Why Shaming Works

You've felt it, I know you have. Okay, maybe not if you're a sociopath like Milo or Sherlock claims to be. (I have my doubts, on both counts.) But if you are a normal person who cares about what other people think of you. You've felt it.

The dry mouth. The skin on your forehead tightening. The clenching of your whole body as if in anticipation of a blow. The blood rushing to your limbs as you prepare for flight. Your pulse quickening. Your thoughts racing. The urge to apologize, make yourself small, promise you will never do it again. The SHAME.

"Shame on you, Rachel," my friends on Facebook are wont to say when I post yet another of my reflections on Milo and his talks. "Don't you know what a monster he is? He's a racist. A sexist. A misogynist. A homophobe. A white nationalist. An anti-Semite. A member of the alt-right! How can you defend him? Don't you know what he did to Leslie Jones?"

It doesn't matter that I know he is none of these things and that it is Leslie Jones who has benefited most from his Twitter ban. I still feel the panic rising as the devil makes his move.

"They will think less of you. You are risking everything standing up for this man. What if the neighbors found out? What if your colleagues on campus found out? What if your students found out? How would you face them?" And the final threat: "You would be cast out."

"So what?," you try to reassure yourself. "I don't need their approval." But you know you do. You want them to like you, to smile at you, to make jokes with you, not about you. You want their respect. You want them to listen to you, look up to you, greet you warmly. You want them to approve of you not just because they like you, but because you are in the right.

In short, you want, as Adam Smith would put it, to be lovely. In Smith's words (III.I.8):
Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.
It is not enough, Smith goes on, to find oneself the object of praise; one wants to be actually worthy of praise. Worse than being hated, in Smith's account, is to know oneself a proper object of hatred. This is shame, the feeling of being less than one knows in one's heart one ought to be, not only because one is not loved, but because he or she is not worthy of love. As Smith puts it (III.I.13-14):
Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favourable, and pain in their unfavorable regard. She rendered their approbation most flattering and most agreeable to him for its own sake; and their disapprobation most mortifying and most offensive.
But this desire of the approbation, and this aversion to the disapprobation of his brethren, would not alone have rendered him fit for that society for which he was made. Nature, accordingly, has endowed him, not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves in other men.
We want, Smith says, not just to be loved, but to have the confidence that we are worthy of love; that we are the thing that should be loved and so are loved for our own sake, not just for what we appear.

Accordingly, we take no pleasure (if we are not sociopaths) in being loved for being something that we are not; for being able to fake loveliness, as it were, rather than ourselves being lovely. In Smith's view (which is a fairly sunny one, if you think about it), we do not like feeling ourselves hypocrites.

This, then, if we follow Smith's reasoning, is the source of the pain that one feels on losing one's friends' approval: the horrible suspicion that they may be right. That maybe one has done the thing that they say, stood up for a person or cause or idea that itself is shameful, thus losing one's own sense of being in the right.

Shame, in other words, is a species of doubt. Which is why Sherlock and Milo (purportedly) never feel it. Not (only) because they do not care what other people think, but because they know (or think they know) themselves to be in the right, whatever other people think of them.

Children and dogs feel much the same way, as do fools. And saints.

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