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Historically, Shame Has (Sometimes) Been A Good Thing

Suffragettes, Civil Rights, The Black Panther Party, & ACT UP

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 11 months ago 10 min read
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

In the past, the argument that "shaming people is always wrong" was one I identified with strongly. I wrote an entire piece arguing in length how shame was not a good principle to organize around (see Unpacking the Deadly Politics of Shame). In that piece, I concluded: "…shame seems to be a pretty destructive foundation for political organization. It is an emotion that demands self-flagellation and punishment over accountability and understanding."

A lot of people have made this argument. We see this stance everywhere, from the mainstream press to far-right politicians to, until a couple of months ago, me on this blog. I want you to consider this history when I tell you I was wrong when writing my essay about shame. I am not just a person who has always been a "pro-shame radical" (whatever the hell that means). I am someone who has thought carefully about this issue and, over the course of deliberate study, changed my mind.

While I still recognize that great care must be taken to ensure you are not hurting an innocent person, I was incorrect about the politics of shame never being useful. When we look at history, weaponizing shame has been employed successfully to achieve every political right we have, from women's suffrage to destigmatizing AIDS, and we do ourselves a major disservice by dismissing it.

When shame is good, actually

Critics of weaponizing shame, by which we mean those opposed to using shame to pressure and ostracize political opponents, will typically point to all the regressive things that shame has been used to do throughout history. Incidents like the Lavendar Scare and the Salem Witch Trials were not used to positively transform society but to punish others.

Of course, criticism of these events is valid. Shame has indeed been abused to do many terrible things. I might also add the puberty blocker bans for trans kids and the Don't Say Gill Bill in Florida as two recent examples of conservatives weaponizing shame to demonize an entire group of people. Conservatives have always used shame to enforce a regressive status quo.

Yet, just focusing on this abhorrent history ignores all the times' shame has been used successfully by leftists and progressives to achieve policy goals.

Women suffrage

For example, the suffrage movement in Britain (e.g., the campaign to achieve the right to vote for women) has retrospectively been whitewashed to be one of peaceful protests and lobbying, but it was quite violent. Under Emmeline Pankhurst's creed of: "Deeds, Not Words," activists in the UK attacked public officials, heckled lawmakers, bombed a train, engaged in an arson campaign, and one woman was even trampled to death by King George V's horse.

These militant groups were not above using shame to achieve their objectives. One alarming tactic was hunger strikes, where imprisoned suffragettes (pioneered by activist Marion Wallace-Dunlop) refused to eat in protest of some policy objective. Authorities initially force-fed imprisoned suffragettes — a move that startled the public so much that a law was passed to temporarily release strikers until they recovered enough to serve the rest of their sentence. This policy was pejoratively referred to as the cat & mouse act by suffragettes in reference to the practice of cats playing with their prey before killing it. Many suffragettes went into hiding upon temporary release, creating quite the scandal for the British government.

Militancy was largely suspended by movement organizers when WWI broke out, but not the use of shame. Many British women participated in the war effort in an attempt to link nationalism and suffrage. A popular strategy for women to support the war manifested as the "white feather movement," which was women shaming men into enlisting in the army by giving those who did not wear a uniform a white feather as a symbol of cowardice.

As the war came to a close, about 8 million women received the right to vote in Britain via The Representation of the People Act of 1918 (full suffrage would not come until a decade later). The militarism of this movement is often contested as having alienated the British public against women's suffrage, while the patriotism of women during WWI is retrospectively cited as sealing it. Yet this is an oversimplification. Much of the same leadership that supported a more militant suffrage movement also backed support of the war, and so a line cannot be as neatly drawn between the two.

Militarism also made leaders fearful of a new outbreak of militancy if female suffrage was not granted. As a supporter of the 1918 bill that would eventually give some women the vote, Lord Crewe warned his colleagues, "…if the vote was refused to women the old violent atmosphere of the question would return."

Civil rights and beyond

We could also point to the civil rights movement as an era of history where shame was employed — it's, in fact, what Martin Luther King Jr's strategy of civil disobedience hinged on. People often describe this strategy as nonviolent, but that's not technically true. He was pretty aware that the state would employ violence against protestors, and it was the image of violence broadcasted to the homes of white and brown Americans across the country that King and other leaders counted on to shame the American public. As Aniko Bodroghkozy said in an interview in their book Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement:

“By 1963, network news seemed to have solidified a general script for its civil rights coverage: search for worthy black victims of racial discrimination who could be individualized or, if in groups, kept largely silent, and have either Martin Luther King or a white reporter speak for them.”

Even King's famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, widely circulated by allies in the summer of '63, relied on shaming white liberals who would be most susceptible to his message. As he wrote in that letter: "I must confess that over the last few years, I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…." It was an effective framing that was sure to have many white liberals asking if they had been that stumbling block at one time or another.

Like with the case of women's suffrage, it's important to note that other political figures and organizations were far more militant than King. We often think of the Black Panther Party, which came several years later in the late 1960s, but we could also controversially point to Malcolm X's Nation of Islam as an earlier example (note — the current iteration of the Nation of Islam has been categorized a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but the previous iteration had a tremendous impact on the development of Black Power in this country). The Panthers are, in hindsight, viewed far more positively. They are cited for social programs such as legal aid, transportation assistance, and a Free Breakfast for Children program, which was so effective it spurred the Ford administration to make their own federal program more permanent.

The Black Panthers were not above using shame to lambaste politicians for their white supremacist positions. "I challenge Ronald Reagan to a duel to the death because Reagan is a punk, a sissy, and a coward," member Eldridge Cleaver said in response to the then-Governor of California criticizing the group for carrying firearms. "He can fight me with a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat. I'll beat him to death with a marshmallow." Everything from how the Panthers pioneered the word "pigs" for police officers to their profound influence on hip hop shows how effective they were at shaping public discourse.

People will sometimes point to these more "radical groups" as not being as effective as the nonviolent Civil Rights movement, citing polling data and election results in the short term, but it's difficult to tell if those are good proxies. Immediate public opinion is not always the best gauge of future policy success. The 1950s Civil Rights movement was also very unpopular, and yet I think few of us would openly say that this movement was wrong or unsuccessful (though I'm sure many white supremacists may disagree).

For political reasons, advocates of nonviolence often want to cauterize "civil" protesters like King from the "nasty" ones who used "shame and violence," but that's not how culture works. They both affected the victories that followed, and just because one component of a movement receives more credit retrospectively doesn't mean it wasn't making an impact.


Another great historical example is the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP. It was a radical organization that started in New York City (before spreading across the country and world) in the late 1980s in response to the Reagan Administration's negligence in handling the AIDs epidemic. Thousands would die before the government started taking this disease seriously, and part of that policy change was the result of pioneers in ACT UP shaming federal officials to acknowledge the government's systemic negligence.

ACT UP consisted of a diverse coalition of people — activists, scientists, and pissed-off queers not knowing how long they would survive. A driving force of the movement was flamboyant, in-your-face protests that often relied on shaming officials and our institutions for their problematic stances on the AIDs crisis and queerness in general. According to Michael Specter in the New Yorker:

“They wrapped the home of the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms in a giant yellow condom; invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Mass; laid siege to the Food and Drug Administration (“Hey, hey, F.D.A., how many people have you killed today?”); and dumped the ashes of comrades who had died of aids on the White House lawn.”

In another infamous example, they interrupted a speech of the Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan at an AIDs conference by chucking condoms at him and yelling "shame, shame, shame."

The group was not just focused on the righteous fury of disruptive protests, which brought public awareness to the issue, but like the Black Panthers before them, engaged in a network of services. These included things such as housing assistance, a needle exchange program, and providing help with discriminatory insurance practices.

ACT UP also had a "science club" with members that attempted to learn more about the specifics of the disease and the pharmaceuticals around it. This knowledge base allowed them to lobby federal and private officials to speed up the testing process and research the "opportunistic infections" (i.e., "infections that occur more often or are more severe in people with weakened immune systems") that killed AIDs patients. This advocacy placed an emphasis not just on finding an eventual cure, but also on the long-term survivability of those with AIDS or HIV. As author Dave Frances told NPR: "ACT UP created a model for patient advocacy within the research system that never existed before."

Although the movement would eventually fracture (as most movements tend to do), it's hard to argue that it wasn't effective in changing the discourse and policy around HIV/AIDs.

Shameful conclusion

The Suffrage Movement. Civil Rights. ACT UP. It's easy to point to every bad movement using shame while ignoring the many times it's been used effectively to help win tangible political victories within the USA and abroad.

And of course, not only could you dive into these examples in greater depth, but there are also many more examples of shame being used by people we consider the "good guys": the more "civil" queer politics of the Mattachine Society (a group you probably have never heard of before) lost political ground to the protests that made up the pride riots; the respectable "lean-in feminism" of the 2000s gave way to the righteous fury of the "me too" movement; and on and on history goes.

Shame has had a tremendous and positive impact on political movements across the US's short history and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We must remember that not all acts that help progressives and leftists win are comfortable to use, but that doesn't mean we should abandon them for our own comfort.

Sometimes people are engaged in activity that is so shameful that history shows us that there is nothing left to do but shame them for it.


About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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