Monday, August 12, 2019

shaming racists: behavioral speculations

A few weeks back, I whiled away an hour or two of an afternoon with my friend Oli, keeping her company in the parking garage office where she sometimes works. I forget what we were discussing that prompted it, but Oli told me she's a strong believer in the virtues of shaming as a means toward changing peoples' habits for the better. She wasn't talking about dogpiling, doxxing, and death threats, but rather the basic practice of establishing a taboo and relying on members of a group to socially punish those who violate it.

I concurred with her to the extent that it can work: the example that came to my mind had to do with smoking. Nobody automatically assumes they have your permission to light a cigarette inside your car or house these days, and part of the reason for this must have to do with enough hosts sternly asking enough guests to kindly take it outside. The social group erected a boundary and enforced it by calling out infractors, eventually establishing a new standard of behavior which we observe with little need for continuous policing or squabbling.

Our conversation flindered on, with neither of us dwelling on the point. We were already in the middle of disputing at least two other topics (I enjoy talking to Oli because she's intense, and because we can argue ideas in good faith without the mood growing acrimonious) and I didn't want to swerve too far away from the matter at hand. But I did continue thinking about it afterwards.

Shaming is more often than not a palliative: it targets the symptoms of undesirable habits instead of their causes. Any educator worth his or her pension will tell you that the stick works best when paired with the carrot. By itself, punishment is a short-term solution that must be applied and reapplied and reapplied for as long as the factors responsible for the problem continue to operate—and punishment usually leaves those factors untouched.

How, then, to account for the usefulness of shaming in stopping people from stinking up your car without your permission? It works because the smoker ultimately receives a reward—a cigarette—for deferring from lighting up in a closed, shared space. In this case, the host's ire functions as a guard rail. The carrot and the stick are wielded in tandem to achieve a satisfactory result.

To see why shaming, in and of itself, is an ineffective means of social control, we need only look to current events. The ghastly spectacle of a crowd chanting "send them back" at a Trump rally in North Carolina last month (to say nothing of last week's massacre in El Paso) was all the reminder anyone should need that the United States is still sick with racism.

What has been our strategy for combating this problem? Just what Superman recommended in the late 1940s: calling out people who express bigoted sentiments.

While there have been institutional efforts at combating racist attitudes through education, diversity training, etc., the most frequently used tool in the reformist's arsenal has been shaming. Linguist John McWhorter has often said that "racist" is only slightly less toxic a label as "pedophile." Even racists, he says, are embarrassed to be called racists. And yet, white racism continues to stain the United States' social fabric. If such a widely acknowledged social ailment has not been cured, part of the reason must be an ineffective mode of treatment.