An urgent, illuminating exploration of the social nature of shame and of how it might be used to promote large-scale political change and social reform.
In cultures that champion the individual, guilt is advertised as the cornerstone of conscience. But while guilt holds individuals to personal standards, it is powerless in the face of corrupt institutions. In recent years, we as consumers have sought to assuage our guilt about flawed social and environmental practices and policies by, for example, buying organic foods or fair-trade products. Unless nearly everyone participates, however, the impact of individual consumer consciousness is ineffective.
Is Shame Necessary? presents us with a trenchant case for public shaming as a nonviolent form of resistance that can challenge corporations and even governments to change policies and behaviors that are detrimental to the environment. Jennifer Jacquet argues that public shaming, when it has been retrofitted for the age of social media and aimed in the proper direction, can help compensate for the limitations of guilt in a globalized world. Jacquet leaves us with a new understanding of how public shame, when applied in the right way and at the right time, has the capacity to keep us from failing other species in life’s fabric and, ultimately, from failing ourselves.
This debut from NYU Environmental Studies assistant professor Jacquet puts forward the thesis that shame can be harnessed as an unlikely weapon for justice in the social-media age. She begins by showing that many of today's ethical movements have fizzled because consumers are satisfied by alleviating their own consciences, rather than effecting widespread change. Jacquet then offers a clear and helpful distinction between guilt, defined as holding someone accountable to his or her own standards, and shame, meant to hold an individual accountable to group standards or norms. Comparing the two human instincts of avoiding shame and acquiring honor, she argues that the former is more deeply-rooted, and the latter is regarded as essentially optional. After describing useful techniques for applying shame, the book turns to the specific areas where it could be put to good use. Jacquet takes too much for granted in some of her underlying points, such as that individual achievement is antithetical to humans' social nature. A more philosophical examination of the subject is warranted, but the book serves as an astute how-to and defense of shame.