If you were a Puritan living in the Massachusetts Bay colony of the 17th century and were found committing adultery, your punishment would be to wear a large, red letter “A” on your chest. This allowed everyone in town to know what kind of sinner you were and how to shame you accordingly. It meant public humiliation to a degree that would likely leave you financially crippled and permanently stripped of whatever social dignity you once had. (This early American system of shaming was highlighted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, “The Scarlet Letter”.)
Oh, how times have changed. Now, in what many would call a post-Christian culture, steeped in the aftermath of Freudian sexual drive theory and an ongoing, so-called, sexual revolution, adultery won’t land you in much trouble. In fact, very few sexual vices will cause you any public shaming whatsoever.
But, oh how times have not changed. Today one is branded with new Scarlet Letters at nearly every turn. Just get caught drinking from a plastic straw and you will likely be blamed for single-handedly causing global warming. It would not surprise me if someday soon plastic straw drinkers were forced to wear a giant, red “PSD” on their chest for all to see and shame accordingly.
Shame culture is an extremely unfortunate phenomenon, and it is anything but a strictly USA-European thing. Shame culture is every culture on the planet. The reason for this is that we are shaming-creatures by nature. Our own nature is riddled with guilt, and so we project this guilt onto others in an unconscious effort to settle accounts with anxiety.
It feels good to shame others. So long as I can focus on your guilt and punish you for it, I’m free from having to deal with my own junk; and, bonus, I can feel like a saint without actually accomplishing anything virtuous. My own guilt is hidden because I’m in the right group; all fingers point away from me and out at those evil people in the other group.
In the days of coronavirus many of our usual shaming vices have been laid aside to make room for the newest game in town – shaming those on the wrong side of the quarantine issue. The stakes are high, no doubt. This is a matter of life and death, and if you’re not on the right side – as with all our usual subjects of shame – then you’re either stupid or evil.
Before listening to my sister-in-law – an ICU nurse at a large hospital in town handling the majority of covid-19 patients – I was on the side of “this virus is overrated, mortality stats inflated, and everyone is losing their minds over media hype.” Then I listened to the horror stories coming from her experience and quickly switched over to the “shelter-in-place or we’re all going to die,” camp. My mind was armed with all the same statistics and success stories from places like Singapore, Sweden, but all that took a back seat when fear took the wheel.
Through this I noticed that I am more than willing to shame the other camp whenever I switch camps, because, after all, the camp that is assuaging my anxiety at the moment is the right camp. Right? It’s amazing to me how intense is the need to be right. Somehow in the inner workings of the unconscious mind, being right means that I have assuaged death; and if death is assuaged then anxiety is appeased, and I get to sleep at night.
The truth is that we are all participants – willing or unwilling – in the greatest, most all-encompassing social and economic experiment in the history of pandemics. We are in uncharted territory. As one writer put it, for the first time in history we are quarantining the healthy. None of us have any idea if shutting down schools, businesses, and life as usual for months on end, while untold numbers of people suffer psychological hardship and financial destitution, will actually work to eradicate covid-19. None of us have any idea if doing the opposite and allowing natural herd immunity to grow will work either. We don’t know. But perhaps the worst thing we can do is to pretend that our camp has all the answers and the other camp is either stupid or evil.
We can’t control the public narrative through shaming the other camp and expect to arrive at the best outcome. By doing so we will undoubtedly make terrible mistakes of judgment, and we simply don’t have time to waste on unproductive shaming.