For shame

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Adam Serwer objects to shame as a method for managing peoples' behavior:

Conservatives regularly overestimate the beneficial effects of shame. Shame provokes response in the form of impulse, not long term planning. A person who is ashamed isn't going to think, "I'd better get a degree" or "I'd better get married," they're going to think in the short term about what they can do to rectify their sense of self-worth.

How do you see people--men in particular--act when they're ashamed? You rarely see them do something like get married or get a fantastic job; usually they're going to hurt or exploit someone, make them feel as low as they do--this is the lesson learned by the shamed from the shamer, regardless of the lesson the shamer thinks they're teaching the shamed.

There's something weird about the way conservatives approach social problems like out of wedlock birth or poverty, as if the people with such problems glean some kind of orgasmic pleasure for struggling for cash, or raising a child as a single parent. These things are hard enough without shame, and while I agree with Dreher and Peggy Noonan that what "you applaud, you encourage," I'm very skeptical about the idea that shame can produce productive behavior. Dreher's argument assumes that the people in question aren't already ashamed, or have failed somehow to internalize society's larger values about family. I generally find that the opposite is true, they've internalized them to a fault. It's one thing to encourage marriage through positive reinforcement, it's another entirely to punish people for being unmarried and think that has a beneficial effect on society.

Serwer is right that shame makes a hard lot harder.  But I don't think he is right about the value of shame.  Without shame, what are you left with?  It's accepting that you have no way to regulate peoples' behavior within the social network short of brute force or bribery.

It is true that people who are ashamed often do not behave well.  But they often behave badly precisely because they are trying to deflect their shame.  People do a lot of things to avoid being shamed.  Why do small towns have lower rates of crime, and lesser antisocial behaviors like cutting people off in traffic or queue jumping, than big cities?  Are people in small towns more inherently virtuous?  Or are they afraid of what the neighbors will think?

I have unashamedly moved in with a boyfriend, and am still not ashamed.  But if we think people should marry, and shouldn't cohabit, than shame is a much better way to get there than giving people stupid marriage classes, paying them to get married, or making it illegal for unmarried people to rent an apartment.

Unlike those other things, the fear of shame triggers a deep, probably pre-verbal, instinctive part of our brain.  Think about a time when you were publicly caught doing something you shouldn't have--your heart rate increases, the back of your neck crawls with the beginnings of a blush, you instinctively look away from wherever your eyes were just focused.  No one has this sort of immediate and uncontrollable physical reaction to the prospect of a tax deduction a year or more hence. 

That's why shame is a more powerful counterweight to, say, having unprotected sex in a mad moment, or moving in with your boyfriend, than less punitive measures.  It's a more powerful counterweight than the distant, fuzzy knowledge that babies are sometimes expensive and tend to scream a lot.  It works because it hurts.  And pain is nature's way of saying, "Don't do that!!!"

The problem is that for the percentage of people who ignore social strictures and do something that is pleasurable in the short term while producing bad long term results, such as knocking over a liquor store, shame makes things even worse:  you're in prison, and everyone's mean to you about being in prison.  The problem is that if you don't stigmatize being in prison, or God forbid make it cool and authentic, then other people won't mind going to prison so much, and more kids will a) do something bad and b) screw up their own lives in the process.

Now, I'm prepared to mount a defense of living together out of wedlock (I'd better be, hadn't I?)  I'm prepared to defend parents who have children out of wedlock from shaming, provided they care for them.  I'm prepared to argue that our drug laws are a bigger problem than our drug dealers.  But there are things that are shameful, like having a baby you know you can't care for, or paying yourself a lavish bonus out of taxpayer-provided funds to bail out your crappy, insolvent bank.  Society, and most of the potential offenders, would be better off if we made those things more psychologically costly to even contemplate.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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