Perhaps the saltiest example of this problem is the now infamous “cancel culture”. I know – even I can’t believe I would risk bringing that up as a writer, that’s how charged this debate has become. But de-platforming, boycotting, or publicly castigating someone for the views that they express – these are shaming activities, an attempt to render an individual exposed and excluded. It can be a very tricky argument as to whether this counts as functional shame, guarding the wellbeing of society, or dysfunctional shame, guarding little more than social norms.
We ought to try and take it on a case-by-case basis, but even then, sometimes what one person takes as a moral absolute another person sees as a social choice. At the same time, those who hold dearly to certain moral absolutes sometimes lose sight of the societal impact of what they say. The result can be a strange kind of war, one where there is virtually no engagement between two opposing factions, and the only weapons are a string of press releases and a whole lot of contempt. Eventually, often regardless of there being no engagement and no progress, both sides vigorously declare themselves to be the winner.
Jesus once said a strange thing when he was talking to a crowd. He said: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way.” In other words, “Just have a chat first,” says Jesus, “and see if you can’t come to terms.” It was part of a much longer discourse where he also told the crowd to “love your enemies” – and this with the kind of love called agape, a love which favourably discriminates and chooses someone – very much the opposite of shaming them.
For my own research I have looked in depth at the shaming experience, and one of the conclusions that I come to is that the inverse of shame is empathy. Where shame excludes, empathy shows attentiveness. Where shame exposes an individual, empathy draws them into discussion. To empathise with someone is not to agree with them, but it is to recognise they are human just the same, and that through openness and dialogue it is possible for people, even those who have very different experiences of the world, to explore each other’s perspectives. The end point of that exploration may not be agreement – it might still be everyone back to their corners. But in the process no one has been shamed, no one exposed or excluded, no-one othered or dehumanised.
Of course, it is far easier to point the finger, to expose someone to the court of public opinion, and then to turn one’s face away, nose in the air, mouth clamped shut in an apparently dignified silence. On the surface this seems like the elegant response – live and let live – but in fact it is not: to designate someone as not worthy of attention is to very publicly inflict shame. We might as well clamp them into a scold’s bridle and lead them down the street. And, as we do so, let’s hope it’s not a windy day – or if it is, let’s be sure that we have firmly tied down the lids of our recycling bins.