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Luna Dolezal Shaming people is hurting, not helping our efforts to build a more equitable world

What if, when we’re full of righteous anger, the things that make us feel good are getting in the way of progress? A long-read about our counterproductive use of shaming.

A black and white painting of a person who looks like they are screaming, surrounded by colourful tags on a wall.

Street art by Inksurgeon, on the factory at end of Woodbourn Hill, Sheffield in 2014


As a society, we love publicly shaming people who’ve done something wrong. Maybe a comedian says something racist, a politician does something corrupt, an activist sexually harasses somebody, or a company invests in the arms trade. Social media is right there for us to yell at them, point out their shortcomings, and never let them forget it.

It feels good. It feels righteous. It feels deserved.

But what if it makes things worse?

Just because I want to do it doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

So when radio presenter James O’Brien spoke at Festival of Debate about his book, How They Broke Britain, I was interested to hear him say that he believes that, for politics to improve, we have to reinstate a sense of shame in our politicians.

As he told the audience in Victoria Hall, about Boris Johnson’s premiership, “That removal of shame was so quick and so complete that, by the time Boris Johnson was on the march, high on Brexit lies and mild xenophobia […], that level of shamelessness was so complete that you go in the space of weeks from [Amber Rudd] resigning on genuine points of principle twice to a man, Boris Johnson, who, when his friend Owen Paterson was found to have breached parliamentary standards by lobbying, a really egregious breach of parliamentary standards, the response of Boris Johnson, and of Jacob Rees-Mogg, and of various other people who met at the Garrett Club […] was to form the […] Save Owen Paterson Society.”

But is the problem really a lack of shame and, if so, is shaming people who behave badly the answer? Because we might have to miss out on that sense of satisfaction, and the dopamine hit of beautiful schadenfreude, for the results of our campaigning to be better.

Professor Luna Dolezal is a professor in Philosophy and Medical Humanities at the University of Exeter. She is the Principal Investigator on the Shame and Medicine project and co-author of the book COVID-19 and Shame: Political Emotions and Public Health in the UK.

A smiling woman.

Professor Luna Dolezal

I spoke to Professor Dolezal about her work studying shame and its impact to find out more about whether reinstating shame, as O’Brien advocates, and publicly shaming those who do wrong, will result in the progress we need to see in society.

I’m increasingly interested in what will actually create change, what will move the needle, rather than what will make us feel better momentarily. So what is the relationship between feeling shame and being shamed?

I see shame and shaming as two separate things because they can be completely decoupled. You can experience shame without it being the result of someone shaming you. And you also have lots of times when shaming happens, and it doesn't result in shame, it doesn't affect them. They don't care about the thing they're being shamed about.

Or sometimes, shaming is used not because someone wants to perform their values to an audience. So: ‘I'm going to shame this community or this person because I'm going to show you the sort of person I am through doing that.’

I have experienced being shamed and feeling shame as a result. And I have experienced being shamed and feeling nothing.

It depends on if you have something at stake. You have to care about the thing, it has to match your values.

But if you're already minoritised, or lower down a social hierarchy, even if you don't agree with the shaming, you might still feel the shame.

So you could be racially abused and be very proud of your ethnicity. But still, because you're in a minority rather than the dominant majority, it could still have that effect of, ‘Oh, there is something wrong with me, I'm worth less than the dominant people.’

It's very unpredictable. We never know how the shaming will affect someone because we don't know their trauma history. We don't know their circumstances.

Does being shamed make us behave better?

This is really complicated, because we never know how shame is going to affect someone.

In feminist philosophy, what they usually say is shaming is really effective as a driver for positive behaviour change – when you're the most privileged subject.

So if you're the stereotypical privileged subject, the middle-aged, academically educated, white, heterosexual, married man with 2.5 children, you're in a great job and very wealthy, and someone shames you, you have the material and psychological resources to have shaming be a moment for reflection and learning.

That's not always going to be the case. But for less-privileged subjects, for those who are living with shame all the time, who are structurally shamed because they are not in the dominant norm, the shame could lead to many other things.

The Shame Compass is a schema devised by Donald Nathanson. He talks about common defensive reactions we have to shame and shaming. Things like attacking or getting angry and defensive, attacking the self, withdrawing – suicide would be the extreme version of that, where you just want to eliminate yourself.

What is often labelled as shamelessness is narcissism, grandiosity, this kind of Donald Trump-like behaviour, which you can read as falling on the Shame Compass. It's not shamelessness; I would read that as an intense overcompensation for deep shame.

There are people who argue for the use of shame in, for instance, criminal justice and public health. So you shame people because they broke the law, or you shame them because they're not following public health advice, and that should motivate them to do better.

But actually, there's so much evidence that it doesn't work. You're talking about populations who are already probably living with lots of shame – socioeconomically, racially, coming from places where they've been traumatised – and you're just heaping more shame on that.

It's so volatile and unpredictable. I strongly believe it should never be used by an institution. It shouldn't be state sanctioned. It should never be written into institutions as something that's appropriate.

Being shamed for being gay did not make me less gay. It did make me as gay, but considerably more mentally ill.


There have been times when I've been shamed for something I've done that genuinely wasn't okay. And that has probably motivated me to do better. In Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law by Martha Nussbaum, she says, “Shaming penalties rob people of a central ‘primary good’”.

I'm interested in the consequences of being shamed.

What she discusses in that chapter, and I really agree with, is: if one of our basic human rights is the right to dignity, what shaming does is diminish or take away that right.

Eroding people's dignity should not be a function of the state. It might happen in communities or within families. But that's in a totally different set of circumstances than the state shaming someone.

We see this dynamic all the time, when the state shames someone. And once the government is naming and blaming and shaming a community, it's state-sanctioned shaming. Now everyone can get involved and there’s this mob mentality. It legitimises the shaming and means everyone else can pile on.

Two women hold up yellow placards that read "You've been shamed".

Dudley Council ran a You've Been Shamed campaign warning fly-tippers that they will be “shamed” across the internet as part of a CCTV hub showing the faces of offenders caught on camera.

Dudley Council

A lot of local newspapers publish a round-up of who's been convicted of a crime. It's full of people with minor driving offences, minor drug possession. It always strikes me as really unnecessary, because it wouldn't prevent you from doing a crime, but it does make it harder for those people to recover their normal life.

If we look on a bigger scale where, say, a politician has done something very public and terrible, does that same principle apply?

That's a good question. I really disagree with that public naming thing. In Devon, where I live, the police routinely do this on their Facebook page, where they post convictions. You get the photo of the person, the details of the crime, etc.

And this is publicly available. They do not have to post it on Facebook. It doesn't just affect the perpetrator or the person who's been convicted, it affects their wider social networks. So it's a terrible thing to do.

On the question of shaming politicians, I think there are other ways to motivate people to behave. The only potentially appropriate use for shaming is not individuals, but things like corporations or governments. Some high-profile politicians should probably be targeted, there's a system that's at fault, and they are perpetrators of this system.

But I think shaming individuals always has the potential to backfire. It could lead them to double down on the behaviour.

In a book by David Keen, he's got two chapters on Trump, where he talks about the shame dynamics at play. [He looks at] what's going on in the heads of Trump supporters. And they're shamed populations. Usually working class, poor Americans who are really his big supporters, who feel shame for being “rednecks” or being uneducated. And then Trump performs those things. So he's the catharsis for them to be like, ‘I'm not the only one who thinks these things.’

Figures like Trump and Boris Johnson can laugh [shaming] off. But it can lead to people having not just reputational damage and ruining their careers, but it can also lead to suicide, it can lead to depression, it can lead to all sorts of really terrible outcomes for individuals.

So [it] just doesn't seem like a good idea overall, because you never know how it's going to land, even on the most powerful.

When a person in power does something that outrages us, and we think they're shameless, do you think those people don't actually feel shame?

I can't say exactly what's going on in people, but a common dynamic would be someone defending themselves from shame, because it's too painful, by not feeling the shame. So dissociating from the feeling, and then overcompensating with grandiosity, perfectionism, overwork and overachieving.

It's easy to think that ‘our’ shaming of people is righteous, therefore it's in the service of public good. I'm not shaming someone for being gay, I'm shaming them for being corrupt. Therefore, this is righteous shaming. But does that really exist?

I feel like we probably all have our perspective on it and we all have this gut feeling that it's the right thing to do. Intuitively it feels good to shame people and I don't disagree with that.

Within communities and within families, it might be appropriate at times. John Braithwaite, a criminologist, makes this great distinction between stigmatising shaming and reintegrative shaming.

Stigmatising shaming is the shaming that leads to someone being rejected and outcast. Whereas reintegrative shaming is a rebuke, where you can then be brought back into the fold after the shaming event.

So you still belong, you did a bad thing, but you still belong with us. That's different than going, ‘You're a pariah now, we will never talk to you again.’

So I don't want to shame people for feeling like they want to shame someone! Because intuitively, when someone does something shitty, you want them to feel bad about it, right? And shaming is a really direct way to get someone to feel bad. So it's a totally understandable impulse.

But I think if you're acting in a professional capacity, or you have any social power, or you're an educator, you have to be able to manage your emotional impulses against evidence of what's effective, and what works.

And that's what you were saying before: balancing what feels right against what actually works.

I wonder whether, sometimes, members of the public want to shame people because we feel powerless. We can't make Rishi Sunak do anything. We can't stop flights to Rwanda. We can't stop genocide. And so [shaming] just feels like we can do something.

I completely agree. And there is something really powerful with social media where even the most powerless person can send a tweet and effect change. You see examples of that all the time. Before social media, you could be saying shaming things all the time, and nothing would happen.

If there's a lot of powerlessness, it's a weapon in the arsenal. But again, how effective is it? It's giving voice to something, but is it really going to effect change?

I suspect that what we actually want from people in power is accountability rather than shame.

I completely agree. Often the problem is not an individual's fault, but something in the system or some structural thing. We want accountability. I think we want this from people who break the law or have criminal convictions.

But [we should] also be able to recognise that maybe they didn't have the same advantages as us. Maybe they're coming from a history of trauma, maybe they were abused. We don't want to know all of that in order to excuse them, or give them less punishment, but to hold that alongside a deeper understanding of where it's coming from.

I think accountability is a really good way to think about it, to get away from blame and shame.

A crowd at a protest hold up Palestine Solidarity Campaigns and one placard reading Theresa May Shame On You

Shame On You Theresa May signs at a 2018 demo

Alisdare Hickson

And what are the systems that are going wrong that allow these things to happen as well?

A team I work with have been collecting data from doctors who've had complaints against them.

Often a healthcare worker gets blamed for something that went wrong. But behind them is all the stuff that's going on: staff shortages, overwork, being on a 24-hour shift, nurses weren’t in the room, there's all this structural stuff that's completely out of their control. But they're on the frontline when the bad outcome happens.

Sometimes it is just some horrible person doing a terrible thing. But often it's someone taking the fall for a system failure.

Someone said to me, ‘We have a shame-hungry public’. And I think that's so right. It's a shame spectacle, because when you see that, you can feel better about yourself. That's a dynamic that's happening all the time.

What are some better ways to change people's minds or change people's behaviour without resorting to shame?

I think when people feel like they belong, and they are part of a community, and they've got something at stake in that community, and that their actions will feed into what goes on in that community, then people are more likely to work with everyone's best interests.

So I think the antidote to shame is belonging and acceptance and community.

I think it's imagining ways of having accountability, but also having empathy and compassion for people and understanding where they're coming from. So you hold people accountable for the bad things they've done. And ask for reparations, perhaps. But you also then keep treating them as humans that have the right to dignity and respect and belong to the community.

I think you can look at things you're doing and see, is there a negative judgement in what you're doing? Is it hurtful or retraumatising? Is it othering or stigmatising or scapegoating them?

I think with myself, I just keep finding myself asking: will this actually help? Or does it just feel like I'm angry and need catharsis?

Exactly. And often, if we want revenge, the emotional thing of getting someone back can feel so powerful. But yeah, if you step back and think, ‘Is this actually going to lead to a better outcome?’ That's a really good way to frame it.

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