A little while back, Megan McArdle wrote a post that I mostly agree with about the social power of shame. I’ve been unpacking the subject in my mind over the last week or so and am going to share some of my thoughts. I’ll be writing a few posts, but they’re not really related enough to be called “Parts”, but rather looks at the limitations of shame as a tool.

The first was brought out by the original post that McArdle was responding to. Andrew Serwer. Serwer makes the valid point that shame often pushes those that have already done wrong to continue to do wrong. It has limited utility as a corrective sometimes. They internalize the fault or frequently rebel ever-more-loudly against whatever norm it is that they are accused of breaking. Or they commit another wrong in hopes of two wrongs making a right.

McArdle’s counter is that shame may not be a good corrective, but it is helpful to get people to avoid going bad to begin with. Serwer and McArdle are both right to an extent, and that’s really the tension that exists when it comes to enforcing social norms. Or one of the tensions, at any rate.

A young woman that is lead to feel truckloads of shame at getting pregnant in her teenage years out of wedlock is a young woman to whom abortion seems a particularly attractive option. She can make the stigma go away! A young man that made some mistakes with a criminal record that follows him around for the rest of his life has difficulty getting on track and is more likely to rely on crime in the future. I’m not saying that in each of these cases a strong enough person wouldn’t be able to attack the adversity heads-on. I’m just saying that from a practical standpoint, they’re less likely to succeed.

At the same time, you simply can’t just toss up your hands in the air and say that all social stigma is bad. It’s not. Avoiding social condemnation has proded me into doing the right thing at all sorts of points when I was too stupid or misguided to do the right things for the right reasons. It’s true for all sorts of people. Fear of disappointing those whose opinions matter to you — the dreaded negative reinforcement that Serwer swears doesn’t work — is a necessary component of any society that doesn’t have to make every discouraged behavior prohibited.

So when should shame be used? Are there any strict criteria? None that I can think of. I think that it’s one of those things that has to be approached on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, concepts as nebulous as social disapproval are extremely difficult to pin down and get everybody to agree on. On the one hand you have people that frankly use shame as a boost to themselves rather than as a useful social tool. People that could justify calling the kid a fat booger-face by saying that he’s bringing attention to the importance of personal hygiene and physical fitness. Then on the other hand you have people that seem to believe that if you just leave everyone to their own moral devices that they will naturally discover what is right.

And even in the middle, we don’t really know what we’re doing. Parents who want nothing but the best for their children fumble on when and how to apply negative reinforcement in the form of outspoken disapproval all the time. Most are wrong in both directions at once, being too approving when the best approach would be to condemn and condemning when the best approach would be something else. Sometimes the right answer for one person is the wrong for the next even in the exact same situation.

So what’s a society to do?

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