The Shame in the No-Judgment Feminist Culture

“You can’t say that, us women need to stick together. You don’t know her story. Stop shaming other women.”

This was a comment that I received after commenting on a news story about a woman who had three illegitimate children, all in foster care due to a drug addiction, who was facing child neglect charges for failing to take care of her fourth child, a toddler.

‘Shaming?’ I thought to myself, incredulously before responding.

“I’m not shaming, I am pointing out that what she did was wrong and that she should be punished,” I pointedly replied.

“Who are you to judge???” she practically screamed at me through the keyboard. “Women need to stick together and support each other.”

“So you’re telling me that because I share a demographic characteristic with someone that I should support them unconditionally?” I asked (hoping she’d see the trap I was laying and back off).

“Yes! We have to stick together and women like you just hurt other women with your shaming!”

“OK,” I typed, resisting the urge to throw my laptop across the room, “So now replace ‘women’ with ‘white men’ and see if your statement doesn’t sound sort of….racist.”

“YOU’RE racist!” she posted, before I gave up.

This interaction illustrated a crucial flaw in the logic of the no-shaming culture, namely that there is a big difference between shaming, stating differences of opinions, and rational judgment. Unfortunately, this ignorance is not limited to angry Internet commenters. Far too much of the feminist movement has not yet learned to discern that not every disagreement or condemnation of behavior is shaming- and that is a problem for our movement as a whole, as more and more women work to achieve significant positions of political, economic, and legal power and authority, where judgment is a necessary skill set.

When Shaming Is Never Okay

Straight up, it is totally unacceptable to shame people for who they fundamentally are as a human being. It is never acceptable to shame anyone about their weight, gender, race, religion, physical appearance, age, sexual orientation, or handicap. That should be a given.

Unfortunately, ‘shaming’ has become this all-encompassing word thrown around callously like last year’s iPhone whenever anyone states an opinion about another human being, regardless of logic.

Behavior-Shaming is a Necessary Part of Life

However, during my interaction, I wasn’t shaming based on any of the above criterion, but judging the behavior of another. (Don’t start your angry comments just yet!) When conducted in a civilized and respectful manner, behavior shaming is not only a positive action, but also one that has sustained humanity for millennia.

Shaming deviant and immoral behaviors has been an integral part of our judicial history. According to Eric Posner, legal systems throughout history have frequently tried to harness the power of shame. In the past, a common form of criminal punishment was restraint in the stocks, a highly public and shameful exposure. Even today, the perp walk, public trials, criminal records, and all the rest ensure that anyone who encounters the law will be publicly shamed. People who are tempted to commit a crime are deterred not only by the threat of fine and imprisonment but also—and perhaps more effectively—by the vision of the shame that they would bring down on themselves and their families if they are caught.

Judging to a certain extent allows us to develop a general baseline of what behaviors are socially acceptable and draw a line in the sand as to what will not be tolerated and what will not be glorified. This is not the same thing as condemnation, which asserts superiority over another based subjective terms.

According to Sharon Lamb, EdD PhD, Professor of Counseling Psychology in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at UMass Boston, “Judgment differs from condemnation in that “judgments are anchored by social standards of behavior” whereas condemnation is “more unpredictable and less controllable”

Mark Peters at Slate sums up the distinction rather succinctly: There are things of which we should be unashamed, like our own bodies. But there are times when we should feel shame. (When we do something wrong.)

When Worlds Collide and Feminists Judge

While this intersection might initially seem uncomfortable at first, the truth is that when feminists judge (in a positive and constructive manner), society as a whole benefits. At the highest level of judging, the Feminist Judgment Project sought to write the ‘missing’ feminist judgment in key court cases by putting feminist theory into practice, in judgment form. The results were overwhelmingly positive as Erika Rackley, professor in law at Durham University, wrote that “the judgments help us see how the incorporation of viewpoints and perspectives from sections of society which remain under-represented on the bench might improve the quality of judicial decision-making.”

Additionally, shaming negative behavior can have a positive impact on many social movements as well as at the individual level.

Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, argues that the public itself should shame people and corporations who violate moral norms. She argues that public shaming can be harnessed for good, for example, to compel corporations to stop polluting. Human rights groups have long “named and shamed” torturers and dictators Judging is also an important part of our development as individual women. As one WonderEsque blogger eloquently puts it: We are called to judge. We are called to judge whether investments or purchases are wise. We are called to judge whether those we’re in relationship with are trustworthy. We’re called to judge whether a boss is a man of integrity or not. Unless we become robots on a production line, we cannot turn off the part of our brain that judges.”

Like every woman, I’ve had to cut ties with certain individuals because I don’t agree with their life choices. I’ve had to publicly denounce the behavior of former friends in order to save my own dignity, self-respect, and reputation.

As women we cannot continue to blindly let the behaviors of our sisters go unchecked for fear of “shaming” them. That doesn’t mean we call other women names, but it does mean that we hold each other to the same standards that we would hold ourselves to, to speak our opinions in a positive and constructive manner, and to know when it is best to possibly not say anything at all.

The same WonderEsque blogger offers some parting advice: What we can – and should – do is learn to keep our mouths shut unless our opinions will edify others.

And there’s no shame in that.

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