Shame Can Lead to Real Change Right Now

Shame Can Lead to Real Change Right Now

Jennifer Jacquet [1.13.21]


© Hannah McKay / Reuters

Jennifer Jacquet:

"Shame can lead to real change right now"

Many Americans publicly express their shame about the events at the Capitol. Researcher Jennifer Jacquet explains why this feeling can advance the country. Interview: Carla Baum

JANUARY 13, 2021

After the storm on the Capitol, ex-President Barack Obama spoke of a "moment of great shame and embarrassment for our country". Such confessions are not uncommon in the USA: after Donald Trump's election in 2016, many Americans admitted that they were ashamed. And when Trump refused to acknowledge his electoral defeat in November, winner Joe Biden spoke of "an embarrassment". What is it about shame in the face of one's own country? American Jennifer Jacquet, a professor at NYU, has been researching punishment, guilt and shame for years.

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: Many Americans are expressing their shame about the storm on the Capitol these days. How did you feel when you saw the pictures?

Jennifer Jacquet: I was ashamed too. Especially when a friend from Sweden called to talk to me about what was going on. Because there is a change of perspective. You take another's view of your country. Hence the feelings of shame and embarrassment. I'm really worried about what happened. Last night I woke up four times and thought about it.

Jacquet, born in 1980, is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Sciences at New York University (NYU). There she researches the social functions of punishment, shame and guilt. In 2015 her book "Shame: The political power of an underestimated feeling" (Fischer) was published. 

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: What was specifically embarrassing about the scenes that made you and many other American women publicly admit your shame these days?

Jacquet: Well, seeing fellow citizens dressed up like Braveheart actors and storming the Capitol - it's just embarrassing. However, some of the images trigger something that goes beyond mere embarrassment. The types with Nazi tattoos or sweaters with references to Auschwitz, for example: to see that is deeply shameful. The whole thing looked like an absurd theater, like a circus performance. I still haven't found an answer to the question: Was that politics, was that authentic? Or was that just a show, theater?

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: Why do so many Americans seem to have the feeling that they have to admit their shame publicly? You are not responsible for what happened in the Capitol.

Jacquet: People feel shame, not guilt. That's an important difference. Feelings of guilt are, so to speak, the best form of individual punishment. They lead people to judge their own actions and adapt accordingly. That's not what's happening here, because of course most Americans aren't responsible for the storm on the Capitol. Shame is a social feeling. When we feel shame, we think about what others think of us. In this case not about us as individuals, but as a country. Shame is felt over the whole self. The feeling says something about who you are. We look in the mirror and see who we are, as America, as a nation. Embarrassment is a reasonable feeling, but it doesn't capture the whole experience.

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: But above all the view from the outside resonates, the concern about what others think of you.

Jacquet: Shame as a social feeling always needs an audience, even if it is an imaginary one. To do this, you may have to understand how shame arises in the first place. To explain that, I would have to go back a bit.

"Shame is widespread wherever the social experience has great power."
—Jennifer Jacquet

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: Get started.

Jacquet: In democratic societies, only the state is allowed to use force as a punishment. That means that as a citizen I cannot exercise any control over, say, my neighbors. So what options do I have? I can withhold resources from him, but only to a limited extent, for example I could refuse his children Halloween candy. And I can try to ruin his reputation by speaking negatively about him. It is one of the few ways that individuals or groups in a rule of law can exercise control over others: publicly shaming them. So shame is a form of social punishment. Those who feel shame have in mind what others say and think or say and think about them. 

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: Is the shame about what happened in the Capitol in this case also an expression of the individualistic American society? The individual is ashamed of a political process, is it basically taking it upon himself?

Jacquet: It's interesting that you link it that way, because actually it's the other way around: Shame is less common in individualized countries than in those in which the community plays a major role. Shame is much lower than guilt on our list of daily emotions. This is no surprise, because in an individualized society there is a notion that the individual is responsible for himself and may be punished for his actions. In collectivist cultures, for example in Bengkulu, Indonesia, there is sometimes not even a word for guilt. Feelings of shame, on the other hand, are widespread wherever the social has great power, the gaze and control by other people. 

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: But there must be something specifically American about this shame. When right-wing populists recently penetrated the Bundestag in Berlin, the Germans did not show themselves massively and publicly ashamed. Is shame the downside of American patriotism?

Jacquet: Shame is the flipside of pride. And of course you are right, a high level of identification with one's own country and patriotism are widespread in the USA. I think there should be a separate word for shame about one's own country. Who better to invent that than the Germans, who have so many beautiful and apt words for specific things. Incidentally, I find it remarkable that you say the Germans are not as ashamed of their country in the same way as the Americans.

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: Why, do you see it differently?

Jacquet: Who, if not the Germans, has experience of collective shame about their own country? Shame about the Third Reich and the Holocaust is deeply rooted in German society. A few years ago, I worked with scientists from the Max Planck Institute, and we wanted to carry out studies on the topics of shame, honor and guilt. The scientists said at the time: We cannot carry out these studies in Germany because the Germans are particularly sensitive to shame due to the history of the country. I believe that this experience can also mobilize in a positive way.

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: To what extent?

Jacquet: There are strict laws in Germany that make denying the Holocaust, for example, a criminal offense. One possible result of collective shame is such a sensitivity, an increased vigilance for harmful social developments. I hope that what happened in the Capitol will motivate us to take concrete steps in the right direction. The first signs of this are already there, such as the demand for Donald Trump's impeachment.

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: The author and activist Margeaux Feldman wrote a few days ago: "Shame (...) keeps us from being active." On the contrary, you now say that shame has a mobilizng effect.

Jacquet: Shame can be both activating and paralyzing. It's not an either-or in this case. Of course, one of the consequences of being ashamed can be a desire to hide and walk away. But the current shame can also mobilize, it can lead to something really changing. Many people in the United States are motivated right now to take the next steps to ensure that something like the Capitol can never happen again.

"People are rewarded for their shamelessness by getting on the news."
—Jennifer Jacquet

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: When we talk about shame, we also have to talk about the shamelessness: The Trump supporters apparently felt no embarrassment at all, many boasted in front of reporters about their opinions and actions.

Jacquet: The most extreme act of shamelessness for me was the policeman in the Capitol getting a selfie taken with a Trump supporter. He was there to protect the Capitol. And then he smiled into the intruders' cameras.

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: How do you explain these acts of shamelessness?

Jacquet: Well, people are kind of rewarded for their shamelessness by getting on the news. They get fame for what they do. Incidentally, shamelessness has always been an integral part of Trump's political program. He didn't invent these people, but he enabled them, gave them a voice and a platform. Every US president has his own constituency, whom he encourages and who then appears in public in a particularly self-confident - if you will: shameless - way. In the Bush era, there were the creationists. Do you remember those people who wanted to prevent evolution from being taught in the classroom? Then Barack Obama became president. And they were just gone, gone, overnight, and another constituency was encouraged.

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: Can someone who was once the object of the shame of others - like the Trump loyalists in the Capitol - become part of the majority society again or will they remain an outcast forever?

Jacquet: Maybe in this case it's not so much about reintegration, but about prevention. We do not have to reintegrate racist people who trample democracy. We have to destroy the culture that creates it. For example, more money is needed for political education. I firmly believe that something will happen here. Don't judge us Americans too harshly at this point. We are in the middle of a transition. I hope things get better and these were just the last fumes of the fire.

First published in German by Zeit Magazin, January 11, 2021