Shame: Should groups shame individuals?

In her amazing book Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool, Jennifer Jacquet masterfully makes the case that the West needs to get comfortable using shame in a reflective and intentional way to deal with corporations and individuals who are harming the group. When Jennifer Jacquet appeared on the show and explained this, Bryan’s elephant took over and he started thinking fast.

Bryan’s reaction is perfectly understandable but precisely what Jennifer Jacquet’s book is designed to respond to. Many Westerners have developed a strong aversion to using shame…EVER. Shame just doesn’t sit well with the West’s strong individualistic notions.

This gets to the heart of the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is about the INDIVIDUAL knowing they’ve done something wrong. Shame is about what the GROUP thinks or will think of the individual. For long-term Mixed Mental Arts fans, it will come as no surprise that the individualistic West has long favored policing behavior through guilt while East Asia has long favored shame. This doesn’t mean as Salman Rushdie said “Shame, dear reader, is not the exclusive property of the East.” Historically, the West used to love putting people in the stocks, branding them, making them wear scarlet letters and ostracizing them. In fact, this sort of punishment is one of the best scenes in Game of Thrones. Queen Cersei is forced to take the ultimate walk of shame through King’s Landing. Unlike the walk of shame that college students take, there’s no quietly skulking back. Instead, Cersei is forced to strip naked, the people are told to gather and watch and this nun lady walks along behind her ringing a bell and saying the word shame again and again. Shame comes from having the maximum amount of group pressure on you. The ritual maximizes that.

Jacquet’s point is that many of our problems these days (particularly around the environment) aren’t about individual action. That a tiny number of people eat organic, drive electric cars and recycle doesn’t do much to move the needle. It requires group action. Guilt isn’t enough argues Jacquet. You need some of that treatment that Cersei got.

Bryan is right. Shame has been abused throughout history. But the nature of a society is that it is a tension between the desires of individuals and the need for collective effort. Sometimes, the group and the individual want different things. Some people don’t want to pay their taxes but if a lot of people stop paying their taxes (like in Greece) then the society doesn’t function. And even though Bryan is strongly opposed to the government coercing people into acting a certain way he was willing to change his mind on whether shame was the best solution in this case.


Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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