Why Shame Doesn't Work

I read an article last week about people whose lives have been severely damaged--jobs lost, lives threatened, PTSD--as a result of something they posted on social media. These people, right or wrong, made a statement on social media which then got picked up by the general public or the media, and before they knew it, they were in the middle of something much bigger than anything a delete button could fix. (You can read the full article here.

As I read the article, I found myself getting upset, not angry, but sad. In each example cited, it's clear how things do not look good for the person in question. (A white woman tweets that she is headed to Africa but isn't afraid she'll get AIDS because she's white. Another woman posts a picture of her Halloween costume in which she is dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim.) In each scenario, the online public seems to stop at almost nothing to destroy these individuals, to shame and humiliate them into retreat and despair. And to read the comments on the article, it's obvious many felt the punishment fit the crime--if you post it, it's fair game.

It's not my aim to start a dialogue about the perils of social media, freedom of speech, or cultural (in)sensitivity. My aim is only that we can start to look less at the specifics of situations (because context seems to always come too little, too late anyway) and more at how we can find ourselves in one another, how we can find compassion for each individual we share this planet with. When we look for similarities, we find similarities. When we look for differences, we find differences. 

So this idea of using shame and humiliation to "teach" people how to behave makes me uncomfortable. What is it about this public (and yet anonymous) "piling on" that we think will bring about real and positive change in others? What is missing within ourselves when we withhold compassion and forgiveness from others?

Shame and humiliation dig deep and painful grooves into my mind. They don't "teach" me to do better next time or help me "learn" my lesson. They teach me to be afraid--to fear mistakes and to fear people. We're human and we're going to make mistakes. As my mentor wrote to me not too long ago when I mishandled a situation, "You are growing. Sometimes it is graceful and sometimes you belly flop. Either way you're growing." I am grateful to the people who allow me to belly flop--I get them wet, maybe they lose their place in their book, I splash pool water in their margarita, but ultimately, they know I'm the one that's truly feeling the pain. And next time, I hone my technique a little more, practice having a little less splash. 

This holding compassion and forgiveness hostage, this thinking that we, the collective online audience or singular offline audience, get to decide when someone has or has not learned his lesson seems like taking the long way for everyone involved.


I don't want to be judge and jury. That responsibility is too great and my perspective is too small. But I can offer compassion and forgiveness, mostly, and selfishly, because I want them always to be offered to me.  

Let's face it, if we're doing this thing right, which means we're probably doing it wrong most of the time, then we're all just kids in taller bodies, growing up in public. It hurts. Compassion and forgiveness make it a whole lot less painful.