Shame, Guilt and Social Media [...]

This is a tricky subject, and trip wires are everywhere. I’d ask that people put aside for a minute the whose-side-are-you-on lens (you can pick it up again soon) and consider why shame and guilt are different, and why public shaming might erode empathy.

Put simply, guilt is an internal feeling directed outward. We feel it when we do something that we feel is not a reflection of the person we want to be. In feeling guilt, our desire is rid ourselves of the guilt, either by taking responsibility what we have done or taking actions to make sure we don’t do it again. Because guilt is so often caused by seeing how other people are impacted by our actions, it is the partner of empathy. Guilt is empowering.

Shame, on the other hand, is about how other people see us, or might see us if they knew X or Y.

Some people say that shame is paralyzing, but that is not entirely true. It can be quite motivating. But what it motivates us to seek is a shame-free environment.

Drug addiction forms a typical example of this. A drug addict who is shamed about the hurt they have caused people does not seek to address the hurt. What they seek is to get away from the shame. That involves getting high, or returning to a group of friends where getting high is not shameful.

People with food addictions who are shamed seek the place where they feel no shame about how they treat their body, and that place happens to be where they abuse their body the most. By binging or starving or throwing up they find a temporary relief from the stress of caring what other people think or worrying about their body.

But the same thing holds true with smaller amounts of shame. When a person is shamed for what they have done, they do not feel guilt. What they feel is an overwhelming desire to get away from the shame, because shame is an environmental condition. Like a drug addict, we can do that by doubling down on the behavior or by finding new friends who won’t shame us.

How does this connect to online behavior? Well, it’s easier than ever to lash out, and easier than ever to find new friends who won’t shame you (although, as with drug addiction, these may not be the best people to hang around with). To carry the metaphor further, when you’re online you’re shaming the alcoholic while they have a whiskey bottle in their hand and a dozen bars round the corner.

So why would we think shame is a useful tool in that environment? Why would we think it would lead to empathy rather than polarization?

There is a long discussion online about who deserves to be shamed and who doesn’t, who gets hurt most by it and who gets the most sympathy for it. And these are good discussions. But two questions I would ask are:

  • Do we think that shaming will lead to better behavior?
  • If so, on what possible basis?

There are other ways to build empathy. See The Believing Game

Eric Meyer talks about Empathetic Design in RebeccaPurple

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