Comedian Bill Maher provoked controversy when he said “fat shaming needs to make a comeback.” He explained, “Some amount of shame is good. We shamed people out of smoking and into wearing seat belts. We shamed them out of littering and most of them out of racism. Shame is the first step in reform.”
Shame is not as helpful as we might think. The act of shaming others is often mean and condescending. And shame doesn’t help obese people lose weight. Rather, it can cause despair and low self-esteem, especially when people are ashamed about things they have little control over.
Shame did not really get people to quit smoking. Smoking behavior was changed by a complex set of social and legal changes. Hefty taxes were put in place. The legal smoking age was raised. Smoking areas were eliminated. Marketing was restricted. And smokers were treated as nicotine addicts.
To put the same kind of effort into the obesity epidemic would require us to tax sugary drinks, fast food and alcohol. Maybe we could ban advertising by fast-food chains. We could tax corn syrup or prohibit supersized portions. Those changes are unlikely to occur. But they would be more effective than shame.
Shame is morally ambiguous
The more general problem is that shame is morally ambiguous. We can be ashamed of the wrong things. We can also be proud of things that we should be ashamed of. A moral education requires more than shame. People need to be encouraged to cultivate virtuous habits. Fear, guilt, and shame are only the shadow of a genuine education which helps us learn to love what is good for us.
Nor is shame the solution to racism, as Maher suggests. The solution to racism requires a change of heart and a change of mind. Racism is overcome by developing empathy and by learning to understand the fundamental equality of persons.
It is not enough to make people ashamed of making racist comments. That only prevents people from saying racist things in public. A moral change leads people to stop saying and thinking these things, even in private.
Shame is external. Morality is internal. Shame is related to being seen by others. We are ashamed when private things are exposed in public – even when there is nothing wrong with these things. But immoral things are wrong, even when no one is looking.
Where’s our sense of shame?
Some people seem to lack a proper sense of shame. They do things in public that should properly be kept private. That’s a problem. But this problem is made more complicated by the fact that shame is socially constructed. What is shameful in one culture may not be so in another.
Consider the swimsuit. Old-time swimsuits look silly in the era of the thong. But there was a time when men swam nude in some public pools. And while some people are embarrassed to wear a Speedo, you can’t play water polo without one.
Social norms shift. So does our conception of the ideal body type. This is also true of sex, gender, race and a bunch of other things. Tattoos used to be for bikers and sailors. Now they are for grannies and cheerleaders. What was once shameful is now accepted.
These shifting norms are different from the stability of morality. Fashion changes. But honesty and courage do not. Conceptions of beauty change. But the idea that each person has dignity remains fundamental, even though we struggle to remember that a person’s value has nothing to do with their body type.
Fat-shaming is not only mean, it is based upon a strange view of free will. We think that weight is only a matter of will power. But in the long run our bodies are ultimately not under our control. We age, get sick and die. Our bodies betray us every day in small and large ways. Instead of shame, we could all use more sympathy.
So rather than shaming people, how about loving them? An inclusive love should wrap its arms around each of us. Love begins with humility about our own imperfections. And love values people as they are, rather than as we want them to be.