- 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 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.
Isolation and empathy are by no means mutually exclusive.
- As we began prepping for isolation at home, there was a strange sense of disassociation, as if there was no need to think of or care for others and that it was everyone for themselves.
- The pandemic, interestingly enough, put many of us in a situation of "forced empathy."
- In reality, we are all "first responders" in the need for empathy, as countless anecdotes about inspiring acts of compassion during the pandemic attest.
It was mid-March when most of us realized that whether or not we contracted COVID-19, our lives were about to change pretty dramatically. As we began prepping for a retreat into our "bubbles" to ride it out, there was a strange sense of disassociation.
It was as if the looming isolation meant there was no need to think of or care for others, that it was everyone for themselves.
We saw this play out with the panicked hoarding of essential supplies, and the way we avoided each other's eyes at the grocery store. We went into this thinking we had to take care of ourselves and our families first, and to an extent that was true. We do need to take responsibility for ourselves.
Yet I've come to realize in recent weeks that the exact opposite reaction, which we can see taking place around the world as well, is one of the most striking features of the pandemic. Isolation and empathy are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, if we had acted with more empathy from the start, it's possible that humanity could have dramatically changed the outcome.
Forced solitude calls for empathy
As we retreated, we became isolated. And isolation breeds loneliness, reason enough to act with more empathy.
Emily Cross, a professor of Social Robotics at Macquarie University, and Anna Henschel, PhD candidate in Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow, cite brain scan studies that show subcortical regions being activated differently depending on whether we receive pleasurable or stressful sensations.
"When we feel lonely and rejected, brain regions associated with distress and rumination are activated," the two recently pointed out in The Conversation. "Lonely people also have a more negative focus and anxiously scrutinise people's intentions. Sometimes this can become so strong that it makes us feel even more lonely – creating a vicious cycle."
Social media can help break this cycle, but often has the exact opposite effect. Cross and Henschel believe that much of the reinforced loneliness caused by social media can be traced back to the lack of all-important non-verbal cues, such as a facial expressions and body language. "These allow us to gauge the tone and context of a social encounter," they asserted. "When this information is missing, we perceive fewer friendly cues from others."
I see this every day on social media, as the "middle ground" is shouted down by the strident voices on either side of political divides. While armed protesters rail against harried lawmakers and exhausted healthcare workers, I think the majority of us are a bit stunned by what brought us to this place.
The pandemic, interestingly enough, put many of us in a situation of "forced empathy," as Eve Fairbanks recently explained in The New Republic. After traveling internationally and reporting symptoms consistent with COVID-19, she underwent testing then waited four days for her (negative) results.
"No individual can control a virus, despite what the president might wish," she wrote. "But before I got tested—the current state of millions of Americans—I felt helpless over not only my own fate but also the fate of all the others I might have infected. It's a rare thing to feel a stranger's potential pain so intimately."
This is why so many of us consent to wearing masks; we aren't necessarily protecting ourselves but protecting others from possible infection. It's forced empathy, and for many, it feels strangely rewarding to act on it.
Born empathic or learned behavior?
True empaths already know what it feels like to be keenly aware of other people's needs, stresses, and feelings. In times of widespread stress and anxiety, this can have some significant drawbacks, noted Jonathan Fields, producer of the critically acclaimed Good Life Project podcast.
"When someone else is in pain, it can be hard to dissociate from it," Fields recently wrote in Psychology Today. "Whether you know them or not. It can also stop you from being able to help someone else. You're of no use beyond being a warm body to commiserate, when their pain paralyzes you as much as them."
Yet he believes that "to feel is to live," and we must stay mindful to avoid being drawn in too deeply to others pain, to the point where we are no longer able to help.
The payoff? Being more empathetic doesn't just help others; it has personal benefits, noted Elizabeth Segal, PhD, in Psychology Today. Segal believes empathy can:
- Help us make better decisions
- Connect us more deeply to others
- Lower stress
- Provide antidotes to burnout
- Guide our moral compass
"Empathy is a foundation for the moral behaviors that create healthier communities, from which all of us benefit," she wrote.
We can learn to show more empathy toward others, and this pandemic gives us a perfect "training ground" if you will. It all starts with simple steps that anyone can master:
- Engage in acts of service
- Observe others acting with empathy
- Listen to others, without the need to insert your own opinion
- Actively imagine yourself in another's position
Taking a leadership role in the move toward empathy
In reality, we are all "first responders" in the need for empathy, as countless anecdotes about inspiring acts of compassion during the pandemic attest. I was particularly touched by the story of a Tennessee man who, worried about his mother and others in her retirement community, brought his guitar and serenaded residents outside their windows.
We see others leading with empathy around the globe. Italians signing to each other from their balconies; kids in the U.S. mowing their neighbor's lawns; volunteers sewing thousands and thousands of face masks for health care workers.
Unfortunately, we also see plenty of people who are most definitely not getting this right. As CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger reminded us at the end of March, President Trump gives us a prime example of self-centeredness and a distinct lack of empathy. "By tweeting a New York Times story about the millions of viewers his evening news conferences attract, the President made one thing clear: In his mind, it's all about him," Borger wrote.
On the other hand, we see leaders like New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lead with empathy first. "People feel that Ardern 'doesn't preach at them; she's standing with them,'" Helen Clark, New Zealand's prime minister from 1999 to 2008, told Uri Friedman of The Atlantic.
Ardern video chats with her nation from her remote location, dressed down and with her children's toys often visible in the background. She is authentic and real, even apologizing for using the national emergency alert sirens to get out the shelter-in-place message.
And her country is responding. Out of a population of nearly 5 million, only 20 people have died from the virus as of early May, thanks in large part to willing compliance with widespread testing and quarantining mandates. Her empathetic approach has no doubt saved lives.
Stop looking for empathy, and start delivering it
We must stop looking for empathy (even if we wish our own political leadership cared more about us than their election prospects) and begin delivering it. Dan Kerber, VP of Business Operations for Ericsson, wrote a beautiful piece on how we can lead our teams with empathy during this stressful time. He stresses the importance of treating our employees with kindness and basic humanity:
- We can be flexible with schedules and more understanding of workers who are home with kids.
- We can help our teams set boundaries on their working time, not expecting them to answer in their off hours.
- We can welcome their family members into the conversation, not being phased if the little ones toddle into the room or the cat jumps up on the keyboard.
- We can make sure they have the resources and support they need to continue working and stay mentally healthy.
Eventually we can carry this attitude forward as we come out of this pandemic. In all of this, the prevailing questions for business leaders might be "How can I help?"
We will all come out of this changed in some way. We get to decide if those changes will be made intentionally, or forced on us by our circumstances. Let's choose wisely, and bring a more empathetic mindset with us.
The system can even be designed to send alerts to employees when they've come too close to a coworker.
- Since the pandemic began, nations have been using technology in varying degrees to contain the outbreak.
- This new tool is able to place moving people on a map and estimate the distance between them.
- Some privacy advocates are raising concerns about private companies and governments installing surveillance technologies.
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the planet, some nations have been using technology to help flatten the curve.
In South Korea, for example, officials have been using GPS to track the movements of infected individuals in order to see who else might have contracted the virus. In Taiwan, the government has been enforcing quarantines through a smartphone-tracking app. And in the U.S., data scientists are exploring how they might use machine-learning to predict who's most at risk of dying from COVID-19, and using those projections to better allocate resources.
Last week, a company called Landing AI introduced another way technology might help combat the pandemic: a tool that measures social distancing. The tool uses cameras and AI to track people's movements, and it's able to put their location on a bird's-eye-view map of whatever area the camera is observing. Using these calculations, the tool estimates the distance between people.
Landing AI says businesses could use the tool to ensure employees are practicing good social distancing.
"For example, at a factory that produces protective equipment, technicians could integrate this software into their security camera systems to monitor the working environment with easy calibration steps," the company wrote in a blog post. "As the demo shows below, the detector could highlight people whose distance is below the minimum acceptable distance in red, and draw a line between to emphasize this. The system will also be able to issue an alert to remind people to keep a safe distance if the protocol is violated."
Landing AI isn't the first company to develop an AI system for tracking social distancing. Additionally, some police departments have been using surveillance cameras to detect large gatherings of people, and then send officers to disperse the crowd.
Practices like these might help flatten the curve, but they also bring a unique set of threats to the public.
The dangers of normalizing surveillance
Landing AI noted that its system won't be able to identify particular individuals.
"The rise of computer vision has opened up important questions about privacy and individual rights; our current system does not recognize individuals, and we urge anyone using such a system to do so with transparency and only with informed consent."
Still, some privacy and workers' advocates are concerned about introducing these kinds of systems to the workplace. In its 2019 report, New York University's AI Now Institute wrote that using AI tools like these "pools power and control in the hands of employers and harms mainly low-wage workers." Others have raised concerns over normalizing mass surveillance, and the potential for employers to abuse these kinds of AI systems, now or in the future.
@AndrewYNg @landingAI How would you alert individuals violating distancing practices? Seems like you'd need some… https://t.co/tZvLiDMjE0— Kyle Russell 🎮📲 (@Kyle Russell 🎮📲)1587066891.0
One concerned voice is Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who exposed NSA surveillance programs. In a recent interview with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Snowden spoke about the potential problems with introducing technological surveillance measures during the pandemic.
"When we see emergency measures passed, particularly today, they tend to be sticky," Snowden said. "The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power. They start to like it."
One key takeaway from the Snowden interview is to be wary not necessarily of how surveillance tools might be used today, but of how they might be used years from now — we might someday find that these tools have become too integrated in our society, too normalized, to easily remove.