Please Stop Shaming for Social Justice

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election left many people stunned and saddened. Others may have seen this coming, but feel little consolation as they witness a nationwide spike in hate crimes and predict a rapid dismantling of the values and protections they hold dear.

In a recent post-election interview, Senator Elizabeth Warren said that we can’t just sit back and watch this happen. She said, “on these core issues about treating every single human being in this country with dignity — on that, we stand up and we fight back.”

And, I couldn’t agree more. Fight for what you believe in. Absolutely. I will continue to do that too. But, dear people, I implore you, if you truly want to convince others to change their viewpoint, then please put as much care into how you fight, as you put into what you fight for.

Please stop trying to change others by activating their shame.

I realize that shaming has become a widespread tactic in the fight for social justice, in large part because it seems like it works. Besides, isn’t it justified? Why not shame those who hold shameful beliefs or engage in shameful behaviors?

Because, in the long term, shaming doesn’t work. At best, it causes people to tune you out or dismiss you. At worst, it puts those who need our protection at significantly more risk.

Shame is such a destructive emotion that psychologists have built up an entire research area to study its effects. Shame does not convince anyone of anything. On the contrary, it causes people to get clenched around their beliefs and to hide them from others. It makes it nearly impossible for people to change their minds without losing face. It incites a kind of “limbic logic” — a reactive thinking style in which people build up (and start to believe) their own self-defensive distortions, while becoming increasingly impervious to more measured points of view.

And, most dangerously, shame seriously impairs our emotion regulation system, sometimes leading to all out shame reactivity, which spurs impulsive behavior and fuels rage. This is so well known in shame research circles that they call it “The Shame-Rage Cycle.”

Stand up to bigotry. Of course. Do what you can to keep each other safe. Report incidents locally, if possible, and/or to the ACLU. Get identifying information, detailed descriptions, license plate numbers. Volunteer, donate, talk to each other. Mindfully, privately, point out when someone has posted a “fact” from a “fake news” site.

Use whatever skillful social change strategies you have at your disposal, and do your best to invent creative, effective new ones. We absolutely need them now. But if you don’t want to inadvertently contribute to more hatred and violence, please stop your shaming tactics.

Shaming may temporarily suppress hateful crimes and views, but it absolutely does not reduce them. It feels powerful, righteous and effective in the moment. But I assure you, it is not helping your (our) social justice cause.