Shaming & Shunning

Prompt: How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?

(Note that we are not considering the moral education of children or the role of the state here.)

As a rule, we should not punish others for moral failures. We should not take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers. Rather, we should act as moral counselors. We should work with others to improve their behavior.

Yet it is something of a fantasy to pretend that we never punish others for perceived wrongdoing. In fact, we punish others all the time. If you’ve ever cursed a reckless motorist, you’ve engaged in shaming. It may not have been efficacious, but this is a time-honored form of punishment.

If someone does something wrong, you may shame them for it. This can be done privately, such as with a lover, a spouse, a relative or a close friend. It can be done publicly if the person is not so close to you. Shaming can be gentle, loving and playful; it can be subtle and understated; or it can be harsh.

In the case of the most egregious moral failings, you may shun the person. Refuse to have anything more to do with them. This may be particularly difficult if the person is intimately related. This should be considered only as a last result, when repeated shaming has not worked.

It’s tempting to assert that shaming and shunning aim solely to change behavior. In reality, they may not be effective in changing behavior, yet they may serve another purpose: namely, establishing and reinforcing social norms. When we publicly shame someone for a moral failing, we are also communicating to others that such behavior is wrong.

As with any attempt at social control, shaming and shunning can of course be used to enforce an oppressive moral code. For example, a professor at West Virginia University was publicly humiliated at a football game when a student mocked his sexual orientation. The student apparently subscribed to a moral code that classifies homosexuality as sinful, and he took it upon himself to act as the enforcer of that code. Such a moral code is, in fact, immoral. Shaming and shunning must not be used to dominate or bully others into submission.

Furthermore, a person should not be shamed for who and what they are. For example, do not shame someone for having different abilities or a different appearance. Do not shame someone for being poor or lacking education. Shaming should be a response only to choices the individual has made.

Finally, it’s worth reiterating that this brief article is not about corporate or state-sanctioned punishment. That’s another topic for another day, perhaps.


Sex Education

Prompt: What would you tell teenagers about sex?

You should know all the basic facts of life, including facts about sex. You should understand the basic biological mechanics of reproduction, of course. It’s crucial to understand how babies are made, and why we derive pleasure from sex.

But that’s not all.

Much trickier are the emotional and cultural complexities. Love and sex are inextricably entangled for us. It’s confusing even for mature adults. It can be downright harrowing for the young.

So take your time. Know yourself. Be sure of yourself. Have sex when you’re ready, and not a moment before. There’s no rush. You’ll be no less a man or woman for having waited. If and when the time comes, be sure of your partner. There should be mutual trust and respect between partners.

Our culture often transmits contradictory messages. In America, the dominant culture purveys a mix of puritanism and individualism. One preaches a message of abstinence while the other says, “anything goes.” Neither of these is particularly helpful. Furthermore, as Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee notes: “Our collective culture celebrates its story of endless desires. It feeds us with its images that, though they can never nourish us, work like a drug for our minds and bodies, even as they exploit us and the earth.” Sexual imagery is a staple in these stories we tell ourselves, which power the culture forward. All of which is to say: Be wary of the dominant culture. Be wary of received wisdom. Learn to think for yourself.

This advice is easy to give, but it may be hard to follow for the young and impulsive. As Brendan Myers writes, “Perhaps the reason for all the taboos and moral warnings about sex is because in sexuality we discover so much about who and what we really are.” For many people, then, sex is part of the process of self-discovery, and as such there will make mistakes and experience pain.

So try to minimize suffering. Try to understand the consequences of your actions. Don’t get pregnant by accident, and don’t catch a disease. Girls, be empowered to assert control over your bodies. Boys, know that compulsion is wrong. Try not to sweat the other taboos. There is no shame in sex when it is a joyful celebration between willing partners.

Above all, be open and honest, especially with your parents. This may not be easy, but make the effort. Hopefully they can be open and honest with you as well.

Death Ritual

Prompt: If it were up to you to design one or more basic models for messaging and for ritual through which people were to regularly mark deaths together, what would such ceremonies be like?

Let the body of the deceased be placed in the earth in its natural state, to return to the earth. Through the process of decay, the body will have new life in other organisms.

Let a flame be kindled. Take a pinch of earth from the burial site and scatter it to the wind. If there are tears, let them mingle with the earth.

Let a song or a chant go up. Choose a favorite of the deceased or anything the group deems appropriate. A good example is the Fates Chant by Alan D. Stillman, based on the poem “Twist Ye, Twine Ye!” by Sir Walter Scott.

Let the living share stories to remember the deceased.