Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool
Allen Lane, 2015
When The New Inquiry reviewed Naomi Klein’s book on climate change, they found a polyphonic text. Two Kleins were speaking. The first is embedded in a liberal political tradition and blames financial crises on the mendacity or incompetence of particular actors; this Klein wants a muscular state, sufficiently bulked with regulation to be a match for the butch excesses of the market. The other Klein catches glimpses of a political action which is not framed or structured by state institutions. But in Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary?, there is no jostling between a Marxian and a (suitably foliate) Keynesian voice. Rather, market and state together exhaust the political terrain and cast the individual as either consumer or citizen, categories that look to be the Vladimir and Estragon of late capitalism—bedraggled, ineffectual, and bound together in a wretched companionship.
Onto these two possible roles, Jacquet neatly maps two different affective registers—guilt and shame—and appoints herself advocate for the latter. Her argument goes something like this: if what we want from politics is for certain, very bad things to stop happening, guilt cannot do the work we want it to do. Shame, on the other hand, can be very effective, so we had better get on with its rehabilitation and deployment. For a book that ostensibly recommends the weaponization of affect, Is Shame Necessary? appears deeply uninterested in the texture of emotional life. Guilt and shame peel neatly apart and peer at each other across that great divide between the public and the private. Even if the public/private split is a useful distinction for the political philosopher, it is doubtful that the boundary is of any use in taxonomies of affect. The same uncanny smoothness is on show in brisk, almost touchingly compressed fragments of intellectual history:
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the notion of the individual was boosted to cultural prominence with phenomena like Romantic literature, which emphasized self-growth.
It is hard (though some will find a way) to disagree with Jacquet that exploited workers, dead dolphins, and a changed climate are very bad things. And she is right that the prospects for a politics of guilt are dim. But her case in favour of shame lacks the plausibility of her critiques. Jacquet’s case against guilt is compelling: if we are to avert eco-catastrophe we need, she says, structural change. But guilt filters environmentalism through the figure of the consumer, leaving it too frail and scattered to be efficacious:
If pesticides are absent from my food but they are in everybody else’s, they still leach in to our shared water supply. If I eat dolphin-friendly tuna but everybody else continues to eat dolphin-unsafe tuna, dolphins remain in trouble. If I stop flying but nobody else does, carbon dioxide emissions continue to steeply increase.
Defenders of guilt often talk of green consumerism as “a first step.” Jacquet is unmoved by such generous gradualism. If one takes moral licensing effects seriously, she points out, green consumerism seems likely to pacify the conscience prematurely and initiate a radical conservationist ethic. One might worry too (as Jacquet sometimes seems about to) that a reiterated appeal to personal responsibility impoverishes our political vocabulary, allowing the impersonal structures, which are the proper objects of political analysis, to remain unseen.
Jacquet’s alternative to consumption is citizenship: instead of buying the right products we should pass the right laws. But given that even micro-climates care little for state lines, a “statist environmentalism” looks poised to replicate the diffuse patchiness of “green consumerism.” How much one is inclined to be impressed by the relative sizes of the patches probably rather depends upon one’s height above sea-level. As Out of the Woods point out in their review of Klein, statism is all very well for those of us not set to become climate migrants (or climate refugees); without a “politics beyond and against the state…a xenocidal lifeboat ethics” is all we can expect.
Certainly, there are political contexts in which the ideology of citizenship can (and has been) put to good use. When protesting against the closure of public libraries, or privatisation of public space, the figure of the citizen can be potent, bringing to mind as it does both the neo-classical Victoriana of civic buildings (for the nostalgic Tory) or the ideals of deliberative democracy (neo-classical too, in their way). But when rafts carrying migrants sink in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Australia’s (ghoulishly-named) Christmas Island, appeals to citizenship have a way of looking more like tarted-up parochialism than the beginnings of a prodigal internationalism.
Insofar as shame, according to Jacquet’s way of thinking, is a proxy for the possibilities of action within the confines of a liberal-market state, her advocacy is unlikely to persuade any reader suspicious of such a circumscribed politics. But one needn’t have this sort of worry to be unsympathetic to the sort of project Jacquet has in mind; distaste for shame as a disciplinary mechanism is a staple of liberal politics. Jacquet is not the first to reclaim shame for a progressive politics. Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law School, recasting shame as a “non-violent form of resistance,” packages it as the driving force behind a series of progressive measures designed to publicly humiliate offenders. Nussbaum (or, as Jacquet calls her, without apparent irony, “shame-expert Martha Nussbaum”) is suspicious of this project. She draws a distinction—one that she takes to be politically salient—between emotions that remind us of and emotions that occlude our fragility and ‘incompleteness.’ The problem with shame, in the light of this distinction, is not that shaming is harmful (after all, some kinds of harm may even be socially necessary), but rather the tightness of its connection to the ways in which conformity, when valorised, becomes a way of expressing fantasies of invulnerability. Where the communitarian rehabilitator of shame sees it as a way of ensuring that the powerful conform to our norms, Nussbaum worries that if shame is to have the emotional charge it does, it runs off a (possibly submerged) conception of normality that pulls in the opposite direction to liberal commitments. Recognising that world building is invariably a form of bricolage—that when we fashion lives for ourselves we tend to make use of what was already lying around—needn’t mean neglecting the cultivation of a culture in which the costs of frailty, dependence, and idiosyncrasy are not too high.
Jacquet does not seem worried about these questions, and that is, perhaps, okay. Her sights are set on changing corporate behaviour. And despite the ruling of the US Supreme Court that corporations are people, it would be difficult for a liberal to worry that shame is an affront to corporate dignity. But if this is the source of her indifference to (sophisticated) liberal hand wringing, there remains a problem. Jacquet observes, quite rightly, that corporations don’t have psychologies like ours: “unlike individuals, Chevron cannot be motivated to change through guilt.” But if Chevron is not similarly immune to the vicissitudes of shame, it remains unclear whether this is because of some difference between a guilty CEO and a shamed one, or because we can shame, but not guilt, the sorts of things that lack consciences. These two issues knot together into a question of political ontology: the sort of thing that capital and corporations are, and what sorts of relation they stand in to the personalities of those caught up in their directing their flows. “You may,” Marx might say, in the sarcastic, gothic voice of the producer addressing his employer, “be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the R.S.P.C.A., and you may have the odour of sanctity as well, but the thing you represent—when you come face to face with me—has no heart in its breast. What seems to throb there is my own heartbeat.” If capitalism is a system whose logics are insensitive to the personalities caught up in it, then talk of virtues, vices, and their emotional outgrowths may have moral import but will be useless to a project of political analysis.
Jacquet tries to dodge both the political and the ontological question with insistence that shame is “scalable” and by determinedly fixing her gaze on shaming considered as an act (something we do) rather than as a state (something we feel). There is a distinction here, and an interesting, if not unique one—blame also looks to be both something we do to others and an attitude that we have towards them. But disambiguation is not analysis; presumably it’s not just a neat semantic coincidence that we call these states, attitudes, and actions by the same name. In the case of shame, it looks to be an important part of the act of shaming someone that you aim, in some loose sense, at the production of a certain emotional state. Talk of one leads back to talk of the other. The more one thinks through the mechanics of Jacquet’s proposals, the more it begins to seem that her talk of shame is tinged with metaphor that is suggestive at best, a florid misdirection at worst. Perhaps these flourishes encode a workable political ontology, but probably not. For most often, the books reads as a public relations manual, dressed in the sleek vestments of affect theory.
Rachel Fraser  is a Philosophy DPhil student at Linacre College, Oxford, with interests in language and epistemology.