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Unsnarling the Complexity of Naming and Shaming

Cartoon - sneer pressure


Shame isn’t always powerful. It can cause just a pinprick of discomfort that’s not even blush-worthy. But it can be so excruciating, that a person will end their life to escape it. It’s used against individuals and groups of people – yet it can be a social tool to chip away at that oppressive dynamic, too.

You can’t entirely unpack the use of an emotion that can be socially constructive, destructive, and instructive – but isn’t always any of those things. And its meaning varies profoundly across cultures and religions, too.

Let’s make a start, though, with an aspect that’s been studied, and work some way in from there: the use of naming and shaming to try to change professional behavior.

Ben Goldacre is a master of this as a full-frontal, high-profile tactic to try to budge chronic problems in science. He and a group of colleagues in the COMPare project are currently in the thick of taking a naming and shaming approach to the editors of the 5 most powerful medical journals. (Disclosure: PubMed Commons, on which I work, gets a mention in COMPare.)

The team has identified a frequent problem with clinical trial reports in those journals. Goldacre wants open dialog and constructive action. Sometimes he’s getting both, sometimes just action – and sometimes neither.

The team is firing back at journal stonewalling and pushback in the project’s blog. Energy and inspiration buzzed around the room when Goldacre talked about the project in his recent keynote tour de force at the Medical Library Association conference in Toronto.



The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reacted in a way I’ve not seen from a conference sponsor before – a dismissive rebuttal email sent to all conference registrants. Where this goes from here is sure to be fascinating. Goldacre’s intervention has already achieved progress: a policy change at the Annals of Internal Medicine, as well as giving the stubborn problem he’s tackling a lot of attention.

Ray Pawson and colleagues (PDF) point out that naming and shaming relies on a complex series of events:

The intended sequence … may misfire at any point, leading to unintended outcomes… Wider public reactions may take the form of apathy or panic rather than reproach, and rather than being shamed into pulling up their socks, named individuals or institutions may attempt to resist, reject, ignore or actively discredit the official labelling.

People might also try to avoid a negative label in destructive ways. Take public reporting of surgeons’ performance: some start avoiding patients who might have poor outcomes. Public reporting of doctors and hospitals doesn’t seem to lead to better longterm results. Naming and shaming, with further sanctions, has been responsible for reducing hospital waiting lists and mortality, though (here and [PDF]).

What about other contexts? It gets mixed results. There are cases where it has spurred car manufacturers into incorporating better anti-theft mechanisms in their vehicles, and reduced toxic chemical emissions by companies [PDF]. But a sex offender registry hasn’t apparently been an effective way to reduce crime, according to another analysis by Pawson [PDF]. Faced with people being named and shamed, he concluded:

The public actually responds with a mixture of absolute contempt and merciful respect, as well as all the emotions in between.

Journalists can’t be expected to follow anyone else’s plan, either – not in picking up an issue (or person) or how they run with it. Investigative journalism became a major force for action by exposing wrongdoing around the beginning of the 20th century, according to David Protess and colleagues. But shaming in the media has been with us ever since there has been media. And neither public reaction nor the response of whoever is in the klieg lights is always predictable.

Eyvind Elstad (2009) writes about the effect on schools in Norway of media naming and shaming for poor test results. His case studies showed 3 types of response. In the first, seeing results presented that way jolted a principal into knuckling down to reach the national average. Another made no deep-seated change (and consequently no improvement). And a third had more or less shrugged at the public ranking… until:

The principal was called up late in the evening by a journalist: “How does it feel to be a principal at the worst school in town?”

After the front page story, the pressure from the parents was “intense”. At the school, there was demoralization and paralysis at first – especially for the sole mathematics teacher at the school. It was grades in mathematics that dragged the school’s ranking down.


Photo of a dunce cap
The dunce cap and sitting in the dunce corner didn’t disappear from classrooms till the 1950s in the US and later in the UK. (Image: Rept0n1x)

I’m beginning to feel like I am not as competent a math teacher.

That feeling is part of what makes shame different from emotions that are close relatives, like guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. Shame isn’t pain about something you did, it’s about you – how you judge whether you’re measuring up to your own values and the values of the people around you. “Shame arises because the self is social”, writes Thomas Scheff (2011). “Shame is our moral gyroscope”.

Values change, though, and our views of what’s prosocial and what’s antisocial behavior change, too. It profoundly affects socialization processes in education and parenting.

From the 1950s, in societies heavily influenced by Euroamerican culture, concern for children and young people’s dignity and emotional growth greatly increased (and took some wrong turns [PDF]). The anti-shaming trajectory and destigmatization efforts still have a long way to go. An example here is neurodiversity and autism, powerfully documented by Steve Silberman in Neurotribes (2015).

Education, control, punishment, and the transmission of social values and stigmas have all jostled inside the role of shaming in schooling. The same is true in law and order.


Photo of mosaic
Law: mosaic by Frederick Dielman at the U.S. Library of Congress

Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) constructs a particular thesis about this:

And then one day it hit me. Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and in 1839 in the United States), it was back in a big way.

I think you sort of have to sort of close one eye and squint through the other to see history and public shaming in society that way. The public punishment he’s referring to here is the pillory. But the end of the pillory wasn’t the end of public shaming in policing and punishment.

In the seminal 1977 work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault writes about what followed:

Now the scandal and the light are to be distributed differently; it is the conviction itself that marks the offender with the unequivocally negative sign: the publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence…

The shift in public policy towards bureaucratic arm’s length justice also meant people could be punished in the prison system on a much vaster scale – with all the shaming and degradation of sentencing and prison, and of being an ex-convict for the rest of your life. This is no small, or private, stigma. And in the US, for example, arrest and perp walks can be a major local or national media spectacle – even televised.

Is there an upsurge in judicial punishments designed to humiliate people in public, of the kind Ronson discusses? Shame is definitely involved in public sex offender registries, although community protection is their main intent. That began in the US in 1994. The US and South Korea are the only countries that make this data public nationwide, although 3 states in Australia and Canada do, too (as of 2014 [PDF]).

Some judges in the US started handing down more unusual directly shaming punishments, although those are sometimes at least struck down by higher courts. I couldn’t find data on how common this is. Dan Kahan concluded that shaming penalties are unlikely to be widely accepted because they “grate against the sensibilities” of people from both egalitarian and individualistic sides of an ideological fence, although for different reasons [PDF].

Blaming and public shaming of victims of crime goes deep and wide, though. That seems to have a long unbroken history. In Between the World and Me (2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

The story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined – with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words…

America needs this, he argues, to believe it is somehow justified. Self-protecting avoidance of larger implications drives other kinds of victim-blaming – like sexual and partner violence against women. The end result is a shocking level of self-blame associated with being raped, for example, and willingness to at least partially exculpate men for their crimes [PDF].


Photo of protest
The first Slut Walk protest: Toronto 2011 (Image: Anton Bielousov)

On 24 January 2011, a Canadian Police Officer Michael Sanguinetti offered a routine ‘personal safety’ visit at Osgoode Law School at York University in Toronto. Sanguinetti began his talk with the disclaimer, ‘You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here’. He went on to deliver the now infamous line ‘I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid addressing like sluts in order not to be victimised’.

Jessica Ringrose and Emma Renold examine the clash of values there, and the impact on teen girls of what followed [PDF]. The episode triggered a transnational protest movement that highlights the potential of a new kind of activism. In some ways, this kind of feminist call-out is a lot like the speak-out activism of the 1970s. The internet is one of the ways that makes it different.

Mass media has always fueled some movements and counter-movements. But internet publishing and social media spread that power more widely. It’s done that for systemic social problems as well as for potential solutions. Lisa Nakamura writes [PDF]:

[R]acism and sexism have continued to flourish on the Internet, and indeed to some extent have even come to define it, despite our supposedly “post-racial” historical moment.

What’s more, Roopika Risam writes, “digital realms… produce inequalities in their own ways by virtue of their material existence”. As people’s thoughts move out there for so many others to see, it isn’t just some pastoral idyll, even within communities of activism, Risam points out, because “there isn’t a single, common cause”. There can’t be, when there are multiple forces at play disadvantaging and oppressing people.

Those forces play out in people’s lives below the surface in many ways, thriving in privacy and silence.


Link to Barbara Kruger's Your comfort is my silence


Power shifting is inherently confronting. In part, that’s because it can’t be controlled and we don’t yet know how to deal with a changing social scene. It’s also easier to see abuses of power when they occur in new forms than the kind we’re so used to, we don’t even notice them much any more.

We can be hampered by self-serving bias, too – a tendency to think others are more uncivil than we and our friends are, for example [PDF]. I think that happened a year ago, when the Tim Hunt episode spiraled into excess.

Our behavior is not always in sync with our beliefs and intentions, without us being aware of it. Programs that aim to reduce implicit bias, haven’t shown powerful effects on behavior. In fact, we can change our beliefs and intentions, without our behavior changing even one little bit.

We can’t always make structural changes that are needed either, unless our motivation is high enough. Motivation can help get us over all these lines. Shame can motivate us individually and collectively into prosocial behavior [PDF], and we need it to.

Our reaction to antisocial behavior, writes Janet Stemwedel, “can affirm… that the behavior in question actually is bad, and that the individuals or communities see themselves as having a real stake in reducing it”. That’s an important message to send to people. The opportunity to share experiences and feelings about it matters.

We can’t legislate or make rules about everything, with due processes for anything that happens in public and in private. Social pressure is usually the only recourse to issues of social behavior. But it’s not easy to keep it in proportion, especially once it gets into shaming and retribution territory. If society goes too far, argues Stephen Garvey [PDF], punishments:

…don’t just misfire; they backfire. They treat the offender as less than a person, and in so doing teach the wrong lesson.

Painting of closed eyes and tears

The trouble is, our society treats some people as less than others systematically – day in, day out. Because of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, occupation… In doing so, we are systematically shaming people, too.

In social controversies, it’s easy, then, to fall into the trap of dismissing others as hyper-reactive or being over-sensitive, when the problem is that we’re being under-sensitive. Whenever one of these conflicts burst out, we are confronting our own interests and the limits of our empathy.



Related posts:

Who does the crime? Whose power? Whose values? Belief + Doubt: Installation by Barbara Kruger (Photo: Hilda Bastian)
Who does the crime? Whose power? Whose values? Belief + Doubt: Installation by Barbara Kruger (Photo: Hilda Bastian)

If you’re interested in research on alternative approaches to policing, judicial processes, and sentencing, I’ve written a long post about that here.

I made a critical reference to Ronson’s popular book on shaming. If you’re interested in reading more critical analysis on this, check out reviews by Jacqui Shine and Jacob Silverman, and Adria Richard’s and Melissa McEwan’s perspectives.

The cartoons and uncredited artwork are my own (CC-NC-ND-SA license)(More cartoons at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.) 

I’m grateful to Leslie M. Janes and James M. Olson: the idea for “sneer pressure” came after reading their article called “Jeer pressure: the behavioral effects of observing ridicule of others” (2000).

The dunce cap is from a Victorian classroom in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, Lincoln, England: photo by Rept0n1x, via Wikimedia Commons. Details in the caption from an article on the history of the dunce cap by Eric Grundhauser  (2015).

The image of Frederick Dielman’s mosaic “Law” at the U.S. Library of Congress is from Wikimedia Commons.

The photo of the first Slut Walk, in Toronto on 3 April 2011, is by Anton Bielousov, via Wikimedia Commons.

See Barbara Kruger’s 1981 untitled work (Your comfort is my silence) here, and read more about the artist.


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.




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