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Shame campaigns: Morality? Politics? Or both?

"A "shame campaign" is a tactic in which particular individuals are singled  out because of their behavior or suspected crimes, often by marking them publicly, such as Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"." (  In recent years shame campaigns have been used in the Philippines to call attention to drug dealers in 1997 by painting their houses red and, if you can believe it, to shame jaywalkers by splashing them with wet rags in 2005, also, in the Philippines.  Here in the United States a recent series of public service ads have been directed against teen pregnancy in which children say things like, "Got a good job?  I cost thousands of dollars each year" and "Honestly, Mom, chances are he won't stay with you.  What happens to me?  I'm twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen".


The notion of shame has been with our species, probably from the beginning.  In small groups it was one of the tactics for achieving social control.  Today "people of all cultures feel pride upon social success, embarrassment, even shame, upon failure and, at times, anxiety pending these outcomes" (Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, 1994:242).  Social success means location within the status structure: rising in status generates "pride", falling in status "shame".  In many socieities, if one doesn't compete for status, he/she will be assigned status anyway.


In a blog on Psychology Today, Dr. Kenneth Barish directs our attention to the formation of feelings of pride and shame in our children.  "A child's need to feel proud, and to avoid feelings of shame, is fundamental motivation, and remains fundamental, throughout her". ( One interesting comment he makes later in the article is "Shame - our emotional response to exclusion and failure - lowers aspirations".


There seems to be little doubt that pride and shame can play a role in effecting and motivating behavior.  And yet, in a March NPR program on the teen pregnancy ads, one of the participants noted two objections.  One, she said, "I think they just promote more of the stereotyping that teen moms already face.  It's extremely unfair and it doesn't provide any information on how teens can prevent teen pregnancy".  Further, "...when I was having sex as a teen, I wasn't thinking about, you know, what my children are going to be like" ... "I honestly don't think it would've changed my view of having sex at a young age...". (


As the "shame campaigns" are promoted by governments, they raise the question of whether shame is strictly an informal social control or whether it can also be utilized as a formal social control.  Further, if shame functions as a motivation in small, informal groups does it lose that function when applied by larger, formal governments?  In small groups shame functions also as a status control device.  Does it retain that function in the larger group usage?  In fact, does shame at the larger group level have an entirely different sense than shame at the small group level?  And, if so, at what level does the change in meaning occur?  And finally, does the concept of shame have the same meaning and application in all societies?


Well, we do not hand out scarlet letters for oppositional comments at the Cafe and we do hope you take pride in your contributions to the discussion.  So stop by and share your views.  See you Sunday.





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  • A former member
    A former member

    Where do you meet?

    May 18, 2013

    • John W

      Ooops, don't know how I missed that. I'm so ashamed. Location and map now available.

      May 18, 2013

  • Howard

    I'm ashamed to admit I'm rarely ashamed.

    May 15, 2013

  • LB

    I'm not ashamed to say I plan to be there ;=)

    May 15, 2013

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