Monday 22 January 2018

Book review: The ethics of the shame game

Is Shame Necessary, By Jennifer Jacquet

Is Shame Necessary, by Jennifer Jacquet
Is Shame Necessary, by Jennifer Jacquet

Peter Coy

One of the latest online crazes is "dog shaming". It even has dedicated websites on which owners can post photographs of their pets next to handwritten placards that spell out why little Fido or Poochie is in disgrace.

The real joke, of course, is that these dogs are merely accidental clowns. A dog can sense disapproval or fear punishment, but it cannot feel shame.

People are different. Almost nobody enjoys being disliked or disapproved of, and even the prospect of shame is a powerful social corrective.

In her intelligent and provocative book, the American environmentalist Jennifer Jacquet offers some persuasive examples. In California, threats to publish the names of those owing state taxes have so far led to more than $336m being recovered.

Where Jacquet's book treads a daring line is in arguing that our real attention should be directed towards shaming corporations and governments rather than individuals.

Put bluntly, if we are concerned that we are living on a dying planet, she suggests, making consumers feel guilty unless they buy dolphin-friendly tuna and energy-efficient light bulbs is not a very effective way of going about things.

It would be far better, she suggests, to make structural changes that can improve the world for everyone and for good.

As she explains it, "small changes made by big institutions can make a serious difference - whereas small changes made by individual consumers cannot".

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