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When shame is useful
I was in the nation’s capital last weekend for vacation and I woke up one morning with a craving for doughnuts. I looked up the best doughnut shops in the DMV and I found a delightful one called District Doughnut. My host and I traveled to the doughnut shop and we bought a handful of doughnuts. I paid for the doughnuts and coffee and did not leave a tip when prompted. My host, in our ever-loving group chat, made a joke that he witnessed me not tipping the worker and quipped about my so-called advocacy for workers’ rights. A well-placed joke in the company where I veer further to the political left than most (Jesus Takes A Side, y’all). After scarfing down a blueberry, strawberry, and lemon bar doughnut, another flavor caught my eye, it was a doughnut with everything topping (the kind used on bagels) and it was stuffed with chive cream cheese – I couldn’t believe I skipped over this culinary innovation during my first peruse of the menu. When I made the additional transaction to purchase the savory doughnut, which was delicious, by the way, I tipped on the entire order. It was a moment where I realized that my friend's public shaming of me worked. I was a little bit embarrassed that my friend called me out – but it wasn’t particularly oppressive or painful – just an admission that, honestly, I did the wrong thing in not tipping the worker. I corrected it and moved on. Would I have done so without the call out? Maybe. Would a “call in” have worked better? Possibly. But the public (insofar as a private groupchat is “public”) worked this time and though I felt some of the sting, I responded to it, and tipped the worker as I should have.
I bring this up not to point out how bad of a tipper I am, or how willing I am to change my behavior if I am shamed, but rather, to point out that we all have choices to make when confronted, even when that confrontation seems shameful. How we respond to criticism matters more than how we are criticized. The most powerful among us – and I will name them as white, able-bodied, male, rich, cis, and straight (and, often any combination of these) – are so used to always dominating others that any iota of discomfort feels like oppression. People who are public criticized love to criticize the medium and the method they received the criticism. But too often we focus on the feelings of those who caused harm, and less on the harm caused.
Some earnest people who believe they are allies to those who are oppressed believe that the key to “converting” oppressors is in our delicate and gentle approach to them. They believe that they are indeed being kind and that empathy is the key to transformation. But when we demonstrate more empathy for the oppressor than for the oppressed, we make the anger and the outcry of the oppressed less powerful. We have our own savior complex when we think that our privilege affords us the ability to treat an oppressor with more kindness than the oppressed do. We are saying we are more gracious, more loving, and even a better person than a vulnerable minority. My advice is simple to allies with power, whether they are men, straight, able-bodied, cis, straight, or rich: do not offer more empathy to an oppressive person than the people they oppressed to. Instead, use your voice to advance the voice of the oppressed, instead of trying to placate the anger of the oppressor.
Victims of oppression stay in oppression when we are told that our honest sincerity is too much for our oppressor and abuser to encounter. When we are told to be empathetic or kind to our oppressor, we are being told to set ourselves aside, in hopes that our being less-than-honest about our experience, will result in transformation. But I believe that sincerity, authenticity, and honesty results in transformation. While we should never be mean, we can expect that our honest reflections will be seen as shame.
That feeling of shame? The feeling we get when we see the harm we’ve caused because someone has been honest about their experience? That can change us. I’ll end with a germane example. The Inflation Reduction Act was recently signed into law. It is the most aggressive law passed in the U.S. to fight climate change. And just a few weeks ago, it was dead in the water because of a Senator named Joe Manchin. But Manchin was roundly criticized by Democrats and progressives alike. In fact, Bernie Sanders accused Manchin of “intentionally sabotaging the president’s agenda” and another called him “anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman, and anti immigrant.” A few weeks later, Manchin agreed to the bill with some changes. Some speculate as to why he changed his mind, but absent the direct and public criticism form his colleagues, absent the public shame, I don’t think it would have happened.
It would have been better for Manchin to affirm the bill based on its merit, and not based on his ego. And it would have been better for me to tip the worker without the call out. But the right thing happened as a result. People were honest with Manchin and with me about our harm, and it changed our behavior. It may not always change someone’s behavior, but that burden must fall on the oppressor, not the oppressed.