You might have heard about the ill-fated app, Peeple, which would have allowed users to rate their friends, neighbors, coworkers and exes on a scale of one to five stars — “Yelp for people,” as it was described by Julia Cordray, one of the app’s creators. As it turned out, people didn’t take to Peeple. It was blasted as an attempt to revive high school-style popularity contests with a decidedly digital flare and, understandably, it received severe public backlash. (Cue indignant Twitter response.)
The saga of Peeple illuminates our conflicted relationship with shame: our panic at the prospect of being publicly disgraced (the ignominy of a one-star review!) and, at the same time, our gleeful willingness to humiliate transgressors. (“We will not be shamed,” Cordray told the Washington Post.) What good is our disapproval in the end?
NYU Professor of Environmental Studies Jennifer Jacquet, who wrote a book on how shame can be used as a tool, argues that while a public flogging can threaten the welfare of its target, shame has also guided social progress in myriad ways. Public condemnation has helped move the needle on contentious issues: racism, homophobia, and now, climate change.
According to Jacquet, shame has an essential role to play in pressuring business leaders, political pundits and elected officials to push for climate action.
How is shame different than guilt?
“Shame and guilt are emotions, but shame is unique in that it’s also a tool,” Jacquet said. “Shame evolved to keep societies cohesive.” Hunter-gatherers used shame to enforce social norms. Those who violated norms invited the scorn of their peers.
“We are evolved to get along with others. We’re very needy socially,” said Jacquet. A public shaming would inflict a sharp and memorable pain.
Today, we largely rely on our criminal justice system to keep order by providing formal sanctions against certain kinds of wrongdoing. Steal your neighbor’s wallet, and you risk being sent to jail.
But for other improprieties, we still turn to informal sanctions, like shame. Violate social norms and your reputation suffers. Take former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli as an example: he bought the rights to a drug that treats parasitic infections among AIDS and cancer patients and raised the price from $13.50 to $750 overnight. Shkreli was subsequently humiliated, and he vowed to lower the cost.
The problem with guilt
Jacquet says it’s important to distinguish shame from guilt. While shame relies on a crowd of pointed fingers, guilt can be felt in perfect solitude.
“Guilt is a feeling whose audience and instigator is oneself, and its discomfort leads to self-regulation,” Jacquet writes in her book. In the context of climate, guilt is virtually useless and often counterproductive. “A lot of time has been wasted with individuals feeling guilty, for instance, about what kind of light bulbs they have in their house,” she said.
Guilt can, paradoxically, make a person less likely to effect meaningful change. On the one hand, “It may be that because you’ve changed your light bulbs that you decide to fly to Tahiti without realizing that what you’ve done has in no way offset the carbon that you would then spend flying to Tahiti.” On the other hand, those who fret about their purchases often do so “at the cost of disengaging with the political system.”
“I guess my concern would be that we alleviate this guilt… about what we are doing to the climate in ways that are actually really paltry”
Guilt is especially problematic where low-carbon options don’t exist. “I get off a plane in Los Angeles, and I think, ‘Oh, I’ll take public transit to get where I need to go.’ And there’s no options,” Jacquet said. It is pointless to feel guilty in this scenario. Rather than agonize over your method of transportation, she says, pressure lawmakers to improve mass transit or strengthen infrastructure.
In other words, the climate-conscious might do better to exercise their political power rather than their purchasing power, whether that means lobbying their senator or knocking on the door of a university president. Climate change communications scholar Ed Maibach explained in an interview this month that even Americans who care deeply about climate change are more likely to modify the way they consume than to speak to their political leaders about global warming. “I find that depressing as an American that we see ourselves more as consumers than citizens,” Maibach said.
Addressing climate change requires more than just a mass of individual actions. Climate demands structural changes. Explained Jacquet, “I guess my concern would be that we alleviate this guilt… about what we are doing to the climate in ways that are actually really paltry.” She believes Americans should be “thinking in terms of the systems, thinking in terms of the true impact and… leveraging each of our own individual power in the way that matters most.” Shame may prove pivotal to doing that.
Shame and climate change denial
Roughly two thirds of Americans now say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who believes human-caused climate change is a hoax. Climate denial has become worthy of public scorn. “It used to be called climate skepticism, and now we’re referring to it as climate denial,” Jacquet said. “Now, people say climate change is occurring … The most radical you would hear is, ‘Maybe it’s humans. Maybe it’s not.’”
Scholars have taken to calling out climate-denying opinion leaders. Researchers at Oklahoma State University tallied the climate denying op-eds from conservative columnists and published a list of the top offenders. Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes wrote Merchants of Doubt (inspiration for the eponymous film), which chronicles the work of a cadre of spin-doctors who obscure the science on climate change, among other things. “This book, I think, is a shaming book,” Jacquet said.
Of course, targeting individuals poses an ethical dilemma. When shaming a person, Jacquet said, we threaten his or her “rights, like to personal dignity or to privacy, because we victimize them in this way. We stigmatize their reputation.” Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, writes, “I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people unless they’ve committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should.” The way around this dilemma is to direct our opprobrium at institutions rather than individuals.
“As much as we want to say that corporations are people, we also argue, ‘Well corporations don’t really have feelings.’ We know that they’re not crying in the shower,” Jacquet said. The fossil fuel divestment movement is arguably a campaign to shame unscrupulous coal, oil and gas companies — particularly those, like ExxonMobil, which have made pointed efforts to impede public understanding of climate science.
“Calling out the denialists in Congress, it seems, is a great technique.”
Earlier this month, journalists at the LA Times, Columbia University and Inside Climate News raised the prospect that ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, understood the climate-altering impact of burning fossil fuels as far back as the 1980s, and yet spent decades funding climate denial. (Visit ExxonSecrets.org to follow the money from Exxon’s capacious vaults to the coffers of climate-denying think tanks.) Environmentalists have blasted Exxon for the cover-up, and the stories have led to calls for formal investigations into the company.
Jacquet believes the average citizen can do his or her part by pointing a finger at companies, like Exxon, that fund climate change denial, as well as their willing co-conspirators. Last month, PR firm Edelman announced that it would stop working with global warming deniers. Associating with these groups threatened the agency’s reputation. Organizations like sumofus.org give citizens a venue to pressure corporations who misbehave. In addition, Jacquet said, “Calling out the denialists in Congress, it seems, is a great technique.”
Protests, boycotts and divestment all help to stigmatize carbon polluters and climate deniers. Artists and entertainers can also help shift the conversation around global warming by integrating climate change into their work. Jacquet pointed to the Yes Men, a comedy duo tackling social and political issues, including climate change. In the mainstream, comedians like Seth Meyers are speaking out about global warming.
“I think the worst way to enlist [artists] is when it’s like, ‘Oh, we took somebody who’s normally really funny and exciting to a glacier,’” Jacquet said. Forget the benefit concert, she says. Write a song instead. The point is to normalize concern about climate change.
The Limits of Shame
But as an informal sanction, shame can only do so much. “Regulation can be a much faster tool,” Jacquet said. “Imagine if we had tried to shame people out of owning slaves.” Thus, while shame can be useful in pressuring corporations and lawmakers, it cannot be Americans’ sole tool for dealing with climate change.
That being said, shame can be meaningfully integrated into climate policy. December’s international climate summit might not result in a legally binding agreement, but it will almost certainly include mechanisms for countries to review each other’s progress. So, while the process could lack formal sanctions, it may allow for informal sanctions. Writing in Grist, Jacquet argues, “Governments must be convinced that if they fail to keep their pledges they will suffer negative reputational consequences that will damage their relations with other countries and may lead to domestic political damage as well.”
With shame, we are witnessing a very old tool being put to use on a relatively new problem. Humans have relied on shame since their evolutionary infancy to enforce social norms, and now it’s being used it to urge action on climate change. How can we motivate the changes we need to curb global warming? As Jacquet points out, morality can evolve. It’s up to humans to render carbon pollution a moral ill and climate action a moral good. Shame may prove essential to that process.