In Praise of Shameless Political Debate

“Shame on you!” has become a tired and meaningless declaration in political debate

Harold Pollack and I have both written about feeling fatigued by “fauxrage”, the political tactic of trying to shut down a conversation or individual by ginning up self-righteous anger about how offended one is by a putative slight (Harold gives the pluperfect example: Senator Al D’Amato’s fake tears in reaction to an insult by Bob Abrams during a brutal re-election campaign).

I am becoming increasing weary with a variant of fauxrage, namely calculated pronouncements of “shame on you!”. It seems to have caught on more on the left than the right, which is odd because the people who do it sound like morally scolding Catholic Bishops in the 1950s.

In my local newspaper I see an open letter to the city council: “Shame on you for not supporting high-speed rail”. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Clinton said “Shame on you, Barack Obama” for criticizing her health care plan. Policy and politics-oriented websites attract “Shame on you” comments when for example the blogger has — brace yourself — expressed an opinion with which the commenter disagrees or even simply discussed a subject that the commenter feels is a needless distraction from the central issues of the day (those would be the issues that the commenter considers important, of course).

I am comfortable with “Shame on you!” admonishments when someone has violated a clear moral/ethical guideline. If a Congressman robs the church poor box and spends the money at a strip club, by all means let’s as a community denounce his turpitude. But shaming declarations are increasingly being used for something far more self-serving: As a sanctimonious way of muzzling legitimate political debate with which one is uncomfortable.

None of this to deny that there are historical examples of shaming being a useful tactic to bring down an extremely horrific public policy (e.g., slavery). But when shame is invoked with comparable fervor to protest, well, every public policy, any beneficial impact of the tactic evaporates.

Those doing the shaming might say “The political stances I oppose are clearly immoral in all cases — every thing I am against is equal to slavery and should be shamed!”. If that’s you, please get over yourself post-haste. Assuming that you are not a deity in your spare time, your political opinions are not immutable moral principles handed down over the centuries that everyone else should be ashamed to oppose. And while you might believe that repeatedly calling down shame on your opponents is a compelling argument, in most cases it actually makes you look like a prig.

Opposing high-speed rail isn’t shameful; neither is supporting it. Ditto Obamacare, prayer in schools, Keynesian fiscal stimulus, automotive emission standards, the earned income tax credit, Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley and Smoot-Hawley. Healthy democracy requires open debate about these and other public policies, not the attempted shaming into silence of holders of all but one’s own viewpoint.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “In Praise of Shameless Political Debate”

  1. Yeah, I’m not exactly in the mood for this argument on the day the Supreme Court majority gives a disingenuous justification for their not-at-all-disguised racism. Those fuckers need to have the “Inglourious Basterds” cosmetic surgery on their foreheads.

  2. I’m sorry but I don’t understand why we all have to have the same level of indignation about everything. I think saying ” shame on you” is a quaint kind of expression which is probably more kind than the expletives I am wont to use. I firmly believe that vituperation is a cleansing form of activity and is good for the soul and healthy digestion.

    1. Big Dog wrote: I’m sorry but I don’t understand why we all have to have the same level of indignation about everything

      I don’t either, hence my post. If we must respond with the same level of indignation to high-speed rail opposition as, say, The Holocaust, I think we’ve lost our moral compass and our ability to engage in productive political debate at the same time. Maybe vituperation is good for your digestion (I doubt it hurts mine either)…but I bet you also care about other things beyond that for which it may not be so good.

  3. Open-minded political debate without demonization? That would be nice. Not sure exactly how we get there.

    I think the problem is that in a democracy, often the goal is to “win”. “I’m bigger than you, we’re doing it my way.” “I’m morally superior, we’re doing it my way.” “I have 50.1% of the vote, we’re doing it my way.”

    Most people have neither the patience nor expertise to evaluate all of the pros and cons of complex proposals, and are much easier to persuade (or intimidate) by emotional appeals. It frequently leads to horrible policies, but it works, so there’s not a great deal of incentive to eschew the practice. It’s something like negative campaigning. I spoke once with a politician at a friend’s wedding. He had run for congress the previous year, deliberately chose not to go negative, and lost. He told me that he was going to use negative campaigning the next time. He did, and won. Not the kinds of result I know I’d want to see.

  4. Smoot-Hawley

    According to Michele Bachmann, that’s Hoot-Smalley, and it was imposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (in 1930, which was a pretty good trick), making the Depression much worse. Can’t we be morally outraged by that? Can’t we cry Shame?

    1. Hey, MB was two-thirds right: the Smoot-Hawley tariffs did make the Depression much worse. It was enacted in 1930, too. The only thing she missed was it was signed by Herbert Hoover.

      Given the way MB chops facts up, she should get something near full marks on this one. /snark.

    2. “Can’t we cry Shame?”

      Of course you can, I am not trying to, nor do I have the power to abridge anyone’s free speech rights. I would ask everyone to consider though if one reflexively cries shame every five minutes on all matters from life threatening to trivial and/or uses shameful as synonym for everything one disagrees with, whether the effect is likely to be positive.

  5. Rep. Tammy Duckworth was just today shaming a contractor for the IRS who injured his ankle in prep school football and claimed that he had a disability arising from his “service to our great country. ”

    She has phantom pain from both amputated legs and could lay it on pretty thick saying she understood his pain from a high school sports injury (which did not prevent his playing college football).

    This is behavior, not opinion, not a vote on a proposed law, but more analogous to robbing the poor box and spending the money to snort lines of blow off an Italian supermodel’s ass on your yacht, yes?

  6. I was 100% with you until you mentioned “prayer in schools.” If you mean teacher-led, school-endorsed prayer, that’s clearly unconstitutional and advocates for it should be ashamed of themselves. If you mean an individual student praying without disrupting class, that’s already legal and nothing to debate.

  7. If you mean teacher-led, school-endorsed prayer, that’s clearly unconstitutional and advocates for it should be ashamed of themselves

    I don’t agree — those individuals retain their free speech rights and it isn’t shameful to believe things that are not in the U.S. Constitution — if it were every country with a different Constitution to ours should be ashamed of themselves. And of course the abolitionists were expressing views at variance to the Constitution…should they have been ashamed of themselves?

    1. OK, let’s up the ante just a bit. A few months ago there was a conservative PAC meeting attended by some neo-confederate types who were participating in a discussion of history of the Civil War/War Between the States/War of Northern Aggression/The Late Unpleasantness. One of the participants noted that Frederick Douglass had forgiven the white master from whom he had run away, and the neo-confederate rejoined, “Forgive him for what? For giving him food and shelter??”

      Jaws dropped (one young lady in the front row, who considered herself very conservative, was particularly appalled).

      Should the neo-confederate be ashamed of himself for thinking that Frederick Douglass ought to have been grateful to his white owner for providing food and shelter?

      1. Should the neo-confederate be ashamed of himself for thinking that Frederick Douglass ought to have been grateful to his white owner for providing food and shelter?

        Very obviously yes, as I used the example of slavery in my post. But it doesn’t follow from that that abolitionists should have been ashamed for going against the Constitution does it?

        1. Well, the man can always deny that he advocates slavery; after all, he was not saying that it should be brought back.

          The case of abolitionism is most interesting because historians like Allan Nevins produce evidence that William Lloyd Garrison antagonized allies like Theodore Weld and Arthur Tappan. Personally, I would love to get into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and watch Garrison burn the Constitution onstage. But Nevins thinks that Garrison’s vituperative part in the Northern abolitionist crusade had some responsibility for the fact that anti-slavery societies, which had been numerous in the South in the early nineteenth century, no longer existed by 1837.

          Nevins proposed a most interesting figure as a role model of Angelina Grimke, Theodore Weld’s wife, an aristocratic Charleston woman who became a Quaker and liberated her slaves; she was, according to Nevins, a zealot for complete racial equality, whose racial attitudes had no trace of condescension or patronage. What makes her interesting is that she perceived that slavery was a national and not a sectional system:

          “Think ye that slaveholders are sinners above all men that dwell in our country? I tell ye, nay, but except ye also repent, ye manufacturers who convert the raw material into a handsome and useful fabric, and ye merchants and storekeepers who become the tempters of a vast multitude to use the product of slave labor, and ye consumers…ye shall all likewise be condemned, for after all the slaveholder is only one partner in a large firm, who are bound together by the strong ties of interest and whose business it is to hold man as a chattel that he may procure for them the comforts and conveniences of life.” This woman was able to perceive the southern point of view on slavery, making her rather a special figure of her time.

          There is a great difference between shaming which looks at whole systems and shaming which points the finger at isolated groups and reduces individuals to types. In our own time we can consider whether the sins of the top one percent have no ties of interest with the ninety-nine percent who love abundant cheap consumer goods whose production is made possible by processes which cheapen labor and fill the atmosphere with carbon. We could use a little bit of Angeline Grimke Weld’s consciousness and I think that Keith’s questions are a beginning to this purpose.

  8. In the African language that I worked on, the most common characterization of bad aehavior was “malobali” essentially “without shame” or “shameless.” I would agree with you that trying to shame someone like Rick Perry, for example, would be pointless, but to characterize him as shameless with regard to so many of his actions would seem to me highly appropriate.

    1. If I have read this thread correctly, Perry’s opposition to abortion is not shameful. His action in calling the legislature back into session for another attempt to pass his bill is a shameful use of his executive power. Actions may be shameful where opinions are not.

      Before this thread vanishes off the bottom of the page, I would like to make one more comment about the slavery/abolition example. All of the tongues in that debate have fallen silent for generations. If we want to use history to shame the dead, we can do that. But it is more profitable to use history to guide the living.

      Again I am looking at the articulate Allan Nevins for perspective. At the very beginning of Ordeal of the Union he begins to present the case that seeing slavery as a sectional issue oversimplifies and misstates the true dilemma of the time. “Dominant elements North and South saw all too dimly that the one really difficult problem was that of permanent race-adjustment, and that the abolition of slavery would only present it in a starker form, and that the united efforts of all sections would be needed to cope with it. Had this truth been clearly grasped, the country might have struggled out of its blind drift towards disaster.”

      In out own time climate change is what Nevins would call “a problem requiring great minds and iron wills,” a problem which entailed “a time lag in comprehending the magnitude of the issue.” A week ago Michael O’Hare presented here a current parallel to the slavery issue in the antebellum years; the adjustments will need to be much more stark than today’s political leaders are willing to see, and it will take great minds and iron wills to avert a drift towards disaster. The adjustments will entail living with less stuff and having less wealth after massive capital liquidation.

      This suggests that we do not need latter day moralizing abolitionists in excess of what we already have.

Comments are closed.