The Shamefulness of Shaming

What is “shaming”? Do you engage in it? Is shaming done to you? How much power should shame and blame have?

Shaming refers to the use of moral intimidation (name calling, humiliation) in place of facts, reason or logic when making a point.

The point might be an abstract subject like religion, ethics or politics; or a mere preference involved in the routine activities of daily life. More often, it’s the latter.

“I think X leads to Y. You think X leads to Z. I don’t agree.” It doesn’t mean I hate you; it just means I think something different.

If somebody acts and speaks hatefully towards you, that’s one thing. But there’s no basis for assuming one hates another merely for disagreeing.

Whenever anyone disagrees with you about something, that person experiences an emotional reaction. Most often, that reaction is taking something personally when in reality it’s just a disagreement.

Sometimes disagreements are personal, and they’re meant to be that way. A thief wants your property, and disagrees that it belongs to you. That’s personal. A killer or rapist thinks your life or sexuality belongs to him, not to you. That’s personal too. You do whatever you have to do to defend yourself, in such cases.

However, most disagreements are not personal or life-threatening. It’s unreasonable and irrational to assume that they are when no evidence exists that they are.

I think with amusement on a television show the famous Julia Child did in her very later years, called Julia & Jacques: Cooking at Home. Because she was so old, she co-hosted the cooking show with a younger French chef by the name of Jacques Pepin. Although she guided and stood over Pepin (who seemed honored by her presence), she occasionally disagreed with him on some point of technique or spice. The way she expressed it was something like, “Oh, that’s what you use in this dish? That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of that.” Or, “Oh, you like to add cocoa powder, I see. Um-hmmm.”

These are examples of what shaming is not.

If Ms. Child had decided to shame this co-hosting chef, she would have said things like, “What’s wrong with you? Nobody uses that spice here.” Or, “That’s stupid.” Or: “I would never do that.”

What makes something shaming is not so much disagreement as the way the disagreement gets expressed. For example, saying something like, “I worry that’s too much salt. What do you think?” is a way to express disagreement without shaming. Or even more definitively, “That’s too much salt. If you use that much, you won’t like the outcome.” It might or might not be bossy, but it’s not shaming. Why? Because “if-then” (i.e., reason/logic) are in operation.

The rational, non-shaming person is willing to expose his or her hypothesis to experimental rigor. “My hypothesis is that the amount of salt you’re using will result in diminished flavor.” To some extent, this may be a matter of subjective opinion, but even cooking involves lots of objectivity. A  person confident that he’s correct, and benevolent about the use of reason over shaming, will come across in a scientific way rather than a shaming one. No, people won’t usually use words like “hypothesis.” But their words and tone are the language of reason, not intimidation or threat.

All of this applies with married couples, bosses and employees, customers and customer service providers, exchanges with faceless strangers on social media, or any other kind of association or contact in daily life. The problem with a lot of people? They more or less apply reason and logic when dealing with strangers or non-intimate associates; but they save the shaming for their closest “loved” ones. This makes no sense at all. If strangers deserve to be treated on the rational and scientific level, why not the people you supposedly love most in the world? It should not be hard to do this; treating those you love with respect and benevolence ought to be the easiest thing in the world, if you think about it.

Shamers do not seek consent or agreement; they seek submission. As a consequence, they do not use reason, logic and calm benevolence when dealing with others; they use intimidation, of the emotional kind. The purpose of shaming is not to inspire consent or agreement, but to step on another’s self-worth in hopes of gaining what you want. Shaming is shameful, because it’s so illogical, it’s so incompatible with human nature and requirements as thinking beings, and it undermines the very connections and associations most people want in their lives.

Think of shaming as the verbal equivalent of slapping or hitting someone. The physical aggressor seeks submission through force (or the threat of it). The shaming aggressor seeks submission through an emotional methodology of intimidation.

Shaming works with people who feel low about themselves, or who are easily intimidated. It also works with people of higher self-esteem who simply do not want a fight. What rational person really wants a fight? The shamer exploits either kind of person by using his or her toxic lexicon to wear the person down.

A person with low self-esteem walks around in life with a sense of, “I’m really a fraud,” or “I’m basically a bad person,” and consequently bows down to the intimidation of a shamer. The sharp-tongued, intimidating barks of a shamer tap right into the victim’s preexisting sense of unworthiness. Shamers usually know this, and know what they’re doing. Shamers also understand that most people do not want a fight, and will go along to get along, in most cases. Shamers count on this unwillingness to stand up for oneself, or what’s plainly right, and feel empowered by their ability to get away with what they do.

The key to dealing with a shamer? See shaming for what it actually is: weakness. Not just moral weakness, but intellectual weakness as well.

There are only two reasons someone would want to shame. One, the shamer has no valid argument to back up his point; all he has is verbal intimidation. Two, the shamer might have some valid arguments, but does not know what they are.

Either way, the shamer is at an intellectual (and therefore psychological) disadvantage … provided you bring reason, logic and facts into the equation.

Don’t defend yourself with a shamer. There’s nothing to defend. The shamer is the one who has introduced the arbitrary point that you’re somehow bad, simply for not doing something he or she feels you should do; or not thinking something he or she believes you should think.

“Why should I do that? What’s the evidence in support of my doing that? What facts lead you to that particular conclusion?” Try not to respond to a shamer with hurt, counter-hostility or defensiveness. Fight back with facts and logic, if you choose to fight at all.

These are calm, even benevolent ways to respond to a shamer without selflessly and humbly turning the other cheek. Because in doing so, you’re holding the shamer accountable for his intellectual weakness, and exposing it in the process.

Think about it. The only way to really persuade someone of something is through convincing them via facts, logic, reason, examples and the like. Nobody learns anything by being called a name. Even if the shamer happens to be right, he does his cause no service by distracting from the arguments that would support his point by calling you names or making subtle threats.

Will responding to the shamer in this way get the shaming to stop? Probably not. Generally speaking, any person who wants to engage in shaming in the first place is not a fully reasonable person. However, some shamers are less unreasonable than others. Some have picked it up as a habit, without fully realizing it, and once confronted with the cool, refreshing breeze of logic and reason will surrender a bit, if you shift the subject around.

But it’s also possible that the shamer will get even angrier, and more hostile, when you counter with facts and logic. Then the best thing to do is simply exit the conversation. Leave the room, or the online exchange. Or simply withdraw, and go back to what you’re doing. Delete them from your life, if you can, or at least minimize their presence. Leave them to stew in their own toxic juices, and view this as a way of holding them accountable for the way they are, something too few people presently do.

Shaming can be found anywhere. At work, in business, in marital or family relationships.

You should not engage in it. Nor should you tolerate it. You should stand up to shaming using reason; and when the shamer shows indifference to reason, then simply exit, at least on those particular subjects at that point in time. (Obviously, in extreme cases where shamers are violent, deceitful or otherwise criminal, stronger action will be required for self-protection and in the interest of justice.)

Shamers, in most cases, are not breaking the law. They have no physical weapons. Their power is entirely psychological. It’s 100 percent dependent on the power you give to their words. It’s totally under your control to stop letting those words have power.

The more years I work as a therapist, the more convinced I become that shame is one of the basic, overlooked issues of human psychology and relationships. A lot of people have a lot of work to do in this area. The good news: You do not have to be a victim of it, nor a victimizer, if you pay attention to it.






Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1