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Giles Fraser’s Thinking Aloud podcast: how valuable is shame?

“Let one man’s shame be a symbol for all” was the Daily Mail headline. Likewise, one Facebook page has a petition to shame Fred Goodwin into giving up his pension. And Shame is, of course, the title of Steve McQueen’s new film about sex addiction.

So how valuable is shame as a means of changing behaviour? According to the American social critic Christopher Lasch, the trouble with modern culture is that we have lost “the shared social and legal boundaries that shame one policed.” This is why a number of legal theorists have argued for the shaming of criminals as an alternative to prison or financial penalties. There is little transformative potential in simply paying a fine as if one were just paying an unwelcome bill, they argue. This sort of punishment is just too anonymous. Shaming criminals, on the other hand, makes a very clear public statement about right and wrong. Those caught urinating in public ought to clean the streets with a toothbrush. Those who pick up prostitutes should have their names published in the newspapers. According to several thinkers, shame is a valuable way to reinforce social values.

But all of this makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. For the trouble with shame punishments is that they target too much – the whole person rather than simply the act itself. It is surely one role of a liberal state to uphold the intrinsic dignity and humanity of all its citizens. This is the secular equivalent of the Christian idea that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. In the ancient world, criminals often had their crimes tattooed on their foreheads. After his conversion to Christianity, the Emperor Constantine issued a decree that branding be banned: “let him not be marked on the face, so that which has been fashioned in the likeness of divine beauty, may not be disgraced.” Both the secular and religious versions of this sentiment are deep sources of resistance to shame punishments. And this suerly applies as much to Fred Goodwin, as to the rest of us.