My column today at Role/Reboot looks at the redemptive aspect of shaming, drawing on an incident from last week where a TV anchor in Wisconsin movingly responded to a viewer who called her a bad example for young girls.
Leaving aside the question of whether Krause’s email constituted bullying (I think it did: Meanness often masquerades behind false expressions of concern), I’m struck by the question of whether calling him out, as Jezebel did, amounted to an unhelpful “shaming” of a well-intentioned dude who wrote a private email to a public figure, or whether naming him was a justifiable response to an act of colossal cluelessness at best or calculated cruelty at worst.
Part of the answer lies in recognizing the positive aspects of shame. In our contemporary culture, we tend to think of shame as an invariably unhealthy private emotion. In her popular TedTalk, Brené Brown builds on a distinction between guilt and shame originally made by John Bradshaw. Shame says “I am a bad person” while guilt says “I did a bad thing.” As Brown and Bradshaw would have it, guilt is about distinguishing right and wrong actions; shame is a negative judgment about one’s intrinsic worth. Guilt is a necessary reminder of the harm we can do to other people; shame is a corrosive force that eats away at our self-worth. The less shame we have, the better—or so one popular conception of shame suggests.
Sex educator and occasional Role/Reboot contributor Charlie Glickman takes a more nuanced approach, one that may help explain why the shaming of Kenneth Krause serves an important public function. Glickman writes about what he calls the “adaptive value of shame,” arguing that shame is a powerful emotion of disconnection:
“I expect the folks in my life to demonstrate respect for other people, regardless of their sexual orientation, sexual practices, or gender expression. If you don’t, I will call you on it. If you persist in not changing your actions, I will disengage from you. To the degree that you want to be in connection with me, that can be a motivation to explore your ideas and beliefs and perhaps, change them.”
Disconnection isn’t always about toxic alienation, Charlie argues, but about healthy boundary setting. Making clear that there are consequences for disrespecting others is a helpful tool to protect ourselves and our community. It’s a way of reminding people that their words and actions have consequences.