Spencer Bokat-Lindell is staff editor in the Opinion section of the New York Times. Previously he was an editor at The Paris Review and Axios.
He recently wrote the following Editorial for the NYT
“Over the weekend, I received a text message from a good friend that made me angry. “I wanna treat myself to a Christmas dinner,” he wrote. “Where should I go?”
I wanted to respond that I needed to double-check which restaurants would be open for Christmas on whatever planet he was living on. My friend had no reason not to know about the dreaded winter virus surge, I felt, and had every ability to avoid risky activities like being unmasked at a crowded restaurant.
But perhaps to the benefit of my friendship, I had just read this Times Op-Ed by Aaron E. Carroll, which reminded me to reconsider. “Anger and hectoring are rarely the way to make things better,” he wrote. “Shaming others might make you feel good about yourself, but it rarely corrects bad behavior. Indeed, it often backfires.”
Why exactly is shaming considered a poor public-health strategy? And if it really doesn’t work, how else are people supposed to channel their frustration at those who flout pandemic safety guidance? Here’s what public-health experts, ethicists and journalists are saying.
‘The Public-Shaming Pandemic’
What does it mean to shame a person? Shame and guilt are often talked about interchangeably, but psychologists generally consider them distinct emotions. Both arise when a person is felt to have violated a moral or cultural norm, as Annette Kämmerer writes in Scientific American, but guilt is about our relationship to others, whereas shame is about our relationship to ourselves.
When we feel guilty, we turn our gaze outward seek strategies to reverse the harm we have done,” Kämmerer writes. “When we feel ashamed, we turn our attention inward, focusing mainly on the emotions roiling within us and attending less to what is going on around us.
”Shaming is not a new feature of humanity’s response to disease, but the web has given it a new medium, as D.T. Max writes in The New Yorker. “The internet, with its opportunity for anonymity, its absence of gatekeepers, and its magnification of transient hurts, has made it unnervingly easy to generate instant mass outrage,” he says.
For people who are otherwise politically disenfranchised, online shaming campaigns can be a useful tool for seeking redress from those in power. But they can also be unfair, and, when deployed against private citizens, disproportionate to the harm in question. “Online shaming may not be as brutal as the Puritan stocks,” Max writes, “but it can be devastating in its scale.”
From a public-health perspective, shaming can be not just cruel but also counterproductive. For one thing, it can make certain beliefs and behaviors, like anti-vaccine sentiment and anti-lockdown protests, seem more prevalent than they actually are, and therefore more normal. But perhaps most important, the stigma that punitive measures like shaming create can make controlling an outbreak more difficultby making people more likely to hide symptoms, avoid treatment and forgo healthy behaviors.
Epidemic after epidemic has borne this lesson out, writes Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach to risk prevention, she argues in The Atlantic, Americans need to embrace an ethic of harm reduction “which recognizes that some people are going to take risks, whether public-health experts want them to or not — and instead of condemnation, offers them strategies to reduce any potential harms.” She tweeted:
‘The Aptness of Anger’
If public health compels us to extend empathy to the shamed, it may also compel us to extend empathy to the shamer. To be sure, some people may engage in shaming behavior primarily out of a desire to feel superior, as Carroll suggests. But consider the case of this reader who commented on Carroll’s article:
I am an ER doc, facing Covid every shift and ondering when my P.P.E. is going to fail me. I am also 67 years old. With due respect, I have no patience for those refusing to socially distance or wear a mask, as it is my life that is on the line. There is no nuance here, and no need to dance around the issue, and frankly those who do not comply should absolutely be ashamed, and be shamed. This isn’t the damn flu, and we are not babies. Grow up.
This doctor sounds angry about the country’s failure to manage its epidemic, and justifiably so. Responding to this anger by pointing out its potential to make matters worse feels unsatisfying, not unlike an unfaithful lover who responds to a betrayed partner by saying, “You shouldn’t get angry because it’s just going to make me cheat more”: The response may be correct, but it may also be beside the point.
The analogy of the unfaithful lover is borrowed from “The Aptness of Anger,” a 2018 academic article by Amia Srinivasan, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, that was recirculated in response to Carroll’s piece. “There is more to anger, normatively speaking, than its effects,” she writes. “Even if anger is counterproductive we can still ask: is it the fitting response to the way the world is? Is it, in other words, apt?”
In Srinivasan’s formulation, anger is apt if it is directed at a genuine moral violation to which one has some personal connection. Apt anger, she argues, is intrinsically valuable, and critics of its counterproductivity face the burden of explaining why considerations about its effects should trump a person’s right to express it.
In a public-health crisis that is killing more than 2,200 Americans a day, it is easy enough to meet that burden. It takes a bit more effort to see, as Dr. Srinivasan argues we should, how the very existence of such forced trade-offs constitutes a form of invisible injustice, “a Sophie’s choice between self-preservation and justified rage.”
Health care workers have been uniquely affected by the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, so their anger may be uniquely apt. But on some level, all Americans possess a reason for being angry about the nation’s failed pandemic response.
“You are allowed to be angry,” Rebecca Jennings of Vox wrote in May. “Individual Americans, for the most part, have held up our end of the bargain by staying home whenever possible in order to lessen the burden on our health care system, drastically redesigning our lives to fit around a scary and constantly evolving crisis, canceling an entire year’s worth of weddings, holidays, funerals. Our government hasn’t.”
What to do with your pandemic anger
Direct it at those in power.
While the impulse to shame people for flouting Covid-19 safety measures is ostensibly about public health, it can also be understood as part of a larger contemporary tendency to charge individuals with the burden of solving social problems.
“It can make people feel they have some control over the issue and relieve them of what I think is a real duty to advocate for broader social solutions,” Pamela Hieronymi, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Jennings. “And quite frankly, the people and industries who that broader solution would cost absolutely want to put the focus on the individual responsibility because that’s taking the focus off of them.”
For example, you don’t need to make excuses for people who eat indoors at crowded restaurants to appreciate that the policies that continue to make indoor dining both possible and financially necessary for many restaurants constitute the greater public-health threat.
Understand the difference between shame and peer pressure.
As Marcus told NPR, there is a fine line between public shaming that makes people feel bad about risky behavior and more positive forms of peer pressure that motivate them to take precautions. For example, some psychologists suggest that instead of confronting people for not wearing a mask from a place of self-interested indignation, you might emphasize how wearing a mask helps protect others.
“The initial research we’re seeing on persuading people to ‘socially distance’ suggests that messages framed in that way tend to be the most effective,” says David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. Such conversations may also be more effective with people you know, according to Aziza Ahmed, a health law professor at Northeastern.
Make it personal.
Despite the best public-health efforts, experts say that some Americans may need to personally experience the dangers of the virus before they change their behavior. “As more and more people know someone who gets sick and dies, more and more Americans are likely to take this disease seriously,” Nicholas A. Christakis, a Yale sociologist, toldThe Times.
At the same time, he cautioned, “the effect of knowing people who survived it may lead people to misread Covid as not being as bad as it is.” Even so, some experts are hopeful that we are approaching a tipping beyond which Covid-19 safety norms become more entrenched. And as my colleague Jenna Wortham tweeted, sometimes people simply need to be reminded of how profound the crisis already is.
Accept that some people won’t change their behavior — at least not completely.
In the absence of government intervention or society-wide changes in personal behavior, Americans need to look for new approaches, Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University, argues in The Times.
Discouraging holiday travel, for example, may simply be futile with some people. But encouraging them to get tested before and after traveling, while far from perfect, may at least reduce the risk.
“We should still ask people to keep gatherings small, and reinforce the recommendation to avoid traveling, but we need to recognize that not everyone will listen,” she writes. “Pandemic fatigue is real, and we need to find more realistic solutions.”
As for my friend, I ended up giving him the name of a restaurant I knew had good Covid-19 precautions, including rooftop tables, in case he was determined to dine out. I also mentioned that my roommates and I were concerned about how New York would weather the next few months, and so were planning on spending New Year’s Eve at home with a bottle of champagne and the best Peking duck we could get delivered.
“Oooooohh that sounds amazing,” my friend replied. “OK I’m gonna do that.”