Shaped during evolution and honed by cultural necessity, human feelings are so receptive to embarrassment, guilt and shame that most people react uncomfortably to a simple phrase:

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Shaped during evolution and honed by cultural necessity, human feelings are so receptive to embarrassment, guilt and shame that most people react uncomfortably to a simple phrase:

"Shame on you."


Al Gore's documentary is an example of 'guilt-washing.'

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Al Gore's documentary is an example of 'guilt-washing.'

Dishonouring others has long been a means of exerting control without resorting to violence, a fact this assistant professor in environmental studies at New York University reminds readers about in a pithy yet scrupulously researched analysis of shame.

Jacquet, who was born and raised in Ohio, received her doctorate from the University of British Columbia, spending seven years in the coastal province and also visiting the Haida-Gwaii islands where elaborately carved shame totem poles "signalled to the community that certain individuals or clans had transgressed."

This Canadian experience provided the impetus for her first book, explaining how shame differs from both guilt and those fleeting moments of discomfort called embarrassment, and suggesting ways it might be used to alleviate world problems without reverting to an extremist past that championed pilloring (as well as tarring and feathering).

Drawing upon numerous studies of cultural norms and using data from her own controlled experiments in group behaviour, Jacquet concludes that because Western cultures "champion the individual," we see ourselves as independent and autonomous, relying upon guilt as "an internal voice" to remind us that violence, stealing, or dishonesty is wrong.

While individual guilt helps to maintain a free and peaceful society, she reveals how this has led to "guiltwashing," a deceptive technique often used by corporations -- which by definition are incapable of feeling guilt -- whereby adept executives attract consumers to environmentally damaging products by comparing them to earlier, dirtier models, or convince buyers to purchase the latest Earth-saving gadgets.

Jacquet points to Al Gore's award-winning 2006 environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which alerted Americans to the dangers of global warming but which pleased the electronic industry more by its recommendation to buy energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances.

She points out this suggestion was warmly embraced by consumers, who scooped up the newest bulbs, seeking to assuage individual guilt over climate change, even though household lighting in the U.S. accounts for only two per cent of U.S. carbon emissions, while driving cars accounts for 15 per cent. "It would have been much better to talk about cars than lightbulbs," she quips.

In her view, Western cultures promote guilt rather than shame as a social control because shame implies concern about group standards, a societal norm more prevalent in Eastern societies and best exemplified by Oriental cultures where "saving face" suggests an over-riding concern about group acceptance.

In a chapter titled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Shaming, Jacquet discloses how shame can be used to change societal norms while also reducing social inequalities brought about by environmentally damaging pursuits of wealth.

She suggests shaming techniques should be focused "on institutions, companies, or countries rather than individuals" and as one example, refers to the November 2008 hearings in Washington, when the CEOs of America's three major automakers each "flew separately in his private jet" to ask for a $25-billion taxpayer-funded bailout.

Subjected to embarrassing questions by a Senate committee eager to publicize proceedings and sensing the threat of shame to the corporation's image, each of the humbled CEOs "drove his company's most fuel-efficient car" when they returned to the hearings one month later.

Jacquet also argues that shaming led Bill Gates to become one of the world's best-known philanthropists following the 1998 Microsoft antitrust trials, when he was also hit with several cream pies after attempting to deny the obvious.

While showing how shame can promote positive societal behaviour, Jacquet warns readers that indiscriminate shaming can be a two-edged sword, especially when the requisite audience required for shaming disagrees with the need for it.

An entire chapter is devoted to the potential misuse of shaming in our constantly evolving Internet age, acknowledging the harm brought about by instant access to gossip, but Jacquet maintains that when used wisely, shaming can be a successful means of non-violent resistance towards societal and environmental abuses.

She writes: "I wrote this book because I struggle with my own profound guilt and sadness over what humans have done to the planet and its inhabitants."

It's a sincere admission, but one unlikely to shame a Western audience accustomed to two-car convenience while comfortably ensconced in well-lit suburbia.

 

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.