Is mask-shaming effective?

To empathize or scream, that is the question.

pro-police rally in front of electronic face mask sign

Supporters of President Donald Trump hold a pro-police rally as protesters across the nation oppose racism and police brutality on June 20, 2020 in Torrance, California.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
  • NYU associate professor Jennifer Jacquet writes that effective shaming can be a powerful tool for social change.
  • Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, law and psychology professor at the University of Penn, believes shame is useless in the case of the pandemic.
  • The politicization of the coronavirus takes our attention away from the failure of the administration.

I can expect anywhere between two and five Karen tweets to come across my social media feed every day. Recently, there was the $40,000 Rolex-wearing Costco Karen, the basket-slamming Trader Joe's Karen in North Hollywood, and this runner-up Costco Karen in Florida.

Of course, anti-maskers aren't confined by gender. A Florida man lost his job after screaming at an elderly woman in Costco. A Nevada man was arrested after refusing to mask up in a casino. Then there's former pro baseball player turned slacktavist, Aubrey Huff, who regularly tweet-storms about his constitutional rights being infringed upon, etc.

Everything in modernity is captured in some manner. That's not entirely criticism; smartphone videos are a democratizing force. They hold people accountable when inside voices become pubic, either through words or actions. While this phenomenon sometimes results in a slippery slope into cancel culture, social media channels play an essential role in how we relate (or don't relate) to one another.

This doesn't give social media a free pass, as plenty of toxicity is brewed by quick fingertips. But the uptick in videos has lent renewed vigor to an old concept: shame. Specific to this moment, the shaming of anti-maskers. But does it work?

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, a law and psychology professor at the University of Penn, writes that our "disgust should be aimed at governments and institutions, not at one another." If our collective rage, confusion, and grief could be harnessed and used as a catalyst for political change, we would be in a very different situation. Her assessment that America is enduring a "failure of leadership" is an understatement.

Wilkinson-Ryan's call for empathy over indignation is commendable, though we have to wonder if it meets this moment. She writes that shaming others for lack of social distancing is "useless or even harmful to society." The question of shame requires cognitive reframing: it becomes too easy to blame people for making bad choices "rather than on people having bad choices."

Jennifer Jacquet: How Do You Punish Global Mega-Corp? Shame Them | WIRED 2014 | WIRED

She backs this up with research on the fact that we're more likely to blame people of other races for standing too close and overestimating our own compliance with public health regulations while underestimating others. In conclusion, she calls for humility: don't get so caught up in your biases that you overlook other people's efforts. The real problem is "America's half-hearted reopening," the administration's consistently inconsistent messages, lack of national regulations, and the weaponization of a pandemic.

Wilkinson-Ryan's article is a fantastic example of what we should be focused on. But is shame really useless? I would argue no.

This goes back to differences between individualistic and collectivist societies. In her book, "Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool", NYU associate professor Jennifer Jacquet points out that shame served as a "primitive emotion" that worked well in tribes restricted by Dunbar's number. Shame is a powerful motivational tool if you'll never know more than 150 people. Early societies were collectivist by default.

By contrast, guilt is experienced in private, away from the group—a marker of individualism. You need privacy to experience private emotions. Guilt, therefore, might be a Western emotional construct that evolved with large societies. Religions that evolved with it know the power of guilt. Yet does that mean we should leave shame behind? Jacquet argues against it.

She writes that the key is finding shame's "sweet spot." There are no clear "shame this, but don't shame that" guidelines, though Jacquet notes seven habits of effective shaming.

"The transgression should (1) concern the audience, (2) deviate wildly from desired behavior, and (3) not be expected to be formally punished. The transgressor should (4) be sensitive to the group doing the shaming. And the shaming should (5) come from a respected source, (6) be directed where possible benefits are highest, and (7) be implemented conscientiously."

people in line at Costco

People wait in line outside of a Costco in Brooklyn on May 14, 2020 in New York City.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Wearing a mask certainly concerns the audience, which is everyone. Refusing to mask deviates from desired behavior and is not formally punishable (though some cities are changing that due to non-compliance). Since masks have been politicized, number four is mostly off the table. Plenty of respected sources argue for masks, though that too is lost in the weaponization of masks (which also effects the last two habits).

Jacquet writes that acceptable shaming often focuses on "the powerful over the marginalized." Yet no society has ever endured the reactive scrutiny of social media during a global pandemic. In a QAnon-fueled conspiracy theory-crazed culture, the powerful never look out for the marginalized, except in the deepest trenches where the president is considered a savior bringing forth a new age.

(This sounds insane, and it is, but it's having real-world impact. I spend considerable time investigating conspiracy theories in the wellness community, and this theory is spreading on the Left and Right.)

Jacquet and Wilkinson-Ryan intersect in their desire to see our better angels emerge. As Jacquet concludes, there have been plenty of effective shaming campaigns, such as shaming fisherman for killing dolphins and manufacturers for poor working conditions. In each instance, a marginalized group (or animal) received better treatment.

Wilkinson-Ryan's political assessment is spot-on, as marginalized communities need better leadership: the immuno-compromised, the elderly, the imprisoned, workers in the meatpacking industry. At the moment, however, our better angels are absent. That means shaming is one of the few tools in our arsenal that might provoke compliance. Or, as with anti-vaxxers, it might only make anti-maskers more committed to their lunacy. Tough call.

As Jacquet writes, "Shame's service is to the group, and when it is used well and at the right time, it can make a society better off." Since America can't do any worse, some well-intentioned and thoughtful shaming might make an impact, in inches if not in miles.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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