MURPHY: Feel guilty, not ashamed

Photo by Meredith Gillespie /

Photo by Meredith Gillespie /

Last week, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about how the municipal government in Thane, India, has resorted to using public shaming to get people to pay their taxes. No pillory here, instead, the method is a band of drummers playing outside the tax-evader’s doorstep.

“Few things are as important to people as their reputation,” Thane’s municipal commissioner Sanjeev Jaiswal explained. He isn’t wrong. The program so far has been effective at increasing tax revenue.

The public shaming we’re more likely to be familiar with has a more populist feel than that of a state-sponsored band embarrassing people in front of their neighbors. The examples that come to my mind right away involve Twitter.

Over the summer, Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate in physiology, was forced to resign from his position at the University College of London after being lambasted on Twitter for making a sexist joke at a conference.

At face value, public shaming has a positive outcome: in India, more people pay their taxes; in London, fewer professors will make sexist jokes. These are good things, right? Taxes fund schools and other social services, and strong disincentives against making sexist jokes will encourage professors to create more inclusive environments.

A utilitarian might not see a problem here, but I do. Sure, public shaming might be effective in the short term, but the long term is a different story. Jaiswal anticipates the drummers will lose their sting as people get used to them, and he’s prepared to have trans women dancers replace them when that happens.

Besides, a society whose members are only motivated to do good for the sake of their reputation isn’t one I want to live in. Shame ends the conversation before it can begin.

For example, the people in Thane aren’t going to try to develop the virtues necessary to be good citizens or community members if they are only concerned with what their neighbors think. A lot of what it means to be a good community member has to do with what happens when no one is looking.

Similarly, the media coverage on Hunt’s resignation had very little to say about sexism in academia. It was focused almost entirely on whether or not he was wronged. Throwing him to the Twitter lions might have raised a lot of attention in the short run, but in the long run, it only causes resentment against those who point out misogyny.

Brené Brown, an author and a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has written extensively on this topic. In her TED talk about shame, she makes an important distinction between guilt and shame: “Guilt means I did something bad. Shame means I am something bad,” she said. Guilt can be a starting point toward reconciliation, but shame stops you in your tracks.

Less misogyny and more people paying their taxes are good things, but there is a better way to achieve these ends than shaming, which ultimately isn’t healthy. So should we try to make people feel guilty instead of ashamed when they do something bad? Strange as it sounds, I think the answer is yes. When people can see the broader consequences of their actions, they’ll make different choices. When they’re only made to feel embarrassed or bad about themselves, the problem hasn’t really been solved.

An op-ed at a Catholic school advocating guilt – it was going to happen sooner or later, right?