Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Societal Trend of Shaming

I ran across an interesting book called Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool by Jennifer Jacquet that talks about the rise of shaming in society, particularly online through social media. 

Since online shaming seems to be on the rise in society, I wanted to understand shaming better, what causes it, what its uses are perceived to be, and whether there were ways to avert it or recover from it.

Call it what you like—shaming, bullying, persecution, trolling, whatever—the internet has lowered the costs of gossip and shaming and increased its scope and speed like never before.  The power to shame has been distributed to the people and is not longer just the exclusive privilege of opinion leaders and government. 

Shaming involves exposure in front of a crowd in order to damage reputation and incur other negative consequences, such as encouraging others not to cooperate with the shamed individual.  Pillories, dunce hats, branding, tarring and feathering, and other acts were types of shaming used in the past.  Today, Twitter attacks, trolling, online gossip, nasty reviews, angry websites, and other such techniques are forms of shaming.  Backlash of this kind can extend to job loss as companies try to jettison individuals they perceive to be a liability to their reputation.

One reason shaming is used against systemic corruption of companies and large organizations is that the large groups have limited their liability through legal structures and the moral compasses of individuals in the group are undermined, usually by profit motive.  Shaming is used when there seems to be no legal alternative that brings punishment on offenders.

The author was guardedly enthusiastic toward shaming as a technique for social control and policing with respect to ecological and environmental concerns, and seemed to put faith in shaming as a tool for social change.   However, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I found the enthusiasm for shaming rather alarming.

There is a dark side to shaming that we are probably already aware of—its use over trivial matters, shaming in measures far disproportional to the offense, shaming as contempt for the individual rather than just focusing on the offense, and attacks on human dignity, the permanence of the evidence of digital shaming, the lack of clarity on who is doing the shaming, especially with anonymous attacks, and the real debilitating effect it can have on individuals.

The dark side means that it is far too likely and easy for shaming to become unjust.  While the dogpile happens to the offender, there is no one standing by to blow the whistle and say, “That’s enough; any more would be unjust.”

People may perceive Mormons as having high group cohesion and group mind—meaning the group has intentions and makes plans—more than individuals that merely share an identity (like blue-eyed people or basketball players).  Therefore the church may be seen by others as being more responsible for their collective actions, and thus a more worthy target for shaming for behavior that violates perceived norms.

The church has received its share of shaming in the last few years, especially in the debate over marriage.  Those trying to protect traditional marriage have had their names published in newspapers (to shame and expose them to more shame and attacks), some have had property defaced, some have been attacked online, some have lost jobs.

From another perspective, the church’s practice of refraining from publicizing member excommunications and other disciplinary actions shows that the church does not want ex-members or dis-fellowshipped members to be publically shamed at church.

Considering how innovations in communication bring revolutions to society and considering the growth of the internet, I think shaming as a wider practice is probably not going to go away any time soon. If anything, it will get bigger until it saturates the limited economy that competes for human attention spans.  

The risk of disproportional and trivial shaming makes me think that it would be best for us to stay away doing from any shaming ourselves, since we may not know the full facts, we certainly won’t know how much the offender has already been punished by others.  We don’t want to unknowingly contribute to injustice. It would be awful to face the Lord on judgment day and be confronted with the truth that we had ground the faces of our brothers and sisters in the dust.

When I was reading this book, some scriptures came to my mind and gained new significance with reference to shaming.

3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
4 Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years.
5 And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts.
6 For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. (Malachi 3:3-6)

The Lord may use the shaming of His people to refine them, to confront them over their sins and oppression. 

But then, of course Satan uses it too for coercive purposes, in which case we just have to stick to our guns.

¶The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.
I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.
¶For the Lord God will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.
He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? let us stand together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God will help me; who is he that shall condemn me? lo, they all shall wax old as a garment; the moth shall eat them up. (Isaiah 50:5-9)

Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed; neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more . . . .
14 In righteousness shalt thou be established; thou shalt be far from oppression for thou shalt not fear, and from terror for it shall not come near thee.
 15 Behold, they shall surely gather together against thee, not by me; whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake.
 16 Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.
 17 No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall revile against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord. (3 Nephi 22:4, 14-17)

For your shame ye shall have double; and for confusion they shall rejoice in their portion: therefore in their land they shall possess the double: everlasting joy shall be unto them. (Isaiah 61:7)

These scriptures, especially the ones of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon by the Christ show me that Heavenly Father knows all about the rise of shaming and wanted to give us reassurance.