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For Effective Advocacy, Shame the Policy, Not the Person

A historian who has studied the emotion finds it can be an effective change agent—but only when used carefully.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders conducts a White House daily news briefing on June 14th, 2018.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders conducts a White House daily news briefing on June 14th, 2018.

Public shaming has a long history in America, gradually diminishing following a peak in the colonial era. But it has enjoyed a resurgence in recent days, when two high-profile Trump administration officials had their dinners interrupted—one by shouting protesters (Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen) the second by the restaurant's owner (White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders).

The incidents, and another on Tuesday targeting President Donald Trump aide Stephen Miller, certainly captured the nation's attention. But did they accomplish anything, beyond making Trump supporters feel more aggrieved? Historian Peter Stearns, who has extensively studied the emotion, is doubtful.

"Shame is a tricky and sometimes dangerous emotion," he warns in a phone interview with Pacific Standard. "You can make things worse, even if you didn't intend to."

Provost emeritus at George Mason University, Stearns is the author of the 2017 book A History of Shame. "Shaming used to be far more widely accepted and utilized," he notes. "It has retreated significantly. But it never disappeared. I don't think it's possible to make it disappear."

In our conversation, Stearns spoke of its recent reappearance, and the factors that make it more or less effective.


Are you surprised that public shaming has resurfaced right now?

These particular incidents are novel, but they're less unusual than they might seem. We have an atmosphere in which various groups, on various points on the political spectrum, have been actively using shame, or trying to use shame.

Here are three examples. Anti-abortion activists routinely try to shame women seeking an abortion. They congregate in front of abortion clinics and do everything they can to make the women feel they are violating community standards. More recently, the #MeToo movement involves shaming men (who engaged in sexual harassment), or shaming their employers into punishing them. And Trump has consistently tried to shame him opponents. To some extent, these recent incidents fall into that pattern.

Peter Stearns.

Peter Stearns.

Is there any evidence shaming is effective in changing minds or behaviors?

It seems to me that's the key issue. Shame has two or three possible functions. The function these incidents clearly serve is making the community whose values are being expressed feel righteous. That's not a negligible result. It can mobilize your own community.

But the clear intention of shame is to make the target, or the target's community, feel they've done something wrong, so they will retreat from that action, or not do it in the first place. I don't think that's going to work in these shaming situations.

Under what circumstances can it work?

One recent illustration is the efforts of teachers in several states, who were quite effective in shaming political leaders into providing more funding for education. They were using shame pretty directly. They assembled in the state capitol and essentially said, "The state is letting us down, and the children down." The shaming component was pretty obvious, and pretty effective. It was carefully targeted, and there was sufficient community consensus that they could get results.

The #MeToo movement was similarly effective because employers picked up the signals and fired the culprits. But nobody's going to get fired as a result of these incidents [featuring Trump administration officials]. You're either dealing with people who don't accept the standards involved, or are immune to shame. I don't think there's a need to name names, but we clearly have some leaders who can't be shamed.

To pick up on that point: For public shaming to be effective, doesn't it need to revolve around an agreed-upon set of moral values? "Women shouldn't be sexually harassed at work" is something pretty much everyone can agree on. But on many issues, that consensus just doesn't exist.

That's right. We do not have anything like community consensus on issues like the treatment of immigrants. And when shaming fails, it simply makes the other group mad. They feel they've been unjustly treated, and we get into the cycle of trying to shame the shamers.

People on both sides of the political spectrum are involved in shaming; they just do it on different issues. But the people who support Trump express more sensitivity to being shamed by liberals than vice-versa. That's one of their constant complaints: that the elite look down on them. The extremely unfortunate term "deplorables" was viewed in this context.

So high-profile incidents like those of last week could solidify support among Trump backers.

Yes. They're very sensitive to the notion that liberals shame unfairly.

Its effectiveness aside, is there some value in placing a moral marker, especially at a time when we're being led by people with seemingly no ethical compass whatsoever?

Recent evidence suggests yes. Take the outpouring of concern about family separation at the border. You have 67 percent of the American public feeling this is morally wrong, and it had a result [Trump rescinded the order]. So moral markers can have some effect, but they need to be carefully directed, so there's no sense that the individuals responsible are being unfairly treated.

Is it better to declare "This action crosses a line" rather than "This person crossed a line"?

Yes. The action is shameful, more than the individual. We might be well-advised to be clearer that certain actions deserve condemnation. But as much as possible, you want to avoid making the individuals involved feel that they're being totally reviled. Lots of people would like to return to a situation where our behavior and language are more civil, so we can talk to each other more readily.

I understand that, but there's a counter-argument that says if one side routinely engages in uncivil rhetoric and you don't respond, you're basically surrendering. The tone is set at the top, and it's not realistic to think that won't affect the tone of the larger conversation.

Clearly, that has proven to be the case. But if we're going to get out of this situation, people need to say more clearly that they do not personally accept the kind of insults that Trump routinely dishes out, but they're not going to respond in kind. Otherwise, you're in a spiral, with everybody getting more and more offended, and less and less capable of talking with one another. But shaming—careful shaming—remains a valid approach.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.