An intellectually stimulating discussion of shame and its enduring place in the digital age.
It’s been a long time since Hester Prynne was forced to wear the scarlet letter around town, but shame has never left us. Jacquet (Environmental Studies/New York Univ.) uses lively prose and keen insight to explore the myriad ways the shame game continues to impact our everyday lives. Unlike the dark, secret interiors of guilt, shame is often a communal experience, an important way for society to discourage behavior it deems undesirable. Whether publishing the names of heavyweight tax dodgers online or exposing the nefarious moneymaking schemes of the giant telecoms, shame can work wonders on transgressors in need of an immediate course correction. However, as Jacquet also cautions, shame is an often unwieldy instrument that carries the potential of backfiring on those endeavoring to correct unwanted actions. The author looks at examples involving environmental conservation and overfishing, among others, to make the point. In both instances, instead of being shamed into changing behavior, the most egregious offenders somehow managed to slip through the cracks while far less significant offenders were held fast. Jacquet tackles “green guilt” head-on when she explodes the very first recommendation at the end of An Inconvenient Truth and its appeal to buy energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. As she reminds us, “household lighting accounts for only 2 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions and 6 percent of household energy use (excluding diet).” While there are judges out there who gleefully revel in literally hanging shaming signs around the necks of hard-pressed shoplifters and the like, Jacquet demonstrates a much greater understanding of shame when she likens it to an antibiotic whose effectiveness depends a lot on whether the proper dose is used at the right time.
A sharp and surprising dissertation that puts the many facets of shame in a whole new light.