Last June, I was participating in a workshop dedicated to racial justice and wholeness, especially designed for white folks. During a discussion session, one participant recommended harnessing the power of shame to move us in the direction of justice. For proof of the effectiveness of this approach, he mentioned a study on anti-cigarette smoking campaigns, and that the only effective campaigns were those that utilized shame. It felt like quite the leap to me to move from an anti-smoking campaign to anti-racist work, but, even if that application could be justified, I felt immediately curious and suspicious of how he was framing the data.
My hesitation was twofold: both from my personal experience and my understanding of social science research. These spheres overlap, influence, and inform one another, but, for me, the personal experience came first. For those of you who have listened before, you already know that I grew up in what could be called a “chronically-shaming environment.” This was centered around my fundamentalist Christian community, especially when it came issues related to gender and sexuality. But the shame began earlier, before any awareness I could have of those particular topics. As I’ve shared before,
“… it felt like the concept of sin was weaponized against those who were outside of the dominant culture, because of who they were, what they believed, or how they behaved. You might have heard my story, for example, of how our pastor took us kids aside and had us pass around square cut nails and a crown of thorns (from locust tree branches), letting us poke our fingers and hands while he solemnly described how each of us murdered Jesus. ‘Even if everyone else had been perfect, Jesus still would have had to die this horrible death because of your sins. You put Jesus on the cross.’ It didn’t seem to make much of a difference to some of the kids, but it rather terrified me. I felt horrible for just being alive. As I grew up, anything I did that was outside of our religious community’s expectations could then be used to prove to me how sinful I was and how much I deserved to suffer for it.”
So shame was given to me as a lens through which to evaluate every thought, word, or action I took. I recognized my own first three decades of religious and cultural experiences in Dr. Alison Downie’s description of:
“the potential for Christian communities to create climates of chronic shame and cause religious trauma … . In this way, the religious teachings themselves, especially when communicated in chronically shaming environments, are traumatizing. In this approach, Christian religious trauma is not an added element to traumas of domestic, physical, or sexual abuse by a religious person or leader. Instead, the source of the trauma is formative experience of participating in Christianity.” (“Christian Shame and Religious Trauma”)
Because it is formative, the shame became part of my identity: “I felt horrible for just being alive.” And because my very existence represented a constant temptation, a flirtation with evil or a descent into damnation, I struggled with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. This created a psychological situation where everything was – somehow and always – all my fault. As Downie also points out, “The most insidious aspect of Christian shaming is that it is routinely and consistently presented and justified as love.” And in my experience, shaming was done sincerely. That is, people truly believed that using shame in this way was an expression of their care. I do not doubt that the people who trained me in shame also felt affection for me, and believed they were acting in my best interest. After all, they likely were raised in a similar way, passing on a cycle of shame that alienates us from our own bodies and minds. Downie described the impacts, particularly on children when they “are taught that their experience of harm is not harm but an expression of love”:
"Those formed to believe that violent harm is an expression of love are thereby prevented from the possibility of considering their harm as abuse. They already ‘know’ it is a demonstration of love. Shame can also be understood through a lens of hermeneutical injustice. In chronic Christian shame, those experiencing the pain of shame are also taught not to know what their bodies tell them, the truth of their own experience. This harm must be understood not only as deprivation of knowledge but as formation in a hermeneutical habitus of shame as a way of knowing encompassing all relation to self, others, world, and God.”
“Shame as a way of knowing” is a good description of my experience in fundamentalist Christianity. The familial and religious authorities in my life had always let me know that they were afraid that, in the absence of shame, we would indulge in all sorts of terrible behavior. This was the justification for shame as a way of knowing – it was always worth the price. Jesus may have died on the cross to rescue us from Hell, but it was shame that really saved us. We could not trust ourselves; we needed shame in order to know what was wrong and feel bad enough to not do it. Failing that, we needed shame in order to return to the official version of Truth after we - inevitably - failed. Turning again to Downie’s description:
“the only knowledge of self permitted in chronic Christian shame is that which conforms to the religious authority which establishes truth. All else is condemned as either sinful or false. In such contexts, truth is always and only external. Truth is received by submission to authority, by conformity.”
This is my personal experience with shame. It dominated and could have destroyed my life. I wrestled with it. I resisted it. I eventually freed myself and found healing from it. But also, without a doubt, I was shaped by it. I had to devote years of intentional healing and growing to recognize the harm and abuse; to untangle shame from love and care; and to learn to extend that love and care to my body. I had to weed out every inclination and habit of shame “as a way of knowing,” so that the kindness, compassion, joy, and wisdom that also lived in my heart could be unburdened and become boundless.
So you can imagine the alarm bells that started ringing internally when I heard the well-meaning workshop participant advocate that we should utilize shame in our social justice movements and strategies. Still, I work hard to keep an open heart and mind, to listen to others. I realized that perhaps my experience of shame was not the only one, and I should at least practice due diligence and chase down the research he referred to. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to find analysis of the study he had mentioned, and the title of the article was already more nuanced: “Shame-Based Appeals in a Tobacco Control Public Health Campaign: Potential Harms and Benefits,” by Dr. Cati Brown-Johnson and Dr. Judith Prochaska. As a note, let me emphasize here that I will necessarily be discussing smoking cigarettes for the next few minutes, but what I hope we will be focused on is the role and function of shame.
The authors frame their analysis by acknowledging that the possibility of using shame as a technique to control human behavior was worth exploring because of the high costs of smoking. In the USA alone, almost 500,00 people die every year in smoking related deaths, and associated medical costs are almost $170 billion. And as Brown-Johnson and Prochaska point out, globally:
“Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, responsible for 1 in 10 deaths globally (>5 million a year). Tobacco use adversely impacts not just smokers, but also those around them through secondhand smoke exposure. Given the significant personal and societal costs of tobacco use, any strategy to reduce smoking should be considered.”
The primary study given this consideration by the authors was a “tobacco control ad campaign” conducted by Amonini et al, which used focus groups and interviews with former smokers to identify and develop social isolation themes associated with smoking, such as “you feel like a ‘leper.’” They used those themes to create and test an ad prototype to discourage people from smoking, and finally launched a public campaign using a shame-based ad. The results showed some promise: “a majority of respondents self-reported in the first several weeks that they reduced cigarette consumption (36%), attempted cessation (16%), or quit (2%).” So this was the basis for the recommendation I heard in June: shame works! Or, at least, shame kind of works! Shame was at least correlated with a desire to change, and so, it would be easy to conclude, we can – and probably should! – use shame as a strategy in our social justice movements.
But this is not the whole story, and we thankfully do not even get through the introduction before the authors wisely recommend caution:
“While suggestive as a promising public health approach, the potential for harm associated with an emphasis on shame also bears consideration, particularly when in relation to a behavior sustained through addiction and increasingly concentrated among marginalized groups.”
This is a crucial point. At least in industrialized countries, the people most likely to smoke “are largely characterized by lower income and education, ethnic minority status, and co-occurring mental and physical health disorders.” Anyone who belongs to a marginalized community will likely recognize this. As John Sharpe observed in “The Tie Between Oppression and Addiction,” “oppression is often a traumatic experience,” easily leading to “feelings of inferiority and loss of self”. And since oppressive systems are usually intractable, and chronic systems lead to chronic symptoms, they bring significantly increased risks of both mental health issues and substance use disorders. “Through repeated or severe instances of oppression,” Sharpe writes, “mental distress increases and the likelihood of using substances to cope also increases.”
So what happens when a public health campaign, with the best intentions, weaponizes shame in order to influence people to stop smoking? The shame can act to reinforce prejudice against already vulnerable groups. In this case, campaigns shaming smoking will, in turn, largely impact marginalized communities, both in how they view themselves and how others view them. Internally, Doctors Brown-Johnson and Prochaska pointed out that shame-based public health campaigns can lead to adverse effects, such as isolation, hiding tobacco use from others, and increased stigma when relapsed. Although most smokers experienced social stigma (such as “glaring looks” and insults), in a small amount of cases, smokers even experienced blatant discrimination, such as being denied employment or housing. So we have a situation where marginalized groups are most likely to use tobacco, and, thanks to shame, tobacco use can then be used as further justification for their marginalization. As Brown-Johnson and Prochaska wrote, “interventions that risk stigmatizing could backfire by exacerbating health disparities rather than reducing them.”
One example of this kind of backfiring can be found in a 2019 study by Clarissa Cortland, Janessa Shapiro, Iris Guzman, and Lara Ray. Their double-blind, randomized trial exposed one group of smokers to a control message and another to a message that relied on negative stereotypes of smoking. Both groups were given a financial incentive, earning a small amount of money for each minute they refrained from smoking. But instead of being discouraged from smoking by negative stereotypes, those participants tended to light up earlier in the test and showed that: “Messages that elicit negative stereotypes of smokers operated as ‘smoking-promoting messages’ in the context of our controlled laboratory investigation.”
Approaches to working for social change that rely on shame and humiliation, then, tend to sacrifice long-term well-being for getting short-term results. This was the case in the “formative shaming” that I experienced, which traded my long-term well-being for controlling my behavior in the short-term. But shame-based approaches also carry a significant risk of backfiring, actually encouraging the behavior they seek to control. They can even lead to making a conflict more intractable over time, sometimes reinforcing the view of another party’s ill-will, leading to resentment, and sometimes reinforcing the view that all the worst things we believe about ourselves are actually true.
Understanding this can help us move forward. It is a reality that humans are capable of experiencing shame, so it is vital that we develop skills, resources, and cultures that help us respond to shame in a way that heals instead of harms. One aspect of this that is increasingly emphasized by social scientists is to recognize the differences between shame and guilt. For example, Annette Kämmerer, in her article “The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame,” wrote that:
“People often speak of shame and guilt as if they were the same, but they are not. Like shame, guilt occurs when we transgress moral, ethical or religious norms and criticize ourselves for it. The difference is that when we feel shame, we view ourselves in a negative light (‘I did something terrible!’), whereas when we feel guilt, we view a particular action negatively (‘I did something terrible!’). We feel guilty because our actions affected someone else, and we feel responsible.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First, we need to go out of our way to identify our social norms, with awareness to how those norms impact our personal and collective wellbeing. Many of our social norms run on automatic; we’ve inherited certain beliefs and behaviors, without examining how those beliefs and behaviors impact us. This is where our ongoing work of critical social theory and similar tools comes into play, and that is essential for our long-term wellbeing. Our norms need to reflect our mutual commitment to human and ecological thriving, and they need to be based and adapted to our best scientific and creative knowledge of how we can all thrive. Continuously changing social norms to align with human potential for wisdom and compassion is an essential part of healing and preventing the harm that comes from shame.
But along the way, we also need to transform how we respond to when social norms are broken. Using shame as a coercive tool to control others is a social norm that itself must be transformed. We need to learn how to work with shame with understanding instead of blame, with kindness instead of coercion, and with healing instead of humiliation. This is slower work that requires a lot of patience, but is worth it if we want healthy, transformative communities. As Kämmerer pointed out,
“parents, teachers, judges and others who want to encourage constructive behavior in their charges would do well to avoid shaming rule-breakers, choosing instead to help them to understand the effects of their actions on others and to take steps to make up for their transgressions.”
Where there is hurt, we want to heal. By practicing awareness, we can become sensitive to when and how shame is an obstacle to that healing. When we feel shame, that can be an opportunity for reflection:
• Why do I feel shame? What social norm have I broken?
• Is this social norm for my and our collective well-being?
• If yes, then how can I shift to feeling empathy? How can I work with guilt in a way that heals, instead of getting caught in shame?
• If no, if this social norm is against my and our collective well-being, how can I recenter myself in a new norm? How can I connect with an aspiration that better aligns with mutual care and thriving?
For social norms that don’t support our personal and collective well-being, we can also ask:
• What behaviors is this shame seeking to control?
• Who benefits from my shame and humiliation?
• What changes in attention and intention could help shift social norms toward wellbeing, justice, and peace?
• What resources, support, skills, communities, and movements could I connect with in order to participate in that transformation?
While shame and humiliation are part of the human experience, we should not promote them or build our communities and movements around them. Instead, let’s focus on becoming places where we learn to care for ourselves and one another, with healing for when we hurt and celebration for when we thrive. Wisdom and compassion as a “way of knowing” will serve us better for creating social norms and communities where we can learn to take care of our personal and collective well-being; where we can be and feel safe; and where we can nourish our creativity and joy.