In Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool, environmental social scientist Jennifer Jacquet shows how shame can be used as a positive force for change. Writing exclusively for the Penguin blog, the author shares some sage advice for aspiring activists…
Public shaming is a non-violent form of resistance that can challenge corporations, industries and even governments to change policies and behaviours that are detrimental to society. But shaming also comes with its liabilities and can sometimes backfire. Here are seven steps to consider before using public shaming:
1) What is the problem and who is responsible? It’s easier to justify the use of shaming when the audience is also the victim (e.g. labour disputes, fracking, reckless driving). It’s unwise to use the power of shaming for minor infractions or when it’s unclear who is responsible for the problem (e.g. global poverty or widespread malnutrition).
2) Would those responsible for the problem be sensitive to exposure? Do they have a reputation to maintain? It’s easier to shame institutions or groups or even individuals that already have known reputations. In the case of the Gulf Oil spill, it was more effective to target BP than Deepwater Horizon or Halliburton because BP was better known.
3) Is there any obvious way to use the legal system to address the problem and/or those responsible for the problem? If so, these formal avenues are likely better routes than social exposure. Shaming should be a last resort, and, in many cases, a stopgap before regulations are put in place.
4) Does your group have the potential to threaten exposure rather than actually do it? Is this a credible threat? If the exposed party improved its behaviour, will you communicate this to your audience? A credible threat of exposure can often be more effective than actual exposure, since the transgressor can change their behaviour in response and avoid losing their reputation. If you do choose to go with public shaming, and the transgressor decides to improve their behavior in response, consider whether there are means to then help restore their reputation.
5) Are those responsible strong or marginal relative to the rest of society? Shaming works best when it has the strong support of the audience, and there are strong standards against bullying and picking on the weak, so shaming is often a better tool against the more powerful.
6) Will your audience trust and believe your information? Shaming works best when it comes from a group the audience respects. A study of Russian companies found that shaming a CEO of an underperforming company only worked (meaning the CEO resigned or changed company policy) if the exposure was in an Anglo-American newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times — exposure in Russian newspapers seemed to have no effect because, according to the study’s authors, those papers lack credibility
7) Is your audience prepared to pay attention to those responsible for the problem? What form will the exposure take? How will you get your audience to notice it? The attention of the audience is finite and is best reserved for major issues.