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For Shame?

January 11th, 2007 · 2 Comments

Jill at Feministe has a long post about a recent Hoover study on obesity and food stamps. I haven’t read the study, nor do I particularly care to, so I don’t want to get into its merits or demerits. (Though, as an aside, does “the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer” seem like a fair summary of this data? How about “incomes of the richest and poorest grew fastest”?) Instead I want to deal directly the central target of Jill’s ire: The conservative propensity to “blame” or “shame” (putative) victims—in this case, poor people using food stamps.

On the one hand, I instinctively share Jill’s reaction: Surely it’s bad enough to be in the position of needing assistance like food stamps that you have to be a special sort of asshole to want to make people feel additionally bad about accepting the assistance. And least of all would you want some parent to be so embarrassed to seek help that they don’t ensure their kids are well fed.

But I feel the opposed instinct as well: You really do sometimes see folks who at least appear pretty cavalier about being on the dole in a way that seems like it can’t be entirely healthy. And the core of that reaction isn’t that I think people should feel guilty about “taking our tax money” or for having somehow failed at life, but that it seems like some amount of dissonance would just be a necessary byproduct of the attitude you’d want and expect adults to have, largely for their own sake, that they are capable of, and ought to be, taking care of themselves. Or rather, I’d think this would be the default, but that people would (often) be able to give an account to themselves about why they needn’t feel such dissonance given their particular circumstances.

A fortiori, anyone who could be working but isn’t ought to feel a certain amount of guilt (not, technically speaking, shame) about availing themselves of aid programs, insofar as they’re supposed to be focused on people who really need them. Yet it sometimes seems as though to even mention this latter category is to open yourself to charges of “victim blaming.” Pretty much every educated person seems to recognize as caricature the bad-old-view that poverty is always and only a symptom of laziness or depravity, and that anyone of good character can just resolve to make the Horatio Alger trek from rags to riches. But the opposite and equally caricaturish view, that it’s just some sort of terrible affliction unrelated to people’s choices or habits—which individuals are at least somewhat capable of altering—seems to be one people can get away with holding at least implicitly, however silly it sounds when you say it outright. That view seems kinder, but in the extreme strikes me as profoundly disrespectful of people as agents in its own right.

Maybe the real problem is that, while few people would really defend the second view on reflection, it’s hard to keep shame and stigma of this kind properly narrowly tailored. Ideally, nobody would feel bad about being poor per se, or about needing some help, but they would feel that it’s “shameful” to draw on such programs when you do have viable alternatives, and that it’s important to always be looking for these. Except stigma as a social phenomenon doesn’t seem to navigate those nuances all that well, especially when the extent to which someone has viable alternatives is a thorny question hard to objectively evaluate from the outside. So people perhaps end up appearing to endorse one of the caricature views depending on whether they think it’s worse to have what we might call Type I or Type II shame-errors: Is it more important to avoid promoting undeserved feelings of shame or guilt, even if this means some people who ought to be feeling those things don’t, or to harness the incentive effects of the stigma even if this means it will inevitably hit too broadly? Obviously, your estimate of the sizes of the respective groups play a significant role in where you fall, but I think even holding that constant, people tend to be more sensitive to one or the other of the two error types.

Here’s another related example, a post by Becks at Unfogged about what she saw as her family’s excessively sanguine reaction to the news that her 16-year-old cousin was about to become a mother:

The older relatives in the family are thrilled. I mean, in a way, I guess it’s good that the family is rallying behind her and not slut-shaming or whatever and they did the same thing when my other cousin knocked up some girl in high school but really. I’m not for slut shaming but perhaps a little shaming of the general variety is in order to show the other teens in our family that, you know, having a kid in high school is NOT ACCEPTABLE. Maybe if there’d been a little more shame spread around last time this happened, some lessons could have been learned, eh?

What you have here, as perhaps to some extent in the previous case, seems to be a tension between what’s prospectively ideal, from the perspective of future incentives, and what’s ideal or helpful to the particular person in their immediate situation. In other words, given that a baby’s on the way, the prospective mother needs all the support she can get, and tongue clucking just makes a difficult situation more so. On the other hand, having a child in one’s teens is not only potentially disruptive for the teen, but generally not great for the child either. Some teens have strong support networks and end up being great parents, and their kids turn out as well as they would have if they’d been born later. But let’s face it, statistically, they don’t, even after you control for other factors. And a book I reviewed a little while back on young urban single mothers (written, FWIW, by a pair of liberal sociologists) made pretty clear that one important factor in the prevalence of early childbearing is that some communities are so unconditionally “pro-motherhood” that young people don’t feel a strong sense that it’s urgent to take precautions against early pregnancy.

It’s all to the good that we’re moving away from “slut shaming,” and there’s certainly been a serious double standard historically as to the relative stigma men and women face here. But we should at least in principle be able to separate these pernicious phenomena from the fundamentally sound notion that it’s sort of crappy to put a kid in the position of being raised by people who aren’t really ready to be parents, and that if you’re going to be sexually active in your teens, you ought to take seriously the responsibility to do what’s necessary to prevent that happening. Unfortunately, that still leaves one unsquareable circle: Sending that message to young people who don’t yet have kids entails at least an implicit negative judgment of young people who do. The only question is which off the inevitable downsides you’re more concerned with avoiding.

Just one last example, which is a very different sort of case, since it involves an area where it’s utterly unambiguous that any sort of “shaming” would be inappropriate—indeed, repugnant—but where shaming-aversion seems to have gone off the rails and become destructive. Ann from Feministing takes aim at supposed “slut-shaming and victim blaming” in an article arguing that bars with drink specials targeted at women (combined with a certain laxness about verifying women’s ages) create unsafe environments and increase the risk of rape or sexual abuse. Now, first, I thought that the primary target in that article was the owners and operators of such bars, and that if there was something offensive here, it was the paternalistic suggestion that these practices are “exploitative” because women can’t be relied upon to weigh the risks and make judgment calls for themselves. But for Ann, calling attention to these sorts of risks is tantamount to saying that “women who go out to bars or take advantage of drink specials are not only kinda slutty, but are almost asking to be raped.”

Now, the personal elephant in the room here. The catalyst for the article Ann’s attacking is the much-publicized murder of Jen Moore, who I knew a little: She was the younger sister of a very old and close friend. I’m not going to repeat the details here, but you can Google the story easily enough if you want. I hope it goes without saying that nothing that happened to her was “her fault.” (Anyone who wanted to suggest otherwise would be well advised to stay far, far away from me.) But I know that I’ve had the thought (as have her parents): If only I could go back somehow and say, “Please, be careful, some of these clubs are trying to make it easy for you to get drunker than you want to. Please, stay with your friend, because it’s too late and this part of the city is too dangerous to be walking around alone.” Am I blaming her if I wish this? Or if I hope that someday someone else might at least be able to use the knowledge of what happened to her, and how, and where, to avoid a similar threat? Would it be “shaming” if I gave similar advice to a friend in the future? Are we supposed to be so afraid of even the appearance of “blaming” that we just refuse to talk about very real risks, refuse to encourage people to be conscious of them? Because that just sounds completely fucking crazy.

These are, obviously, different kinds of cases in a lot of ways. But the common thread is that in each area, we have a legacy of inappropriate shaming, against which there’s a justified reaction. I just worry whether we’re becoming so terrified of “blaming,” or even of seeming to when we really aren’t, that it becomes taboo to even talk about what people can or ought to do to avoid bad situations.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mafke // Jan 12, 2007 at 7:25 am

    I think that for any social benefits program to work the recipients need to feel either
    a) gratitude at getting help,
    b) shame (or embarassment if shame is too strong a word) at having to receive help.

    Either by itself or both together work. When recipients feel neither (and especially when they are encouraged to feel neither) is when problems occur. jmo

  • 2 Christopher M // Jan 16, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Sounds like a case for “acoustic separation”, the term Meir Dan-Cohen used in a classic law review article for the notion that sometimes it would be nice if conduct rules (the rules of law as understood by the public subject to those rules) and decision rules (the rules of law as understood by the judges who apply them) could have different substantive content. Of course, not all rules are legal, and the notion can apply just as easily to rules of social propriety.

    Larry Solum discusses acoustic separation here.