Illustrative image for Gun Violence Shame and Social Change

Bioethics Forum Essay

Gun Violence, Shame, and Social Change

The language of shame has been prominent in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. In a March 23 essay in The New Yorker, filmmaker A.J. Schnack, who in 2015 began a video project, “Speaking Is Difficult,” to document initial reports of mass shootings, wrote about Americans’ habits of normalizing and tolerating gun violence as “our national shame.”

To “call BS,” as Never Again student leader Emma González did in a widely-viewed speech days after the fatal shooting of 17 students and staff members at her high school, is to say, “shame on you.”  In its February 28 announcement that it would cease selling assault rifles  and make other changes aimed at reducing the risk of mass shootings, Dick’s Sporting Goods implicitly evoked  feelings of shame at its past inaction: “. . . thoughts and prayers are not enough . . .we have to help solve the problem that’s in front of us.” And in his speech at a Washington, D.C. rally during the March 14 National Walk Out student leader Matt Post of Montgomery County, Maryland rejected evolving federal proposals to arm teachers and harden schools, stating, “We will accept nothing less than comprehensive gun control . . . we will shame our national policymakers into protecting us.” Post also framed refusal to act on gun violence as a “moral problem.”

Shame, like anger, guilt, sadness, and disappointment, is a “negative” emotion. These emotions are part of what make us human. They are integral to our moral life, our ability to discern right and wrong. As feelings, shame and guilt can seem similar, but it is worth distinguishing between them. Feelings of guilt stem from the recognition that we have wronged another through our behavior, by violating a rule or failing to meet a standard of conduct. The morality of guilt is legalistic; if we haven’t done wrong, there is no reason to feel guilty. So why do we sometimes feel bad about our actions even when we know we haven’t broken any rules? In these cases, we may be feeling shame rather than guilt. As the philosopher Herbert Morris wrote in his essay “Guilt and Shame,” shame doesn’t require rule-breaking; it arises in response to a failure to reach aspirational ideals rather than baseline requirements.

Shame focuses on actors, not actions. When we are ashamed, we perceive that what is morally wrong is us, not only our behavior. One can apologize and make amends for wrongdoing; indeed, a good person should do those things. But what should we do when once, or still, permissible behavior now makes us feel ashamed?  It is already clear, from the actions of retailers, that no matter where the next shooter purchases his deadly weapon, all companies whose policies reflect an objectionable lack of concern will be open to rebuke. You do not have to be blameworthy – complicit in wrong action –  to be ashamed of inaction. (See “Businesses, Guns, and Human Rights.”)

Our capacity to feel shame can be awoken when we observe someone exceeding the moral standards we had set for ourselves. The statement from Dick’s Sporting Goods reflects this kind of moral awakening, a sense that good corporate citizenship requires more than mere compliance with laws and regulations. It is telling that the CEO of Dick’s emphasized the lofty ideal of bravery in public comments about his company’s policy change: “Our view was if these kids can be brave enough to organize like this, we can be brave enough to take these out of here.”

Those who acknowledge their shame must do more than renounce their shameful actions; they must also demonstrate a commitment to better values. An example from the “checklist” innovation to reduce the risk of life-threatening infections in intensive care units shows how this can work. An ethnographic study of this initiative explains how physicians and other project leaders had to challenge the notion that hospitals were safe places where bad things sometimes happened. They reframed infections in ICUs as avoidable harms and identified a “victim group” as patients whose injuries or deaths were preventable. They made ICU doctors and nurses feel uncomfortable – ashamed – at being “accidental perpetrators” of injury or death through failures of safety protocols. And they offered doctors and nurses a shot at redemption: the opportunity to join a collective effort, “motivated by a collective conscience,” to stop preventable harm. Morris wrote that shame “leads to creativity”; in this case, that creativity resulted in large-scale, sustainable social change.

In light of such examples that highlight the relationship between shame and social change, we should reconsider the idea that we ought not to shame others because shaming isn’t nice. Shaming is morally wrong when it is part of the abuse of power, used to make someone feel awful without offering redemptive possibilities or employed in the service of corrupt ideals. But sometimes we should feel bad about who we’ve become. These bad feelings can inspire us to change for the better and reach for noble goals. Such feelings can arise on their own. When they don’t, though, our fellow citizens are right to call us out.

Samuel Reis-Dennis is a postdoctoral Hecht-Levi Fellow in the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University. Nancy Berlinger is a research scholar at The Hastings Center.

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