In the past decade or so, liberals and progressives have evolved a new language to talk about social inequality. This new rhetoric — which is, notably, rejected by many on the left — differs from the rhetoric that defined President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” liberal social welfare policies in the 1960s, which were characterized by an emphasis on universal social programs and equality of access. Rather, the new rhetoric of many contemporary liberals involves a fixation on privilege, generally framed within the lens of race, class, or gender.
Politically speaking, the “privilege” framework for understanding (and rectifying) social ills has its pros and cons. Clearly, privilege is undeniably real and self-evident: there is no other explanation for why those of different gender and racial categories would have different experiences of discrimination (say, women being statistically more likely to be harassed), and different life outcomes (say, the racial wage gap).
Yet the way in which privilege is discussed in popular discourse — and often, used to imply someone does not deserve their station in life — abuts deep-rooted myths in American culture regarding being self-made, or regarding the relationship of hard work to success.
This is probably somewhat self-evident to even an armchair psychologist; no one who struggled in their youth and worked tremendously hard to attain their career wants to be told they don’t deserve it. Perhaps, then, it is understandable that science overwhelmingly indicates that individuals will not acknowledge their privileges simply because you shame them. The truth of this belies a core tactic at the heart of much liberal political discourse regarding privilege-shaming — a type of discourse that is particularly acute online.
Instead, the act of shaming quite often causes the subject to double-down on the belief that they are not privileged at all.
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This might seem counterintuitive; after all, if a person is shown sound reasons why they happen to benefit from being part of a certain group, why would they not be sensitive to shaming if and when they try to deny those unfair advantages?
Yet as it turns out, many people do not accept the premise that they have privileges at all. As such, attempts to shame them fail because they do not buy into the underlying assumptions that could make shaming effective.
“Shaming personalizes political life; it assails individuals for injustices that are historically, socially and politically organized.”
“‘Shaming,’ as I understand it, is a tactic used to elicit a negative emotional state in a target for the perceived violation of a social norm,” David Weitzner, Ph.D., a writer, consultant, and professor of management at York University, told Salon by email. (Weitzner has written about shaming for Psychology Today.) “For shaming to be effective, however, the target needs to accept the validity of the social norm they are accused of violating.”
As one hypothetical example, Weitzner discussed someone who is called out for using a word that they know to be a slur, and who already acknowledges that using a slur is “undesirable behavior.” In that scenario, shaming can be effective because the shamed party already agrees that the hypothetical behavior in question deserves social sanction. From there, the task simply becomes one of convincing them that they are guilty of that behavior. Yet not everyone agrees that they hold privilege, or even that holding it would even necessarily be something worthy of shame.
“Is holding ‘privilege’ undesirable behavior?” Weitzner asked. “Some people intuitively think so, but that idea does not resonate with me. ‘Privilege’ in a social justice context has been defined as ‘Unearned social power accorded by the formal and informal institutions of society to ALL members of a dominant group.’ Even by this definition, holding privilege is not necessarily, in and of itself, problematic behavior. Conferring privilege might be problematic. Exploiting privilege almost certainly is problematic. But there is room to believe that reasonable people may view holding privilege as morally neutral.”
As a result, Weitzner explained, “a primary argument against shaming people about their privilege is that it is counterproductive behavior since there isn’t universal buy-in to the idea that holding privilege violates a worthwhile norm.”
Another flaw in privilege-shaming is that it misunderstands the dynamics which cause systems of oppression to exist.
“Shame-driven politics are what produce right-wing, reactionary, anti-democratic, authoritarian, violent, militaristic, and theocratic orientations, such as in fascism, Nazism, and the pro-slavery American South.”
“Shaming personalizes political life; it assails individuals for injustices that are historically, socially and politically organized,” political theorist Wendy Brown, who teaches social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, told Salon by email. Brown identified four sources of this tendency in modern America, including “the neoliberal recasting of every social product and distribution as a personal asset or deficit”; the use of identity “as a badge naming one’s place in hierarchies of privilege and oppression”; “a broadly felt powerlessness to transform or even touch the major powers organizing us today, hence the move to whither what is close at hand”; and, finally, “social media.”
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Dr. Bandy X. Lee, the president of the World Mental Health Coalition, pointed out to Salon by email that shaming can also be “dangerous” because it drives people to far-right political ideologies.
“Shame-driven politics are what produce right-wing, reactionary, anti-democratic, authoritarian, violent, militaristic, and theocratic orientations, such as in fascism, Nazism, and the pro-slavery American South,” Lee told Salon by email. “Moral, ethical, legal, and political ideologies are subordinated to the impulses of white supremacy, male domination, and the maximization of power and wealth differentials. The goal is to divide society into superior and inferior, and to place oneself at the top. Those overwhelmed with feelings of shame, inadequacy, and worthlessness believe they must violate and dominate others in this manner to feel even a modicum of pride about themselves.”
Lee added that people who subscribe to those ideologies “would rather kill you and kill themselves, metaphorically or literally” than to admit that they feel personal shame. In their minds, admitting to their own personal feelings of shame “is the most shameful of all—and therefore adding to this shame can provoke further violence.”
“It feels bad to recognize one’s role in perpetuating and benefitting from harmful systems, and empathy can be a helpful tool for encouraging learning and open-mindedness, as opposed to defensiveness or withdrawal.”
Eliana Peck — a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, who has written about the psychology of white shame — told Salon in writing that if the goal is to convince someone to consider their privileged position in the world, empathy is more effective than shaming.
“We should generally be empathetic when discussing privilege with others,” Peck explained. “It feels bad to recognize one’s role in perpetuating and benefitting from harmful systems, and empathy can be a helpful tool for encouraging learning and open-mindedness, as opposed to defensiveness or withdrawal.”
Peck was careful to point out that asking for empathy has potential drawbacks.
“[P]articularly when discussing privilege with those who are more marginalized than ourselves, we should be careful not to demand or expect too much empathy; doing so can be a harmful way of asking that more marginalized people direct their energies towards caring for us, absolving our guilt, or forgiving us for our privilege, none of which ought to be our focus,” Peck told Salon.
Dr. Matt Blanchard, a clinical psychologist at New York University, opened up to Salon about his experiences teaching young people, observing that it is critical to be constructive as well as critical. After all, young people today have inherited a world where they largely feel powerless. People can be more open-minded to hearing about injustices from which they have benefited if, more broadly, those are framed as part of a crusade for building a just society — and one in which they can play a part.
“They tell me about shame for not being skinny or being too square or being foreign or a virgin, or for having ADHD or autism or for watching porn, for doing drugs or not doing drugs, for talking too loud or being too shy.”
“That guidance is often not there – and the fault lies with political failure of adults,” Blanchard explained. “A Congress entirely captured by large-dollar donors has prevented meaningful reforms that could equalize opportunity in this increasingly wealth-dominated society. A media concentrated in corporate hands is allergic to serious discussions of class, while the right-wing fringe stokes racial division as a distraction from class inequities.”
Blanchard pointed out that America as a country has valid reason to be ashamed of the injustices from its 400-year plus history. There is nothing incongruous about simultaneously acknowledging these facts, and also seeing how young people today feel shame independent of American history.
“[W]orking as a psychotherapist with college students from all backgrounds, I can’t help but notice there’s already quite a lot of shame in their lives,” Blanchard explained. “They tell me about shame for not being skinny or being too square or being foreign or a virgin, or for having ADHD or autism or for watching porn, for doing drugs or not doing drugs, for talking too loud or being too shy — the list of shame points is endless for the young.” That is why he advocates an approach to understanding privilege “that provides young people with tools to not only recognize their advantages but also imagine their role in building a just society. Otherwise we leave them with a problem they can’t easily solve, at which point they tend to disengage.”
Of course, as Blanchard noted, “we are hampered by a political system that seems to offer few clear routes for progress.”
It is here — when dealing with institutions and structures that perpetuate inequalities — that shaming can be effective. As Brown wrote to Salon, the dynamics that make shaming ineffective in interpersonal contexts do not automatically carry over when criticizing organizations.
“Shame as a political tactic should be reserved for the big collective entities — war-mongering or colonial states (Russia, Israel), super-exploitative industries or corporations (Big Oil, Big Pharma), the billionaire class, etc,” Brown explained. “This purely rhetorical tactic — collective entities do not feel shame — can be effective.”
The difference, at the end of the day, may be best summed up as hating the sin but not the sinner. If the goal is to bring about change, one must start by understanding that individuals are actors in larger systems.
“Shaming the ‘privileged’ is especially misbegotten,” Brown told Salon. “First, the important question about privilege, or power, is whether and how you use it for social transformation, and whether you are sufficiently conscious and conscientious about it to use it responsibly. Secondly, the move to turn social powers into individual holdings, and to fixate on those as wrongs, personalizes and de-politicizes social powers. It treats individuals rather than social arrangements as the object of transformation.”
Brown concluded, “That’s nuts.”
Read more Salon articles on the politics of shame: