When is Shaming Okay?

When we last met, we discussed donating money to charity and the pushback that comes when you publicly encourage people to donate more.

The discussion in the personal finance community originally kicked off with a thread of tweets from Tanja of Our Next Life. When I reached out to folks to learn more about why they pushed back against the encouragement to donate more, I received a lot of different answers that I detailed in the last article.

I also received a lot of complaints about shaming that I set aside and investigated separately.

So let’s dive into shaming here today.

Bad Faith

First, let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: None of the complaints about shaming in this instance were made in good faith.

A handful of people said that Tanja’s thread and the resulting discussion about charity was unacceptable because it was shaming people. They were saying that because Tanja was telling them they should donate more money, she was essentially shaming them for how they chose to spend their money. The claimed to find this unacceptable.

I went through the twitter feeds of everyone that I could find making this complaint and found that each and every one of them had used harsher language to judge other people’s spending decisions in the previous week.

People were castigating others for spending on cable or Netflix or moralizing about how people with debt shouldn’t go to restaurants. One person legitimately said that poor people were poor because they gave too much money to charity after complaining about being shamed for his choices regarding money and charity.

These are not people that are against shaming on principle. They are only against it when they feel it is being done to them.

But Still…

With all of that said, I still wanted to give serious thought to the question of shaming.

I have argued before that we shouldn’t be shaming people in poverty for the ways they spend their money. We should educate. We should help. We should encourage. But we should not shame.

Was I being hypocritical in arguing that we should be giving more to charity?

Was I shaming people? And was that okay?

Defining Shaming

In discussing this with people, everyone seemed to agree that there were lines between offering your opinion, encouraging a change in behavior, critiquing, and shaming. Figuring out where those lines are is tougher.

For the most part it largely comes down to how the person receiving your words takes them.

By definition, to shame someone is to make them feel ashamed. Feeling ashamed is feeling guilty or embarrassed because of something you’ve done (or failed to do). Thus, whether someone is shamed is actually outside of the control of the person doing the shaming.

For ease of conversation, though, let’s define “shaming” here as intending to make someone feel shame. Switching from outcome to intent gives agency to the speaker (or writer) in a way that makes the topic easier to explore.

Back to the Charity Discussion

Tanja’s thread was not harsh or judgmental.

It was essentially a lesson in understanding scarcity mindset. It gave people some articles to read and some resources to explore to get perspective on how wealthy they really are.

It wasn’t saying “People who don’t give to charity should be shunned by society.” It was closer to “People who don’t give to charity probably don’t recognize how much money they really have, so here are some ways to remedy that.”

The folks who felt shamed by that are probably saying more about themselves than about the thread.

Is Shaming Ever Okay?

Even if Tanja’s thread was not shaming (or at least not intended to be so), would shaming be okay in this situation?

Is shaming ever okay?

This is where I wanted to step back and really dive into this issue, because I have mixed thoughts.

I believe that shaming is too common in some spheres of society. The personal finance community shames people in poverty and indebted people for their spending decisions far too often. Society in general shames women for their choices far too often.

But saying that shaming should never occur is probably an overcorrection.

The Societal Benefits of Shame

Shame has an important role to play in our society.

There are some things that are not illegal, but still should be discouraged. Shame often fills this gap.

Racism is not illegal. But as a society we don’t want people to say or do racist things. One way that society has evolved to address this is by making people who say and do racist things feel ashamed of their actions.

We set unwritten rules for what is acceptable and what is not, and then we shame and shun people who cross those lines. If you want to be accepted into society, you need to follow these rules.

If you’re a white dude using the n-word you should be made to feel ashamed so that you recognize you’ve crossed a line and need to become less racist if you want to rejoin the table.

Racism is not a crime recognized by the government, so you won’t go to jail. But it is a major infraction recognized by society, so you will be ostracized as punishment.

Shame in Action

When I was in middle school I used “gay” as an insult. I did it because everyone else was doing it and I didn’t really think through the implications or the impacts.

When I think back on that now I feel deeply ashamed. I can literally feel the color draining from my face as I type this twenty years later, thinking about my actions as an 11-year-old. (And again as I reread this while editing.)

It is hard enough to feel comfortable in your own skin as a sixth grader. Imagine grappling with your sexual identity while everyone around you is casually equating “gay” with “bad” on a regular basis. Every time I think of this I am horrified of the role that I may have played in making closeted classmates’ lives worse.

It’s good that I feel that shame.

That shame means that I will never do something like that again and that I will forever be more mindful of how my words may be unintentionally hurting others.

That shame makes society better.

Where is the Line?

So shaming on behalf of things that will improve society can be good.

However, that is quite a subjective line. Is that a standard that we’re comfortable adopting? Does everyone get to use their own definition of improvement of society? Are there certain things that are so important that shaming is okay and others that we should try to avoid?

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like seem like places where shaming should be acceptable. If your words or actions are tearing down others for things outside of their control, then you should deal with social consequences for those words and actions.

I have previously argued that the same applies to parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids. Vaccinations have been proven safe and effective, and choosing not to get them can literally kill other children that did not have a choice due to medical issues. For that reason, I argued that “Vaccinating your kids is so important that there is great value in creating social pressure to do so.” Basically, I argued that shaming should be acceptable when someone’s actions are not illegal but could lead to the deaths of innocent children.

That still seems like a fair stance to me.

Finding the Gray Area

It gets a bit murkier when we start treading into money and politics.

I’m on record as arguing that we should not shame people simply for voting for Trump, but I know and respect people who hold the opposite belief. Their view is that even if those people are not racist and sexist, the racism and sexism of the candidate were not disqualifying to them. This is only a step removed from doing and saying racist and sexist things themselves.

Is it acceptable to shame climate change deniers? Climate change will result in untold deaths that could have been avoided if people agreed that we needed to take action sooner. Does that fall under the “innocent deaths” rationale of my anti-vaxxer shaming or is it too far removed?

We could end extreme poverty in every country on Earth if the average American committed to donating $500 per year. There are all sorts of deadly and preventable diseases that we could eliminate for even less than that. Our failure to spend more on good causes is allowing people to die that should have had the opportunity to live full lives. Is that sufficient justification for shaming?

These are not questions that I have the answers to.

I don’t know where the line should be.

Where would you draw the line?

When Shaming Goes Too Far

There are also a few tangential issues that I want to touch on before we leave the topic of shaming.

One of these is how far and how hard we push shaming.

My whole premise thus far is that shame serves a purpose in society. If that’s the case, then we need to make sure that any shaming that happens should further that purpose.

Jon Ronson wrote a really interesting book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book explores situations where the shaming of individuals may have gone too far. This tends to happen when the focus of a large sector of the population is directed towards the shaming of one person, which has become far more common in the social media era.

The problem is that shame is supposed to make you learn from your mistakes and correct your actions in the future. For that to work, we need to allow people to reenter society after being shamed. We need to remember that it is the person’s actions that are drawing the shame rather than the person themselves.

If they learn from their mistakes and are sincerely apologetic, then we should be accepting of that and gracious in giving second chances. Instead, especially in the modern age, we have a tendency to dunk on people and never let their past mistakes go. This eliminates their incentives to get better and learn from their mistakes, and instead potentially leads to a permanent underclass of bitter castaways who cling to wrongheaded views and see themselves as martyrs.

Shame Works

Another quick issue that I want to touch on is the argument that shame doesn’t work, which I heard a lot in these discussions. This just isn’t true.

Or at least it isn’t true as a blanket statement.

I’m sure there are situations where shaming people does not have an effect or causes a backlash. I would not at all be surprised to find that studies to that end exist.

That said, shame generally works. Despite a bit of a backslide over the last few years, it has become more and more unacceptable to express racist, sexist, or homophobic ideas.

We are still far from perfect on these fronts, but we are much better than we used to be. Shame has played a huge part in this trend.

My Path to Donating More

I’ve already explained why I find Tanja’s thread to be more educating than shaming.

That said, reading an article with a similar message years ago is what led me to start donating more. We are evolutionarily designed to feel like we never have enough. We are predisposed to hoarding. Our instincts are always to keep more for ourselves. It’s natural.

Combine that with that fact that we tend to look up when we compare ourselves to others and you have a really strong disinclination to give significant sums to help the less fortunate.

I had (and still have) a ton of student loan debt and was just starting my career. I wasn’t making anywhere near as much as my coworkers and others in my field. I was living in a high cost-of-living area and wanted to start a family. I was reading a lot of personal finance and financial independence blogs and felt like I was absurdly far behind in saving and investing.

I needed to recognize that I was still so much more fortunate than the vast majority of people around the world. I needed to be reminded that 1.3 billion people live on under $1.25 per day. I needed to understand that half the world lives on under $1,000 a year.

A donation of $10 a week could double the annual income of a family in extreme poverty. That is a lifechanging amount of money. Surely I could skip out on $20 each paycheck if it meant that much to another family, right?

If you consider that shaming, then shaming worked on me.

Unreachable People

There are folks out there that have said that the recent “shaming” regarding donating made them less likely to donate. I don’t see any reason to take this seriously.

The people that said this have also provided all sorts of other reasons that they do not donate and did not intend to donate more. There is no reason to believe that any particular tone would have changed their mind.

I had a discussion on charitable giving with one woman a few months ago. We talked it out a bit and she said that she would think over the discussion but that she didn’t see any scenario in which she would start donating in the near future. This same person was one of the ones saying that the recent “shaming” made her less likely to donate.

Maybe she legitimately felt so angry about the discussions that she felt the need to entrench and double down on her position. Maybe she was 100% genuine in her sentiment and her statement. It still doesn’t mean that a different tone would have convinced her or that if she felt like people were careful not to shame her then she would have started donating money.

Some people are not going to be convinced no matter what you say or how you say it. There’s no reason to reorient your message to try to be more convincing to people that can’t be convinced. There is no benefit to tiptoeing around topics in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of people that will continue to remain unmoved regardless.

Get your message to the people that need to hear it and are willing to listen. Do it in the manner that you think will be most convincing.

Join the Conversation!

A lot of this has been the blogging equivalent to thinking out loud, so I’d love to hear what you think. Is shaming ever okay? If so, where is the line? Or is there even a line? Do you think there are any best practices or guardrails or anything else to think about? Let us know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “When is Shaming Okay?”

  1. For an example of shaming backfiring, I present to you: the time I was fat-shamed by my OB-GYN at my pregnancy confirmation appointment for my second baby.

    The OB looked at my wrist, consulted a chart, and told me that my MAXIMUM healthy weight was 126 pounds. (Apparently it was amazing that I had not immediately burst into flames upon reaching 127 pounds at the age of 12). At the time, while 6-8 weeks pregnant and 2 months away from my father’s imminent death (which my OB knew about), I weighed 161 pounds. I interrupted her before she got there, but my suspicion was that she planned to tell me I could not healthfully gain ANY weight during the pregnancy, since I was already 35 pounds above my maximum health weight.

    Though I didn’t do it, all I wanted after that appointment was to buy and consume an entire bag of Oreo cookies in a cave. Instead, I called my doula from my first pregnancy and asked for a referral to a midwife. I fired my OB’s fat-shamey ass and made a formal complaint to her employer.

    Here’s where I think backfiring/doubling down comes from when it comes to shaming: when the shamed person already feels shame before the conversation in question. I have a fairly good body image, but I also live in a fat-phobic society. I was fully aware of how much I weighed and it was not what I considered ideal, particularly as I entered a pregnancy while pre-mourning the loss of my dad.

    My OB shaming me made me want to give her the middle finger because I already felt bad, and filling the tub with ice cream and eating my way out of it would have been a way to flip her the bird. But I also knew that would not actually make me feel better and it would be bad for my kid and my body. The folks who do indulge in that kind of “Here’s what I think your shaming!!” behavior may not always have the same kind of in-the-moment self awareness.

    It’s also important to look at power dynamics when it comes to shaming. Body shaming reinforces the power dynamics that are already in place. That is not helpful to our society. Shaming those who use racist, sexist, homophobic, or other such language pushes against the dominant power structures in our society. I would argue that is helpful shaming.

  2. I’m going to respond as a teacher first since that’s my big lens:
    1. I personally try to stay away from shaming for the most part but have no problem asking people to take a hard look at themselves. Personally, sometimes the big ol’ ugly mirror of truth can evoke feelings of shame in me…as it *should*. Those harsh moments of introspective are when I grow. Hopefully others do too.
    2. I do think we have to be careful not to give people yet another reason to excuse or dismiss something, though. Watching students who feel backed into a corner is eye opening. They will do literally anything other than look inward in that moment.

    I am so glad you wrote this. Thanks for being a leader and for giving me something really important to chew on.
    Penny recently posted…Summer Money Moves That I Plan to MakeMy Profile

  3. Since graduating college, I’ve always felt a pull to give back even when I didn’t have much. And after thinking deeply about it, one of the things my college did was introduce you (virtually) to the person or family who donated the money that was used to partially fund my education. It struck a chord in me then and now – why was I so lucky to get this money and why was I given this opportunity when I wasn’t sure I deserved it? I recognize that now as a combination of privilege and luck that helped me access an education I wouldn’t normally have been able to access. The college though was incredibly insightful to make it so personal as it planted the seed for me to always feel like I needed to give back and I have to imagine that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. For me, I sort of dialed things back a bit the last couple of years on my path to my work optional lifestyle and I think it’s because I had blinders on as the goal became super clear and reachable. Once I hit my goal number; however, I felt like I snapped back out of my selfish obsession with the numbers (oh ya, and Trump got elected) and I started giving generously again. Thanks for using your talent with words to work through the nuance of this topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge