Criticism and Disapproval vs. Public Shaming

Cone of shame

For some time, I have been operating with the assumption that there is a meaningful difference between publicly criticizing or expressing disapproval with something someone has said or done and participating in the public shaming of an individual who has said or done something of which one disapproves. Perhaps this assumption is flawed. What do you think - is there a meaningful difference here?

In my opinion, it is not just possible but fairly easy to criticize the ideas someone has expressed or how someone has behaved without participating in public shaming. In fact, I'd place most criticism in this category. When you or I point out the problems with someone's argument, reasoning, ideas, or behavior, we are usually providing criticism that does not cross over into shaming. Similarly, I think it is rather easy to express our disapproval with something someone has said or done (e.g., "I disagree with you, and here's why...") without attempting to shame the person.

Admittedly, the distinction becomes much less clear when our criticism or expressions of disapproval are aimed not at one's argument, reasoning, ideas, or behavior but at the person who is at their source. I'm not claiming that this necessarily entails shaming, but it does seem to bring us much closer.

This is one of the core problems I have with the "call-out culture" that seems to reign supreme on social media these days. I have seen many intelligent people insisting that we all have a duty to publicly "call out" anyone who dares to express ideas that violate our politically correct sensibilities. Many see this as a form of public shaming, and I believe they are correct to do so. The goal here is often one of punishment; they aim to harm the reputation or status of their target in order to bring about conformity and reduce the chances that others will express similar ideas in the future. It is sort of an ends-justify-the-means form of social engineering.

As I see it, there are at least three factors which might help to distinguish criticism and expressing disapproval from public shaming. I suspect there are others, but these are the first ones that come to mind:

  1. The target. Criticism and the expression of disapproval are generally aimed at someone's work (e.g., ideas expressed, work products, behaviors); shaming is generally aimed at the person himself or herself.
  2. The intent. Criticism and the expression of disapproval do not generally aim to inflict harm on the target; shaming is generally done in order to harm the target, usually through degrading his or her reputation or status.
  3. The process. Criticism and the expression of disapproval are often solitary activities in that the person doing them is expressing himself or herself without much concern for whether others do the same; shaming requires an audience, depends on others joining in, and is a group activity.
I've been asked a few times why I care about any of this stuff enough to write about it. I find this subject fascinating for many reasons, but I'll limit myself to just one here. Many people have expressed opposition to the efforts of some progressive atheist bloggers to call-out and publicly shame those who do not agree with their preferred ideology. I've always assumed that those opposed to these behaviors were opposed because they objected to the call-out culture and public shaming, which made good sense to me. When I saw some of them participating in and seeking to justify the shaming of Kim Davis, I started to think I may have been wrong. I'm hoping this wasn't just another example of it being okay when we do it to others who we deem "deserving" but not when others do it to us.