All over our Facebook feeds this week: Walter Palmer and Cecil the Lion. Thousands of people are directing shame at Palmer for killing a protected lion. This collective outpouring is an emotional message: “We think you did wrong,” and even, “You are evil because of what you did.”
I’m disgusted by the idea of killing an animal to put its head on the wall. At the same time, I’m disturbed by the Palmer-hate that’s flooding social media. It led me to think more about shame and the emotions driving us when social shame spirals away from us.
The Puritans were big fans of shame. Hold someone up as an example of wrong-doing so they will experience sufficient humiliation to prevent future transgressions. Yet as Henry Miller’s The Crucible explained, when combined with group-think hysteria, that puritanical shaming against evil may not actually be morally good.
Emotions researchers talk about shame as one of the “moral emotions.” The premise: When we do wrong, feelings like shame or guilt will push us back on track. Imagine the vexed grandmother berating a short skirt some other perceived violation of decency: “Have you no shame?”
This blame from others is central to the concept of shame. Where guilt seems to come from an internal sense of transgression, shame is about others’ perceptions. That difference may be the reason that shame isn’t, actually, an effective force for prosocial behavior.
Shame and Anger
While “moral emotions” are thought to regulate people toward positive social behavior, it seems shame is more about anger than about justice. Researchers have found that shame is linked to aggressiveness rather than reparation — whereas guilt plays the opposite role (check out the paper by Jeffrey Stuewig et al).
The aggressiveness, even rage, is an anger-component of this complex feeling. Shame is probably a mix of three basic emotions:
Anger: Something is blocking my way.
Disgust: Something is wrong.
Sadness: Something I love is going away.
Sometimes the anger is directed inward, and shame becomes self-destructive. Other times, the anger is directed outward, and the aggression of shame becomes violence.
The Motivation of Shame
Moral emotions, such as shame and guilt, are thought to generate cooperative behavior. But that’s not what research shows. In this fascinating study by Ilona E. de Hooge and colleagues, subjects were shamed for selfish behavior, but when given a chance to repair the damaged, the shamed were more likely to act with coldness than remorse. Guilt does seem to motivate us to fix our mistakes by cooperating — but shame motivates us to withdraw. To disappear.
Certainly the case with the lion killer.
There’s another side. What’s the motivation of the shamers? What do we get from shaming? There is a positive aspect of defining standards. Putting someone in a pillory is a way to say to the collective: “This behavior is not acceptable.” The Palmer shaming is many people are saying: It’s time to stop this kind of trophy hunting.
Drawing these lines has a pro-social component of moral definition. At the same time, humans have an unfortunate tendency to go a step further: The person on the other side of that line is not just someone, like us, who made a mistake. That person is less than us. Less than human. Even evil.
This is a dangerous shift, even more pernicious because it feels good. As social creatures, we probably have this shame-mechanism to affirm our togetherness. And little unites us quite so quickly as a common enemy.
Once that “enemy” was an alienated fellow townsperson in the pillory in town square. Today the pillory is on a social media feed. When we see “everyone” talking someone’s wrongness, our social brains exert a strong pressure to agree. To join the herd.
Shaming as Violence
I said shame includes disgust, sadness, and anger. The same feelings probably motivate shaming. When we hear of Palmer flaunting his wealth to circumvent the law and kill a magnificent creature for sport, we feel:
Disgust: Something is wrong — the rules have been violated.
Sadness: Something I love is going away — we are destroying nature.
Anger: Something is blocking my way — and it’s here we have the challenge: Do we conclude, “the dentist is the problem,” or do we dig deeper?
These feelings make sense. In a world of growing environmental chaos, we should be outraged by this behavior. Our emotions are telling us that this needs attention. Many people take the outrage and use it to fuel to call for change. Some are calling for justice. Others are calling for something darker.
Blaming “The Other” is Easier
What’s harder to understand is why we are so ready to take this hard-line stance about the lion-killer, and so unwilling to take responsibility for our own transgressions against the environment. I bought chicken rice in Singapore recently, and my friend said, “Now this styrofoam contain will be on the planet for eternity.” I agreed intellectually that it’s wrong to use a foam box to hold my lunch. I felt some remorse, but I quickly forgave myself and moved on.
Yet when the tide of shaming grows, we don’t move on. The reason is probably connected to alienation. To making the other somehow deserving of the rage. Palmer is being called a murderer and worse. It makes it feel good to hate him.
Ron Jonson describes this phenomenon in a compelling TED talk (shared below) — he says shaming through social media started as a kind of “democratization of justice” but it’s quickly spiraled out of control. He gives examples of people who shamed for “misuse of privilege,” “the phrase ‘misuse of privilege’ is becoming a free pass to tear apart pretty much anybody we choose to. It’s becoming a devalued term, and it’s making us lose our capacity for empathy.” Jonson describes a process where flocking together against someone else seems to feel good — and excuses very destructive behavior by the shamers.
We should feel strongly about issues like Cecil the Lion. It’s appropriate for us to feel disgust and sorrow and anger. The question is: What do we do with our outrage?
This emotional energy can fuel positive change. We can stop accepting those styrofoam containers. We can take it as a wake up call: It’s time to change. Change the laws. Change the enforcement. Change our own behavior.
Or, we can let the outrage flow toward blame and destruction, making transgressors less-than-human to justify our vilification. We can enjoy being in the right, in the herd, and blaming others, and leave it there. And if we waste our righteous anger in this way, then shame on us.
Cecil the Lion photo from Wikipedia: “Cecil the Lion” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
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