Shame and Accountability

A while back, I saw some folks talk about shame with reference to individual accountability regarding institutional events. There are at least three things wrong with this, though.

  1. Shame is a harmful, negative emotion. Deliberately inflicting it on people is emotional abuse, as it leads to feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, etc.
  2. Individual action cannot solve institutional problems. When we praise people like Martin Luther King, Jr, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other leaders, we need to recognize that they lead. They inspire other people to action, rather than just doing the work in isolation.
  3. Shaming people for institutional problems is counterproductive. We need white race traitors, not white people afraid to engage with people of colour, and that requires giving room for people to make mistakes and learn. It is not the job of people of colour to provide this room, however.

None of which is to say that we can’t hold people accountable, or that we must look for ways of doing so which won’t cause people to feel shame. It is important, however, to recognize that accountability is about encouraging good behaviour and discouraging bad behaviour, not specifically making people feel bad for doing bad things. Shame is a consequence, not a goal.

P.S. I was originally also going to talk about ‘sins of the father’ shit, but given how pervasive and ongoing systemic bigotry is, it’s not only our parents who have sinned or are sinning. We have a generational responsibility to dismantle these things, but that needs to happen without emotional abuse.