changing your behavior.
It is fair to remark, because the point confuses everyone, that when a criminal is brought to trial he suffers both guilt and shame.
For his malefactions he is tried and incarcerated.
But, since a trial is a public spectacle, he will also experience shame.
Shame might attach to criminal behavior, but only in the sense that an embezzler, for example, has not only committed a crime; he has failed to fulfill a basic fiduciary responsibility.
If guilt is about committing crimes, shame is about failing to do one’s duty.
When a commanding general fails, he will feel shame, not guilt.
Moral individuals have a sense of shame. They know when they have done something wrong and set out to correct it. They apologize and resign and pledge to improve their character.
When Japanese businessmen fail they offer shamefaced apologies. They are not apologizing for having broken a law. They are not going to be indicted, tried or incarcerated… unless their failure involves criminal behavior.
When someone apologizes he expresses regret for his actions, takes sole responsibility for his failure and vows to behave differently in the future.
Since apology covers failure, not criminal activity, it requires an individual to adopt new and more constructive behaviors.
Embarrassment is a milder form of shame. You will feel embarrassed if discover that you have bad table manners. The embarrassment will cause you to rectify your table manners. You do so because you want to participate in a social ritual and promote dinner table harmony.
It is not a crime to slurp your soup or to use the wrong fork. You would not expect to be punished for doing so.
Take the example of a young woman who binge eats. Which would be more likely to induce her to change the behavior: her punishing herself for binging or her watching a video that shows what she looks like when she isr binging?
Actually, girls who binge do feel guilty and do punish themselves: they induce vomiting. The result: they can binge again.
The shame that a girl will feel while watching herself binge is a far better deterrent than the self-punishment she will feel while vomiting.
Brown offers an example to illustrate what she means when she says that shaming people is very, very bad.
In her words:
A man shakes a bottle of pills in his wife’s face, “Look around you! Your pill-popping is destroying our family. Our son is failing out of school and our daughter is literally starving herself for attention. What's wrong with you?”
An exasperated husband is trying to get through to a wife who is out of control. He is saying, reasonably enough, that she needs to see what her habit has being to those who are near and dear to her.
Keep in mind, this man is trying to reach his wife through a drug-induced haze.
To Brown the man is in the wrong. Somehow, her addled moral sense has blinded her to the fact that the pill-taking wife is in the wrong and is destroying her family.
Brown is thus scrupulously non-judgmental, except when it comes to blaming the husband for his wife’s bad behavior.
She does not want to sanction the wife with bad feelings; she wants to sanction the husband for showing insufficient empathy. He does not feel her pain.
Do you think that the wife should feel ashamed of herself? Brown does not. Do you think that the husband is responsible for his wife’s pill popping because he is showing her insufficient empathy? Brown does.
I think it far more likely that the drug addict wife has been receiving too much empathy and understanding.
If you don’t think that you are doing anything wrong, the chances are good that you will never think about changing what you are doing. If you are getting positive reinforcement via empathy you are likely to believe that you are not doing anything wrong.
Also, we live in a culture that prescribes pills for just about everything. How is this husband to counteract the message that the culture is sending if he does not, perhaps, raise his voice?
Will the wife in question try to numb her shame by taking more pills? Perhaps. But there is nothing about shaming that forces her to take pills.
The sad truth is that when psychologists tell people that the only way they can deal with shame is with pathological behavior it is leading them down precisely the wrong road.
You know and I know, and perhaps Brown knows, that the way to overcome shame is to improve your behavior. If a man feels embarrassed by his bad table manners he has a good alternative: good table manners.
If people mention that he is making a fool of himself they are doing him a favor.
But, if he follows what appears to be the latest psycho research he will double down on boorishness and denounce everyone for being judgmental.
Under normal circumstances guilt does not incite you to change your behavior: it can be dealt with by accepting your punishment. Also, note well that shame involves your public face while guilt aims at the state of your rather private soul.
If you have committed a sin you can confess and do penance in private. This allows you, strangely enough, to go forth and sin again.
At its best, guilt might inhibit your impulse to commit crimes or sins, but it does not, in itself, induce you to adopt new, positive constructive behaviors.
Take an example. From the time of Moses adultery has been forbidden. The Seventh Commandment is unambiguous.
And yet, throughout the course of Western Civilization people have happily committed adultery. In some cases adultery has been institutionalized in official mistresses, courtesans, concubines, favorites and courtly lovers.
Since most of this behavior took place with the context of Christian Europe we have good reason to suspect that adulterers were confessing their sins and receiving forgiveness.
Placing adultery with a guilt/penance system did nothing to deter adultery. It seems to have helped sustain the practice. After all, many people are attracted to something that is forbidden.
When some Western cultures wanted to lower the incidence of adultery they decided to stigmatize it. The practice is now identified by the infamous “scarlet letter.”
If, as is reasonable to believe, the guilt based approach produced more, better adultery and the shame-based approach reduced the amount of adultery, which was the more effective deterrent?
One needs to understand that when you destigmatize a behavior you get more of it. Destigmatize unmarried teenage motherhood, as we have been doing, and you get more unmarried teenage mothers. Destigmatize out-of-wedlock childbearing and you get more of it. Destigmatize divorce and you get more of it. Destigmatize teenage sexting and you get more of it. Destigmatize drug abuse and you get more of it.
America is awash in unwed teenage mothers and unwed millennial mothers because we followed the advice of psychologists and destigmatized the behavior. One appreciate Brown's interest in not shaming teenage mothers. She does not want them to feel bad, because, after all, nothing is worse than feeling bad.
Yet, the ads are not directed to unmarried teenage mothers; they are directed at potential teenage mothers. I suspect that the current crop of unmarried teenage mothers is receive far too much empathy and understanding. Could that be the reason that they are doing it more than once? Could that be the reason that now in America, in a country where we no longer judge anyone's behavior, an obscenely large number of children are being born out of wedlock, to women who are not teenagers.