Clone of Ten Minutes with Jennifer Jacquet on public shaming

The author of Is Shame Necessary? New uses for an old tool talks to Agnes Frimston about why public shaming can be a force for good. Listen to the full podcast below.

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 26 March 2015 2 minute READ

You advocate putting shame to work for a good cause. What is the difference between shame and guilt?

Shame is thinking about what others think of us, whereas guilt is an internal conversation with your own conscience. There are ways that both can be used as a tool: you can utilize shame by exposing a few offenders to public opprobrium. Guilt is obviously the more ideal regulator because individuals self-regulate. But it is probably the least adequate of all our forms of punishment. Some cultures don’t even have a word for guilt and there are arguments that not only is it a more western phenomenon, but that it is also a more modern phenomenon. Shakespeare used the word ‘guilt’ only 33 times, and used the word ‘shame’ 344 times. Guilt is ideal but often it’s not enough to get people to behave, which is why we have other ways to help society get along.

Are there examples of where shaming has worked?

Research shows that shaming has worked to reduce smoking and increase voter turnout. We also see that shaming corporations has led them to change their behaviour: the recent documentary Black Fish about the treatment of orcas by SeaWorld caused the company’s stock to drop by 60 per cent, although attendance fell by only 5 per cent. This case shows the power of reputation and shareholder withdrawal, rather than people not buying tickets. It’s the bad headlines. There’s also a smart campaign in the United States run by Rainforest Action Network that singles out the banks funding mountaintop coal removal in Appalachia, and two of the nine banks have now cut that link. So there is evidence that shaming can work, and at scale.

Can an individual consumer’s guilt have a place in the public shaming of corporations?

There is less of a difference we can make in our role as a consumer than we have been led to believe, because so many forms of ‘good’ consumerism like organic foods or eco-certified fish or fair trade represent a very small percentage of the market. If you look back through social movements, you see that a minority of people were engaged, for insance, in the abolition of slavery or women’s rights. That minority demanded that society as a whole change. Contrast that to the organic foods movement or the cruelty-free movement, that same minority is now asked to alleviate its guilt and make a difference by buying a product that has been certified as cruelty-free or organic. What you’ve done is disengage as a citizen and remove yourself from making a change to society as a whole. You are sleeping better at night, but most of the market continues to do the same old thing.

One has to belong to a community to feel shame. Can global corporations feel shame?

It’s hard to argue that a corporation feels anything. But the publicly traded corporation is vulnerable to reputation attacks, maybe even more so than a nation state. I tend to see this shaming process as operating as a stop-gap before legislation is put in place. People realise that there is a problem, and acknowledge that it could take years to figure out how to close certain loopholes. So in those cases, the crowd, expressed often through the media, is expressing opprobrium. A lot of times you see that shaming is based on some perceived unfairness or other form of bad behavior.

With the rise of social media, it feels like we have returned to the stocks. Public shaming still brings a crowd.

Shaming is nothing without a crowd. The audience online can be billions strong, and now the stocks are permanent and searchable, but it does in some ways feel medieval. Controlling crowd punishment online is not easy. You have to ask yourself, how would we actually get this kind of shaming to stop? One thing that might improve it, but will come at the expense of other things, and which is already happening, is reducing anonymity, and thereby increasing the cost of shaming.

Is shame cross-cultural?

It depends on the transgressor and the audience. Americans find out what Shell is doing in Nigeria, and can be outraged even though it’s happening in Nigeria. But as a counterpoint, research examined Russian businessmen and if they’re reported for bad behaviour by Russian newspapers, then they don’t tend to resign or change the company’s ways, but if the same chief executive is caught out by the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, they might actually step down. So it’s not only about where the transgression occurs, but also the audience asked to endorse the shaming – and what the transgressor thinks about that audience. Some of the shaming I most support is when the weak use it against the strong, often because it’s sometimes the only option there is.

Is Shame Necessary? New uses for an old tool , Allen Lane, £17.99