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Guilty as Charged

Jennifer Jacquet
Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool
(Pantheon Books, 2015)

Last fall, I was volunteering for a podcast producing an episode on the state of the world’s oceans. Of course I knew the theme would be depressing. I just never expected to what extent. Several interviews in, I was in a state of mild panic. I vowed never to eat shrimp again and to adhere strictly to the Monterey Aquarium’s guide for sustainable fishing. My green guilt did not stop there: in an effort to avoid contributing to the trash continent in the middle of the ocean, I created a small replica thereof under my sink, a veritable bloom of plastic bag algae. And I am not unique at all in this respect. The proliferation of canvas tote bags and of articles detailing the 25 Things You Can Do to Protect the Environment reveal the guilt we all carry.

Indeed, as Jennifer Jacquet writes in her concise, well-paced, relevant, and witty work, Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool, the current means of confronting collective action problems, like unsustainable farming practices or fossil fuel pollution, is as a guilt-ridden consumer and not as a citizen. Unfortunately, guilt is not an effective tool for widespread change since it functions only on the individual level: we feel guilty when we fail to meet personal standards. However shame, as Jacquet points out, “aims to hold individuals to the group standard.” Guilt only needs to be addressed by the self, whereas shame can force change in others’ behavior. Shame can scale and its target need not be human. A company or an industry can be shamed, but they cannot feel guilty as these entities lack consciences. This important distinction is central to Jacquet’s thesis: abandon guilt and turn to shame as the tool for resolving collective action problems.

Part sociology, part behavioral economics, the book opens with a story from the author’s past which illustrates both the uselessness of guilt in mobilizing meaningful reform and the utility of shaming in that same endeavor. At the end of the 1980s, Jacquet received a book entitled 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth, which incited her to write to the Earth Island Institute. The latter responded with photographs of dolphins that were being killed in the nets used to catch tuna, part of a larger campaign aimed at shaming the tuna industry at large and StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea, specifically. Jacquet, horrified, insisted her parents stop buying tuna. Only the introduction of the “dolphin-safe” label alleviated her guilt. The label exemplified an overall shift in social activism. As Jacquet explains it, “the goal became not to reform entire industries”—consider Upton Sinclair and Cesar Chavez—“but to alleviate the consciences of a certain sector of consumers.”

Jacquet’s guilt was assuaged by the label, but its existence implies the continuation of practices that are not dolphin-safe. Her consumption of dolphin-free tuna does not prevent the deaths of dolphins in non-dolphin-safe tuna. Thus, guilt is not enough to resolve structural problems. It took regulation to actually decrease dolphin deaths, just as it was the adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1989 that decelerated the depletion of the ozone layer—and not the consumption choices of individuals who stopped buying hairspray. Jacquet quotes Mario Molina, one of the two chemists who linked chlorofluorocarbons to the depletion of the ozone layer: “You cannot solve these problems with voluntary action, because most people will not volunteer. It has to become government policy.”

This connection between consumption and guilt is particularly relevant to the somewhat ironically regarded current culture of green, organic, ecologically conscious purchasing. Jacquet pinpoints the problem­­, namely that it is a form of slacktivism in that it does not effect change. Jacquet tells the story of a friend’s husband and “favorite misanthrope” waiting in a massive and hysterical line for Anya Hindmarch’s coveted “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” canvas tote—which comes wrapped in a plastic bag. The scene embodies the faddish, hypocritical, and ineffective nature of the current environmental movement. Consumption is a means of expiating one’s ecological sins. Furthermore, it relies on the continuation of the status quo since “incentive for producers to do the right thing [...] is a higher price for their product. To get a price premium, those products have to be the exception and not the rule.” Of course, increased prices can sometimes be the result of more responsible practices. Yet the Hindmarch scene tells us that people are not paying for an environmentally friendly product, but for the way it makes them feel—self-satisfied with their alleged righteousness. Consider, too, the “organic” label. A University of California, Berkeley researcher concluded in a 2013 study that “the rate of growth in the [organic] sector is too high for people to know what they are getting.” People will pay more to feel less guilty, regardless of whether they know what they’re buying. If responsible practices were the standard, people would not feel guilty and companies like Whole Foods could not exist. A bad norm justifies the existence of a better alternative.

It is within this cultural context that Jacquet proposes shaming as a battle tactic. Shaming, and its threat of a diminished reputation, can be effective both on individuals and on corporations. But its efficacy depends, of course, on certain parameters. The case of delinquent taxpayers in California is exemplary because this deviation concerns the wider public and because there is no formal avenue of punishment. Thus, lacking real legal recourse, the State of California publishes a yearly list of people who owe the state more than $100,000 in taxes. By exposing only the worst delinquents, the state doesn’t punish those who haven’t paid for reasons of real financial difficulty, another important parameter for effective shaming. The list’s targets receive warning letters prior to publication to avoid exposure. And indeed, the threat is sufficient: since 2007, the State of California has collected $405 million (of $10 billion, but still).

Jacquet takes care to issue some caveats: shame should be used sparingly, judiciously, and proportionally to the crime. She also addresses the Internet’s usefulness in shaming due to the anonymity, information speed, reach, and permanence it affords. However, these very qualities are also what make the Internet rife with shaming misuse. Jon Ronson’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine remarks on “the severity of the crime”—a tactless tweet taken out of context—“and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.” It is equally important to remember that shame is a fluid concept. What is reprehensible in one country isn’t in another, and what was indecent 40 years ago isn’t now. What’s more, an effective shaming campaign can change the norms and regulations of the culture in which it operates.

So to answer Jacquet’s question, yes, shame is necessary. It is not enough to hoard plastic bags and die of ethical starvation, as I had previously thought. I began reading this book feeling my usual mix of apprehension and panic, but came out empowered and unironically so: there is a way to change things, and we can keep our self-satisfaction as a byproduct. It just demands more than one click.


Katharina Smundak

KATHARINA SMUNDAK teaches English and has a newsletter,, which you should sign up for in case you don't have enough tabs open in your browser at any given time.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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