There aren’t many fundamental human emotions, and shame is certainly one of them.
Shame is usually caused by a collision between our behavior and our culture. Society uses shame to enforce norms and set standards. When you’re alone in the forest, there’s not a lot of shame.
Too often, marketers, politicians and others with money and power use shame as a cudgel, as a harsh tool to gain control. And it’s usually directed at those least able to thrive in the face of this sort of onslaught.
I’m not sure we’d want to live in a culture where shameful behavior is completely accepted, where sociopaths and selfish short-term people abuse our trust.
At the same time, I think we need to be really clear about the difference between shameful behavior and shaming a person.
Shaming a person is a senseless shortcut. When we say to someone, “you’re never going to amount to anything,” when we act like we want to lock them up and throw away the key, when we conflate the behavior with the human–we’ve hurt everyone. We’ve killed dreams, eliminated possibility and broken any chance for a connection.
The alternative is to be really clear about which behavior crossed the line. To correct that behavior at the very same time we open the door for our fellow citizen to become the sort of person we’d like to engage with.
“How dare you,” is a fine way to establish that people like us don’t do things like that. It is a norm-setting device, a clear indication that certain behaviors aren’t welcome and demand explanation.
As the media available to each of us turns just about every interaction into a worldwide, hyper-competitive conflict, there’s way too much shameless posturing and division. If you want to “win” in social media or politics, you’re no longer trying to be the class clown among twenty high school students, you’re racing to the bottom among a hundred million teenagers or candidates. Multiply that by every endeavor and you can see why there’s so much shameless posturing.
Racing to the top is far preferable. Because the problem with a race to the bottom is you might win. Or come in second, which is even worse.
*Originally published on sethgodin.typepad.com.
Seth Godin has written eighteen books that have been translated into more than thirty languages. Every one has been a bestseller. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership, and, most of all, changing everything.
Image courtesy of Bruno van der Kraan.