I couldn’t get past the picture, though. So, i haven’t actually read Peggy Orenstein’s OpEd yet. The picture contains a big sign that reads “Shame on Komen.” I get the sentiment. The hope, i presume, is that if Komen feels ashamed, they’ll change their ways. Aside from the detail that an organization cannot feel anything – only the people in the organization – the idea behind the sign is based on faulty understanding of shame. Shame is not an emotion that leads to behavior change. Just the opposite. Physiologically, shame leads to a collapse into ourselves. The blood flow in our brain is redirected so that most of the blood feeds the amygdala – the part of our brain that is the center of our emotions – and hardly any blood goes into the rational regions of our brain. We are literally unable to think clearly. Shame does not lead to behavior change – it cannot because to change our behavior we need to be able to think. It leads us to freeze, to stop acting, to hiding. The last thing we want the folks at Komen to do.
That shame leads to changes in behavior is a myth perpetuated by religions that shame people into submission. And that’s the other issue with the sign: Because shaming is hierarchical, we cannot shame up the ladder. As an organization, Komen is fairly powerful and its leaders are unlikely to feel compelled to feel shame in response to critiques from people they perceive as less important.
Obviously, the sign is supposed to be a short-cut, a way to capture the anger against Komen for putting politics above women’s health. “Shame on Komen” is supposed to capture that and prevent a repeat offense. The other sign captures that much clearer, so although trying to shame might be a satisfying way of expressing our anger, it is not effective. So, let’s be more to the point and ask for what we really want: Funding for breast cancer research independent of politics (and commercialism)!