Let’s first look at public shaming, though. As I pointed out in my comment and written about on my own blog, at least in my view, the evidence from research is pretty clear: Shame is a toxic emotion and invoking it does not contribute to behavior change. Additionally, public shaming creates exactly the kind of environment I don’t want to live in: It’s an environment of distrust and repressed thoughts and emotions at best, and hostile and violent at worst. As Heidi Maibom points out, shaming is very much related to hierarchy and it’s unlikely that we can shame up the ladder effectively, thus attempts to do so are again more likely to trigger hostile reactions rather than change.
As a thoughtful piece over at The Nation by Jessica Valenti pointed out, everything connected with the rapes in Steubenville makes it clear that we are living in a culture that is hostile to women. What I hadn’t realized until I started thinking about shame: When we try to shame people into seeing that rape (or sexist jokes) are wrong, we get exactly what we’re getting. Rather than a change in behavior, we get defensive reactions – “But I didn’t mean it!” “I am not this way!” This is precisely what we’d expect when we’d make predictions using the evidence from research! Shaming people (especially men) leads to hostile reactions and violence when the person shamed turns the shame outward (it leads to depression and suicide when turned inward).
Where does this leave us? Clearly, the call for public shaming stems from the frustration, which I also feel, that with all the work feminists have been doing, things haven’t really changed that much (at least when we look beyond legal changes). Somehow, we want to find a tool that lets us accelerate change. Looking at this from the angle of shame, maybe it would be helpful to take a broader look. In many ways, violence against women is a symptom of a culture that is violent period. While this violence hurts women more then men, eliminating one type of violence cannot happen within a vacuum. To radically address violence against women, we need to change the underlying culture. And that process takes time (argh!) because we will have to make deep, systemic changes. An ethics of care approach might help us develop strategies for such systemic changes.
As I mentioned in the comment over at the Feminist Philosophers’ blog, I am noticing some dissatisfaction with this approach because it seems so slow, so nice, and in a lot of ways so much of what we’ve been doing – and haven’t gotten anywhere. There seems to be something very powerful about public shaming – maybe it is empowering for us to say collectively “shame on you!” Maybe there is a way we can capture this empowering aspect without the counterproductive side-effects of public shaming. What also contributes to my dissatisfaction is that I don’t have the answers. Public shaming is simple (yet ineffective). Change our culture is complicated, messy, and everything but straight forward. And, yet, that seems to be the only way to truly create the world I’d like to live in (even when how that looks like is also not as crystal clear as I would like it to be…).