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Can Public Shaming be Useful?

The pouted lip narcissism of youth was on full display in the front page pictures of Diana Lasu and Olivia Muranga. They were identified in the Australian newspaper Courier Mail last month after deceitfully returning to Queensland from Victoria carrying coronavirus. The young women were of African heritage, leading to some accusations of racism. Editors were quick to retort that those who committed crimes were regularly named.

The episode was a good example of shame’s comeback within the public health dominated morality we now share. Shame’s usefulness in codifying appropriate behaviour has become paramount.

The “subjective self interest” embodied by the convicted women in Queensland, cited in a British psychological study as predictive of poor compliance with behavioural restrictions, may especially require regulation through shame.

The term #Covidiot emerged online first as a hashtag. It has since been used thousands of times to criticise behaviour deemed errant, a marker of the rise of pandemic shaming.

Pandemic shaming has been used to expose drunk spring breakers flouting advice in America to those attending a large Stereophonics concert in Manchester. Public officials have been forced to resign after not living up to their own advice, including the chief medical officer of Scotland and Australian Minister Don Harwin exposed holidaying at his beach house in Australia.

Even wayward rugby league players, well known for scandals involving sex or violence, were termed Covidiots on the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph after flouting health protocols.

While sidelined critics might argue tyranny describes the restrictions imposed by public health authorities, the priorities of such officials currently hold sway. Suddenly the acts of social distancing and appropriate hygiene have fallen into the realm of public law and order. Police prosecute those walking too closely or in excessively large groups. The act of targeted coughing is now a form of assault.

Epidemics have changed the course of history by reshaping our worlds, both physical and existential. Nothing compares to staring bald faced at our mortality when it comes to raising moral and philosophical issues.

Shame’s diffuse re-emergence in recent decades is a function of political tribalism reinforced by online information flows. Shame is a proxy for our relationship to groups, a moral language and with primitive emotions. It implies transgressions where we ascribe fault not just to an act, but also to the self, what is known in psychology as a global attribution.

The Left focused on those who transgressed boundaries of political correctness whereas the Right preferred targets like welfare fraud. Public health advocates had a greater tolerance for fat shaming or ostracising smokers. Meanwhile shaming associated with sexuality, its original iteration in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, became increasingly rare.

Discussions around shame indicate a yearning for a moral language stripped bare from the decline of religion. We remain morally inarticulate and existential despair has been poached by the more medicalised language of mental health. The elevation of positivity has further stigmatised emotions like shame. Psychological studies have found that our culture fosters an unhealthy inability to tolerate negative emotions like anger, disgust, or shame contributing to a growth in disorders like self harm.

From a mental health point of view, there is an added urgency, being in the background of both the health and economic crises we face. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries, Australia still has the second highest rate of anti-depressant prescription after Iceland. The coronavirus has acted to prick a moment in Western civilisation which Israeli historian Yuval Harari calls a combination of incredible prosperity combined with a lack of purpose.

While there will undoubtedly be a rise in psychological ailments in the face of economic despair, many of my patients with anxiety disorders have not deteriorated. Their distress is no longer individualised but now shared. The socially anxious are also spared the performative strains of modern life in a service economy. These vary from the heightened focus on self presentation in the workplace to the scrutiny of chance encounters.

Just as coronavirus exposes the different fault lines and weaknesses of each society it invisibly penetrates, it has functioned as something of an exclamation mark upon a half-century of social and economic liberalism. If Brexit and Trump were initial portents, an epidemic that has stymied individual autonomy has potentially slammed a historical door. COVID-19 in its uncaring destruction has further highlighted Douglas Murray’s lament about modern liberalism and “the feeling that the story has run out”.

The language of individual rights is being smashed by the priorities of public health, which is dependent upon mutual obligation. Just as many national insurance programs received momentum after the Spanish flu, the emotional disconnection and dilution of group ties preceding the crisis may receive a much-needed tonic. The values of introspection, family, community, and renewed faith are likely to gain traction.

Within this context of a more united resistance against a collective threat, the usefulness of a gentle shame is being highlighted. This is especially true in a multicultural society where a focus on expressive individualism and self esteem will not translate for many ethnic groups.

According to anthropologist David Jordan, shame in Chinese cultures “is the ability to take delight in the performance of one’s duty.” Given Chinese and Indians dominate new migrants over the past decade, the stigmatisation of shame has implications for education and the law. Another example is domestic violence, which in ethnic communities has considerable overlaps with maintaining perceived honour. Alcohol and social disadvantage are stronger correlates in other demographics.

But recent outbreaks of pandemic shaming also expose the limitations. There is a tension between appropriate enforcement of acceptable behaviours and the trashing of individual dignity with no paths to forgiveness. This has been especially pronounced in the past decade through online shaming, where a host of figures both prominent and otherwise have been cancelled due to some kind of inappropriate action.

Healthy shaming involves a brief period of stigma combined with an associated ritual of re-integration. This is exactly what happens in group therapies for addiction or dieting, but cancel culture is narrowly about retribution. The combination of online activism and permanent marks on the Internet, shame’s digital shadow, also hamper the path of reintegration.

When discussing the world of social media, religious leaders have raised the prospect that without the concept of sin, our society lacks the structure to allow for forgiveness. The alternative is ostracism and exile without a route for reunion. Even groups such as those for weight loss or drug addiction contain aspects that incorporate Christian concepts of forgiveness.

In their academic research about the difference between shame and guilt American psychologists Tangney and Dearing give the predominant view in our culture: “Our lives as individuals, as social beings, and as a society can be enhanced by transforming painful, problematic feelings of shame into more adaptive feelings of guilt. Recognizing the distinction between shame and guilt is an important first step in making ours a more moral society.”

But our belief in the role of guilt as a superior emotion to regulate transgression is under threat with the declining role of Christianity’s moral axis of sin and redemption. Shame can be scaled which can be significant when behaviours are unacceptable but still within the law, especially when it comes to corporations or governments which are not capable of feeling guilt.

In her book Is Shame Necessary? environmental scientist Jennifer Jacquet writes:

Digital technologies have at once lowered the cost of gossip and exposure and expanded gossip’s speed and scope. This could make shame more salient to public life than ever before, especially since the power to use it has been put increasingly into the hands of citizens.

Jacquet cites the improvements in working conditions fashion companies were forced to undertake after global outcry when Dickensian, slave-like conditions were exposed through online shaming.

Western societies have underplayed the role of shame. Its utility has been deemed less relevant in a social milieu of greater diversity and urban anonymity. Shame requires an audience and a shared morality, something at odds with a multicultural society. We are ashamed of shame, portrayed instead as the inner demon responsible for a range of psychopathology.

Yet poorly understood shame is an unnamed undercurrent that leads people to avoidance and isolation. The emotion hides in plain sight while we pretend we have superseded it. As Salman Rushdie writes: “Dear Reader, shame is not the exclusive property of the East.”

What we often call social anxiety is steeped in shame, but one coloured by perceived failures in our media-rich meritocracy that breeds inadequacy. In the language of evolutionary psychology, we live an environment that encourages us into acts of social submission instead of grasping towards invitations of affiliation. Symptoms of emotional distress are often signals with regards to our perceived status within groups and hierarchies, many of which are now imagined online.

Our current circumstances are challenging us to renew our inner lives, just as we strive to avoid the threat to our physical bodies. The rise in the discussion of mental health in recent decades corresponds with a decline in a moral, metaphysical language. We increasingly lack a language for suffering and adversity.

Pandemic shaming is likely to be limited to this period whereby coronavirus is the dominant force shaping our lives. But its re-emergence is a pointer that shame has never really left, but just lurked with alternative names or iterations.

A better understanding of shame and a focus on its reintegrative potential offers promise to enliven our emotional selves.

In the wake of a shared threat to our species, we are bonded together in a mutual dread, imagining the implications for a better future. It is time for a kind of aggressive friendship to satisfy our longing for a richer collective, a lurch to greater affiliation.


Tanveer Ahmed is an Australia-based psychiatrist and author. This is an edited extract of The Defence of ShameConnorcourt Publishing, (July 2020.) Follow him on Twitter @drtahmed.


  1. Interesting article but I am a little surprised the author did not discuss the currently prevalence of the concept of wokeness. I agree with the author’s observations about the role of the decline in forgiveness but in my opinion he doesn’t fully encompass how wokeness is being practiced or enforced. Wokeness requires abandonment and a severing of ties. There was a time when if a friend committed a transgression one called him out on it and expressed disappointment. But the person was still a friend, so it was appropriate to stand with transgressor and help him face up to his responsibilities. One did not become an enabler and let the friend know further transgressions would not be tolerated and could result in an ending of the friendship. Wokeness has no room for loyalty. Under the principle of wokeness anyone showing loyalty towards a transgressor is equally guilty though the loyal friend may have committed no offense. Wokeness can even require one to out a friend if nonwoke sentiments are expressed. Wokeness does not seek friendship or friends, rather wokeness is in search of allies. Anyone not aligned with the cause is not useful.

  2. What a lot of rot.
    Sorry, but I hated the spastic English.
    Some examples:
    “Symptoms of emotional distress are often signals with regards to our perceived status within groups and hierarchies.”
    “The rise in the discussion of mental health in recent decades corresponds with a decline in a moral, metaphysical language.”
    What the hell does that shit mean? It was like Deepak Chopra dry-humping Judith Butler. I hope the author of this crap doesn’t mind me trying my hand at “healthy shaming”.

  3. “In the wake of a shared threat to our species, we are bonded together in a mutual dread, imagining the implications for a better future.”

    Speak for yourself. I feel no such “sense of threat” or “mutual dread”.

    The only thing I dread is the notion that a mob of do-gooders can have the run of the place without any room for discussion or dissent.

  4. I also thought it was a miss that she didn’t ID who may be the current culprits of super shame… I kept thinking she would attach it to wokeness, but she was likely either afraid to (and be a victim of the subject of her own article), or is too woke herself to realize it…

    The one thing I did appreciate was her connection to the dissolution of religious values/principles in the West, and how the ‘forgiveness and redemption’ that is hard-wired into Judeo-Christian thinking is now lacking… Again, by WHO, would have been nice to have had her discuss… Without a redemptive/forgiveness path out of mistakes and imperfections, it is just a 24/7 witch hunt to finally unearth something that warrants you to be sent to the Gulags…

    Oh, and you may have heard this, but this was always helpful when I was a marriage counselor: Shame is feeling bad for who you are, guilt is feeling bad for what you did.. BIG difference…

    And did you see the mayor or Portland is moving because the mob is after him? The Left Eats Its Own…

  5. You truly cannot make this stuff up. Crazy Aunt Nancy said today:

    “As it turns out, it was a set up. So I take responsibility for falling for a set up. The salon owes me an apology for setting me up,” she added.

    Are we Americans, half of us, really on board with her and her cronies?

  6. It’s always somebody else’s fault.

    Nancy, who should know more about the law than most people, could always have said no.

  7. Rumor has it that Melania arranged the appointment, using a fake name.

  8. Don’t you understand? Mask rules, like tax rules, security rules and the rest, are for LITTLE people. Not for Nancy “Antoinette” Pelosi, Hilary “Evita” Clinton, and the rest.

    You think you could get away with having top secret emails in your personal computer, having a shut down salon open for your mask-less hairdo, and the like? Get real. The rules are for me and you. Not for them, or the other aristocrats of the democratic party, our betters, who have an heavenly mandate to rule because they are so much more enlightened and progressive than we are.

    Of course Nancy wants an apology from the peasants for an act of lese majeste, of not knowing who’s the real boss here, who makes the rules and doesn’t have to follow them.

  9. Back in the boomer days and before, shame had a limit. Meaning you could spank, shame, discipline or otherwise ‘correct’ kids to make them better, according to some fairly widely agreed upon standards, and not think it was ultimately crushing to them. The lens I see this through is a Christian one, and I think the erosion of that, whether people acknowledged the Christian underpinning of society (I am in Texas) or not, has led to what you said - ‘don’t judge me’… the roots of this self-actualization, self-esteem mess was born out of the 70s with the ‘Free to Be You and Me’ movement (I was in that play in 7th grade, 1976), and the popular ethos of the book ‘I’m ok,you’re ok’… it sounds good, but the implication is ‘I’m fine as I am and don’t need you or anyone else to tell me any different!’… it sounds encouraging, but when the sports teams hand out participation trophies so ‘everyone feels good’ you end up with kids now in college and beyond that have skin as thin as an onion…

    The Christian POV would be ‘I’m not ok, you’re not ok, and that’s ok’… and the REASON for that would be that God created you on purpose, as you are, but sees you greater than you currently are, and loves you too much to leave you there… so that allows correction/discipline/shame (to a degree) to be accepted without completely crushing ‘who you are ‘ (because the Identity of a Christian should be in God or Christ more specifically, but God will do for this post)…

    Without God, shame is just too crushing to someone’s entire being, so it can’t be tolerated… I too hope that a path emerges that includes humility, grace, redemption and forgiveness. The current liturgy of the Woke does not have those items woven in to it, and I don’t see a way out, but I DO have hope that God knows what’s going on, and we will make it out of here, even if it isn’t exactly as we would like…

  10. Thanks for responding, and you brought up some good points I think worthy of diving into.

    First, the reason I used the ‘I’m ok, you’re ok’ shift was because it pointed to, what I think is the larger issue of God being unraveled from the fabric of the philosophy of the West in the last 50 years or so. It is a ‘feel good’, secular response to something that Christians addressed through acknowledgement of brokenness, redemption, and forgiveness. I was merely pointing out the shift in thinking away from a God-centered way of addressing ‘sin’ (I use it in quotes for the non-theists reading…)…

    Secondly, I still think you are using guilt and shame too interchangeably. I think they are separate, but are cousins. They are related, in that one can use the word ‘feel’ in describing it - ‘I feel guilty because…’ or ‘I feel shame because…’ … But I still contend guilt is related to the act, while shame is an indictment of character. And both, with a Christian lens, look different from the inside (meaning from my pov as a Christian). Because without the Christian view (using the extreme example of the Woke, who have no path for redemption - it is just straight ‘sin to excommunication’), I’m not sure non-Christians will can see what I am talking about there…

    Lastly, and I wish I had more time to elaborate this morning to elaborate, but don’t - you introduced another nice one - ‘judging’. I am not sure of your own pov on Christianity - I have read a lot of your posts, but don’t have a feel - but the verse you quoted is great, but while you referenced it as verses 1-3, you only quoted verse 1. I think the whole passage warrants repeating for context:

    1Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
    3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

    Clearly, the indication that Jesus is teaching on self reflection and self critique before judging/incriminating the world at large. Jordan Peterson put it basically as ‘Go clean your room first, then go out and try to change the world’. Humility is wired into a Christian world view through teachings like this. Judging, in the context he is criticizing, is about feeling superior, or without fault, compared to others, which He is critical of. I don’t think he is saying ‘anything is ok’, meaning not to judge/discern/measure various items as they come along. Discerning whether things are a ‘good idea’ or not is for sure what Sam Harris spends a lot of time on, and I love the way he does it, and he obviously isn’t invoking God into his argument.

    So I agree that ‘judgment is left to God’, but we are left here on Earth for now to figure out what is best, and that involves judgment. But again, it isn’t attacking the inherent worth or value of each person (since all are created in the Image of God, and worthy of that respect), it is just looking at either acts being good/bad, or ideas being good/bad.

    I hope I was clear enough, even though I wanted double the space to elaborate, so I apologize if I don’t connect enough dots…

  11. I am, as I often said, an atheist. I do not believe in God and would argue neither does anyone else - everybody is an atheist about the other thousands, if not tens of thousands, of gods that humanity invented. Only their god(s) are real (if you have fate).

    However, not believing in gods is one thing, and hostility to religion is another. I strongly suspect the hatred towards religion in general and their own culture’s religion in particular among the “woke” and the progressive has little to do with the rationality, or lack thereof, of the belief.

    It is rather, as I said, lese majeste - the view that someone dares to have some other set of values, some other purpose in life, than the “correct” one which the state dictates. There is no god but the state, and the “progressives” are its prophets.

  12. That’s unfair to Marie Antoinette, actually. Most of the stuff told about her, “let them eat cake” in particular, was propaganda by enemies, not her actual statements.

  13. Many people have argued that Christianity ultimately paved the way for democracy itself. The idea that all men are equal in the eyes of the Lord is one of the most revolutionary beliefs in history.

  14. Parents who shame their children want their children to change their behavior. People who aggressively shame adults are not interested in changing the behavior of those they shame. The shaming is an end in itself. It gratifies their need for moral superiority and their need to scapegoat a group for a problem. It may be effective as a deterrent to others hoping to avoid public ridicule, but that is merely incidental.

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