When Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor in the department of environmental studies at New York University, was a child, she persuaded her mother to buy her a book called 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. One of the simple things that the book induced her to do was to shame her parents into boycotting canned tuna.
“The evidence of mangled dolphins [caught in fishing nets] saddened and outraged people around the world,” she writes. It felt good to adjust her behavior as a consumer. How much better, she seems to have asked herself, might it feel to force other people to adjust their behavior, preferably on a very large scale? “Shame can lead to increased stress and withdrawal from society,” Jacquet writes. It “can hurt so badly that it is physically hard on the heart. But shame can also improve behavior.”
If you find yourself wondering who, exactly, gets to define improve in this context, Jennifer Jacquet’s book is not for you. She is writing for an audience that prefers not to trouble itself with the role of individual preferences and priorities in what constitutes rational choice, and a more honest subtitle for her book would have been My Pet Uses for an Old Tool.
Shame has been much on people’s minds lately, and Is Shame Necessary? reveals (if accidentally) why people find the resurgence of public shaming so frightening. It is fundamentally about coercion and not persuasion. It is a shortcut, and a shameful one at that.
It bears mentioning at the outset that Jacquet’s book is mostly about the shaming of industries and corporations, not of individual “transgressors,” to borrow her sinister term. A useful companion volume about the latter is Jon Ronson’s recent So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a far more entertaining and less strident affair, recently reviewed in these pages (“Here Comes Trouble,” April 6). Yet the distinction is not so significant as Jacquet thinks. She briefly examines the difference between guilt and shame, noting that “guilt acts as a form of self-punishment,” but it doesn’t seem to occur to her that shaming is an effective punishment whether or not one believes he has done anything wrong. It can, in other words, compel a person to modify his behavior for reasons that have nothing to do with his conscience and, in fact, may betray it.
When people see a corporation change its practices in the face of a shaming campaign, they are likely to draw one conclusion: that it changed its mind to protect its bottom line. It stood to lose more to negative publicity or a boycott than it stood to gain from economical but negligent (as defined, of course, by Jacquet) practices. The lesson absorbed by individual observers is that they have more to lose in social capital by straying from the herd than they have to gain by following the dictates of conscience. Thus, the seemingly harmless or even praiseworthy expedient of shaming a corporate ne’er-do-well has a trickle-down effect on the public, which learns in a hurry that ridicule and opprobrium are on the menu if the wishes of the mob are defied.
Furthermore, the large and faceless entities that Jacquet considers appropriate targets of shaming are often guilty not of slaughtering dolphins or dumping toxins into rivers but of holding attitudes that individuals hold as well. She repeatedly discusses the Twitter backlash faced by the Susan G. Komen foundation when it announced that it would no longer help fund Planned Parenthood. Writing for that notorious hotbed of conservative extremism, the Atlantic, Megan McArdle said, “Though I’m pro-choice, I don’t share the outrage that was roiling my Twitter feed. . . . Since I think this is a very tough issue on which reasonable people can disagree, I can see why . . . private foundations . . . would decline to fund their operations.”
What would Jennifer Jacquet make of that concession? Abortion is not only an issue on which reasonable people can disagree but also one of the most striking illustrations of how public shaming cuts both ways. Apoplectic Twitter users barraged the Susan G. Komen foundation with over 200,000 negative messages. But then apoplectic antiabortion protesters have been waving signs and screaming outside of Planned Parenthood clinics for decades. If there is anything in Jacquet’s book that explains why the former is a “new use for an old tool” and the latter is merely rude and cruel, good luck finding it. And if you are tempted to suggest that, because access to abortion is the law of the land, it is no longer a valid subject for public shaming, keep in mind that Jacquet is also fine with shaming people who consume cigarettes, alcohol, fatty foods, and “excessive” salt.