For Shame!

Shame is a powerful weapon. Like all powerful weapons, it should be used with great caution.

"Don't worry about it. He's just a builder. He probably doesn't even have a bachelor's degree."

I heard words similar to this (it was two years ago and I can't remember what I had for breakfast 30 minutes ago) when one of my coworkers "comforted" another after a brief exchange of words with a stand builder at a trade show. I was angry. My father used to be a builder and he is one of the smartest people I know. I later kicked myself for not having told him off. What made him think he was so much better than a builder? I should have put him in his place.

While I do still wish I had said something, I am now glad I did not "put him in his place." Shame is a powerful weapon. "Naming and shaming" is a diplomatic and political tool used by NGOs to get governments to do liberal things, after all, and it works surprisingly often. One need only look at reports by Amnesty International of the prisoners of conscience they have gotten released through no means other than torrents of pleading letters and bad global publicity. The World Bank even uses it to encourage governments to streamline their bureaucracies to make it easier for people in their countries to start a business. If I had snapped at my coworker, I'm sure it would have left a lasting impression. And I was right and he deserved it, right?

Those who live in glass houses...

I can very clearly recall the awful feeling of having said or done something offensive, inappropriate, or insensitive and being confronted (perhaps publicly) about it. It certainly does leave a lasting impression. Increasingly, though, that sinking feeling is accompanied by anger. Why? People say things they shouldn't, or in a tone or context they shouldn't, all the time. I don't think anyone is immune to this. So what right do we have to make other people feel ashamed? Presumably, the goal is to "enlighten" the other person and to make them think before saying something that could hurt others in the future. A lofty goal, perhaps. But is "enlightenment" and the prevention of future offense worth immediate shame? Too often, I fear that much of the real goal is the feeling of moral superiority and strength that comes from telling someone off. No lofty goal.

If our aim is to enlighten and raise the level of respect people have for others, surely we should begin with respect towards the person who, this time around, is "unenlightened"? In my experience, statements like the one above about the builder come more from a lack of thought than from malice. There is no need to use a sledgehammer. A joke can often be the best method. If you're not spontaneously funny enough, a non-public chat can also work. "Enlighten" comes from "light." It's supposed to be a positive thing. I try (try!) to think of how I might make someone aware that they've said something hurtful or ignorant without making them feel mean or stupid. Again, the goal is to make ourselves better, not put people down. It's what I'd like people to do when I say something hurtful or ignorant.

In fact, we have a right to expect that from others. So if someone shames you, tell them that, while their criticism may be valid, their approach could use some work. I know, it's not immediately as gratifying as verbally bashing them and sticking up for yourself, but trust me, this will raise the level of respect and comfort within your circle of acquaintances and you will all soon feel able to discuss anything with each other without fear of retribution. It is not about "not saying offensive things." There should be no risk of people feeling that they now "can't say anything." Quite the opposite: You are free to say what you think, safe in the knowledge that, if you are wrong, you will be swiftly corrected without being personally attacked. There are few things more gratifying than that.

P.S.: Acting in this way, too, is a work in progress. Which means: shaming someone for shaming someone is also not the best way to make the world a better place ;)


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