I was playing around on Instagram and I came across this meme on a meme account that I follow. The intent was to be funny. It’s also an attempt to shame a demographic in the gay community, cisgender white gay men, for claiming to support inclusion but not actually being inclusive.
My background is in psychology, learning and development, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am also a gay man that is white and cisgender. Needless to say, I feel very strongly about this because of multiple reasons.
I also feel strongly about this because during a time when the LGBTQ+ community is under attack by religion and politicians, we are wasting our energy fighting with each other instead of supporting each other.
This meme is perpetuating a stereotype on an entire group of people. This post is also ignorant and full of logical fallacies.
- Availability heuristic – Using a small amount of available information to make a judgment about something. Three pictures of groups of white gay men does not accurately represent the community of gay men or what they value.
- Confirmation bias – People who already believe what this post suggests to be true will use this as “proof” of the claim that white cisgender gay men are not inclusive.
- Affinity bias – We are naturally drawn to people who are like us. This is part of evolutionary psychology. It can also be a problem when unchecked. Check out my blog post to learn more about friendship and how we make friends.
Let me get right to the point:
Public shaming is an ineffective tool for behavior change that has a negative psychological impact on those being shamed. Shaming is not the same as accountability.
There has been confusion on what accountability is and what it is not.
This purpose of this post is to share some researched information on public shaming and accountability.
Here are the key things I will be discussing:
- The impact of shaming on people
- Behavior change
- My personal opinion
Shaming people on social media has become a popular method of holding these folks “accountable” (I will discuss accountability later) to these social norms. This actually works against the goal trying to be achieved. GaysOverCovid, anyone?
It’s important to first understand what is causing shaming and where it comes from.
As a society, we create norms to abide by. In the book “Social Norms” by Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp, the authors define norms as a “cultural phenomena that prescribe and proscribe behavior in specific circumstances”.
Common norms can range from things like putting shopping carts back when you’re done to not killing other people. Some social norms are the unspoken kind and then we have explicitly stated norms in which there is legal punishment for not following them.
When people demonstrate actions or behaviors that violate social norms, this is known as deviance (Libretexts, 2020). Someone who is considered a deviant can receive sanctions (rewards or punishment) for their actions.
“In early America, shaming punishments were among the most popular methods of criminal sanctioning.” (Goldman)” While shaming on social media is new(er), the concept and method of shaming are not new and have been around for a long time. Shaming is a concept that is still ingrained into our culture.
Now that we have an idea of where shaming comes from, let’s define and explore shame. This is really important to understand so pay attention.
The American Psychological Association defines shame as:
“A highly unpleasant self-conscious emotion arising from the sense of there being something dishonorable, immodest, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances.”
It can also be viewed as:
“Shame occurs as the result of the violation of a social norm, or not living up to someone else’s expectations of us. Shame leaves us feeling inadequate, embarrassed, and humiliated.” (Boss 2016)
Ultimately, shame is a self-conscious emotion (there are several) brought on by other people or society as a whole that causes a person to devalue themselves.
Shaming is used as a punishment (sanction for an undesirable behavior) and that is how people who are shamed perceive this action. Punishments typically do not illicit positive emotions and are in response to an undesirable behavior. Shaming feels like a personal attack and most people will become defensive when they feel like they are being attacked.
Impact of Shame
“Shame may motivate not only avoidant behavior but also defensive, retaliative anger.” (APA)
When folks are shamed for their behavior, instead of changing the deviant behavior to a desired one, they might become stubborn and continue to exhibit that behavior. This can lead folks into secrecy to hide their behaviors so they are not detected (Batcho, 2017). Now the behavior is still occurring, but hidden from society. Some gay men are not inclusive and they will continue to do what they do. You will see them on the apps or you may not even know they are doing it.
Shaming also has impacts on those being shamed. According to Psychology Today, shaming can cause increased levels of anxiety and depression. Shaming can also cause an “us versus them” mentality where those being shamed are defending themselves against those shaming them. This causes polarizing views on different social norms.
Look no further than the social media shaming that “GaysOverCovid” used during the pandemic. This was their misguided attempt at “accountability” and “behavior change”. They created what was called “a civil war between the circuit gays and other gays”. The “us versus them” mentality was explicitly laid out.
Behavior change is likely to fail in these conditions.
This approach also erases the allies in the group who are committed to using their power and privilege to advocate for others who do not share those same privileges and power to create an inclusive environment for all types of gay and queer men.
It is worth mentioning that guilt is often used interchangeably with shame but, according to psychologists, they are not the same. Guilt is internal and occurs when we commit a moral wrong or violate a moral principle (Batcho, 2017). Shaming comes from an external source.
In order to change a behavior, we must understand the elements of behavior change so that we can take the right steps to hold people accountable appropriately and inspire them to reconsider their behavior.
There are two main components of behavior:
- Motivation: Does the person want to do this?
- Ability: Does the person have the skills or capability to do this?
If someone has low motivation and/or the thing is hard to do, they will fail. If they can increase one or both elements, then they will succeed.
When you shame someone, you drastically reduce their motivation to change their behavior and so the behavior will not change.
Check out this video to learn more.
Having this knowledge of behavior change is crucial to holding people accountable.
Be aware of the “Pygmalion Effect”. This is a phenomena where people are influenced by the expectations you place on them. They will live up or down to expectations built upon them and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (Joseph, 2020).
If you expect that, in this case, cisgender gay white men are not inclusive of others and treat them that way, then they will not be motivated to change their behavior and will continue doing what they’ve doing. Prophecy fulfilled.
You will also be harming those in that demographic who champion for inclusion and properly hold people accountable to the lack of diversity and inclusion in groups.
To hold people accountable and to inspire behavior change, we first have to consider was the issue motivation, ability, or both? Only when we have determined which one (or both) was the issue, can we really hold someone accountable appropriately.
Also remember that we tend to be unaware of the “like me bias” that creates homogenous groups.
Here are some best practices to have accountability conversations with folks:
- Check your biases and the story you are telling yourself about the situation first. Check out my blog post about this.
- Hold the accountability conversation in private (preferably face to face). It creates a space of safety and ability to open up. Social media blasts only hurt the situation.
- Ask open ended questions to make a connection and to dig deep and seek to understand. This will help you understand where that person is with motivation and ability. Make sure you actually listen to listen, not to respond.
- Use the model of “situation, behavior, impact” when giving your feedback. “In your last Instagram post, everyone looked similar to you, and it came across as exclusive”. This model is from the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott. This addresses the behavior, not the person.
- Use storytelling. Share how/why this is important to you and your experience/perspective. People emotionally connect to personal stories (it’s our oldest method of communication and our brains have evolved to connect with it).
- Avoid name calling and stereotyping people and groups. Name calling immediately sends people into fight or flight and will cause them to defend themselves instead of listening. The release of adrenaline also makes listening hard. Attacking groups of people doesn’t distribute accountability to the right people so then no one takes responsibility.
We cannot force people to do things by shame. We cannot keep dividing our community. There is power in numbers and by dividing ourselves we are giving away our power to others. The only way we are going to get through this is if we stop fighting and work together as a gay community but also as society as a whole.
My Closing Thoughts
Instead of targeting people or groups, we need to target concepts and structures. We need to lean into the conversation of our biases and the impact they have on other groups. We then need to discuss how do we change our beliefs and behaviors to create an inclusive environment.
As someone who teaches diversity, equity, and inclusion, I can tell you from experience that villainizing a group of people (like cisgender white gay men) is not how you increase their awareness and inspire behavior change.
Inclusion has to be safe for everyone and that includes the learning environment in which we are asking people to learn/relearn/unlearn thinking patterns. If the environment is not safe, learning does not take place. This is why DEI efforts fail in organizations. Underrepresented or marginalized groups are put on the spot and those with more power are made to feel like
The message here should be to become aware of our biases and make sure we are all using our power and privilege to advocate for those within the community who do not share those same privileges and power afforded to others.
Let’s build each other up, not tear each other down.
Boss, J. (2016). LooseLeaf for THiNK (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
Fogg. (2020). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything (Illustrated ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Batcho, K. I. (2015). “What will your children remember about you?” Psychology Today.
Graham, R. F. (2014). “Experts: If corporal punishment worked, battered kids would be the best.” CBS Houston.
Batcho, K. I. (2017, May 31). 403 Forbidden. Www.Psychologytoday.Com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/longing-nostalgia/201705/why-shaming-doesnt-work
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A., & Maxfield, D. (2013). Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior, Second Edition ( Paperback) (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
Hechter, M., & Opp, K. (2005). Social Norms. Russell Sage Foundation. https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/uPiFAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PR7&dq=social+norms+sociology
Libretexts. (2020, August 16). 7.1A: Deviance. Social Sci LibreTexts. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Sociology/Book%3A_Sociology_(Boundless)/07%3A_Deviance_Social_Control_and_Crime/7.01%3A_Deviance/7.1A%3A_Deviance
Behavior Model. (2020, September 23). Behaviormodel. https://behaviormodel.org
Goldman, L. M. (2015). Trending now: the use of social media websites in public shaming punishments. American Criminal Law Review, 52(2), 415+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A411470655/OVIC?u=new90507&sid=OVIC&xid=18b48742
Hess, Amanda. “In the Coronavirus Era, an Epidemic of Internet Scolds.” New York Times, 12 May 2020, p. C1(L). Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A623539940/OVIC?u=new90507&sid=OVIC&xid=3b5c640b. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
Salters-Pedneault, PhD, K. (2020, November 27). Why Your Whole Self Feels Ashamed But Only Part of You Feels Guilty. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-shame-425328
APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/shame
Joseph, D. (2020, July 15). The Pygmalion Effect Explains Why Many Talents Are Ignored. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://medium.com/be-unique/the-pygmalion-effect-explains-why-many-talents-are-ignored-66b9cf37d09
LGBTQI | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/LGBTQI