Why Shaming Will Never Resolve Our Shame

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

They should be ASHAMED of themselves!

The quote above was from a Facebook comment thread this week, but could have been from any number of online and in person conversations I have been a part of in the past few weeks alone. I have had this statement used by folks that I was standing in solidarity with towards others whose perspectives I disagree with. I have had this statement used against me personally for not being loud enough in my support of a particular issue. I have witnessed groups I was not a part of use this statement against others who I also do not identify with. And I am pretty sure I am going to run foul of some of the ‘shamers’ in what I have to say today, but that doesn’t stop it from being an important topic to discuss.

That’s because throughout my life I have watched systems, structures and individuals choose shaming as a means of attempting to control behaviours. In my childhood it was the religious institutions that I grew up amongst and the ways in which my family reinforced those systems on issues like sexuality and gender and disability with messages that suggested that unless I fully accepted and adhered to the patterns and structures of the world that I lived in I would bring shame to myself, to my family and my community.

As an adult shaming has occurred through managers who shamed me for what I wore to work because it wasn’t expensive enough to professors who told me I was ‘wasting’ my life by taking time off to care for my family. I’ve been shamed by people who felt that my choice to love and accept my LGBTQ children was unacceptable and shamed by people who felt that my positions on these issues weren’t radical enough. I’ve heard “shame on them” from my fellow parents in the disability community and “for shame” from politicians on all sides.

I have a lifetime of first-hand experience of shaming as a strategy for social coercion and control. I have also spent the last five years grappling with and slowly dismantling the impacts and effects of shame on my life – which has almost completely addressed my anxiety and has radically shifted the way in which I engage with the people in my life. So after years of learning about the impact of shame from Brené Brown on individuals and organizations alike, I think it’s time we reconsider this approach of ‘shaming’ one another.

That’s because whatever we say we want to achieve by our use of these words, the end result of our shaming language is that it simply increases defences, and decreases the chances we have to find collective, common ground. Shaming might make us feel good in the moment, but it does not move us forward to achieve the goals we want to achieve as individuals or as a society.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I completely understand that there are things to be frustrated about. I am in total agreement that there are things we want people to stop doing that they are doing and things we want people to start to do that they aren’t yet doing and people we want to see being treated the way that all people deserve to be treated who seem to be being ignored, ostracized and mistreated – including ourselves!

Obviously, we would all like ‘these things’ (whatever they are) to stop/start. But if we are actually committed to seeing change occur, then I believe we need to shift our approach from one of shame and blame (that is unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst) to one that allows people to save face, become creative and find a new, better way to approach the challenges we face together. That’s because shame is a cycle. When I throw shame at you, it feels unpleasant (at best) and unsafe or threatening (at worst). Our very human response to this is to pick up a handful of shame and throw it right back at the other person. There’s not a lot of conscious thought that goes into this process – it’s mostly the fear centres of our brains having a field day – but that doesn’t stop it creating a trail of hurt and destruction that often takes bystanders down along with it. So if we want to create something better, here are a few ideas for alternatives that might help:

Start from a place of shared humanity. It’s so easy to vilify another person. To simplify the actions, attitudes and beliefs of a large, heterogenous group down to a few short soundbites, and in doing so, to erase their humanity. This process of ‘othering’ distances us from each other and makes it difficult for us to truly find common ground to build upon. When we start by seeing that each and every individual person has a unique story, personal reasons for being in the place where they are at, and the possibility of commonality (if we’re willing to go looking for it) we build the first step in a bridge to greater dialogue.

Offer perspectives – rooted in your own story – that offer new insights to the other party. It can be easy to assume that the other person has carefully thought through all of the implications of their actions on us personally, and decided that the thing they most want to do is to make our lives miserable. In my experience, often it is just the opposite. The other person had often literally never thought about how their actions might affect someone like me, and so by introducing my perspective I build a second step in my dialogue bridge.

Create face-saving alternatives. Whether we are two, ten, forty, eighty, or somewhere in between, most of us humans don’t like to be seen as backing down or ‘losing face’ – and in some cultures it is extremely poor form to cause someone else to loose face as well. When we offer alternatives, however, it allows people to shift in their decisions and actions without loosing face.

What do I mean by this? When my kids were little and I asked them to put on their shoes and they screamed ‘NO!’ I quickly realized that I could enter into a power struggle with them, insisting that they ‘put their shoes on right now or else‘ or I could calmly reply with, ‘do you want to put your right shoe on first or your left shoe on first’. It was remarkable how often this worked with my kids – it completely diffused the power struggle and allowed them the agency and autonomy they needed to move forward with what I needed from them. Although this seems very simple, I have found the same principal works incredibly effectively when talking with those who have different points of view from me, especially when it is done in the context of a shared humanity and with the foundation of my own story.

Sit down at the table regularly. Ultimately, I think that if we want to have conversations that cross the divisions we see in society, then I believe we need to be connecting across these divisions on a regular basis. If we want to lower traffic speeds in our neighbourhoods we need to get to know our neighbours. If we want to work on accessibility and inclusion in our communities than we need to regularly seek people out across the ‘ability’ divides to have conversations about our everyday lives. I know these conversations aren’t easy. I know that for some – like the stories I hear from friends where racism, homophobia, or other discriminatory realities like poverty, addictions and mental health issues are part of their everyday lived experience – these conversations may not even be safe to have themselves. But for those of us with the capacity to go into these spaces, the relationships built through these conversations can be game-changers in our success at creating real change in our families, communities and broader society. There is something incredibly vulnerable and even sacred about sharing a meal with another human being, and this is the first step to ending the shame cycle and creating something new, beautiful, compassionate and functional for everyone involved.

So the next time you hear yourself or someone else cry ‘shame!’ my hope is you will pause – take a breath – and ask yourself: ‘how are they human – like me?’ ‘How could I offer my story or perspective?’ ‘How could I open up the opportunity for an alternative path forward together?’ And maybe before you even get to that moment, ‘how can I find ways to cross these divides and begin to eat with those who are different than me?’

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