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No Place for Shame

By Gemma J. Schneider
Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pforzheimer House.

It was a group of about 15 kids having dinner by the Charles River. They were around my age and, as I imagined, probably also Harvard students. They were packed closely together — shoulders touched and hands brushed past each other as cups were filled up and distributed. As one kid cracked a joke, collective laughter traveled out onto the street.

In the past, I probably would’ve smiled, maybe even waved or chirped a quiet “hello,” upon passing by. But, times have changed. The first thing that I noticed about the group wasn’t its members’ laughter or free spirits, but their large number and close proximity to one another. Most of the students’ masks were strewn to the sides of their faces or, in some cases, nowhere in sight. I grimaced but, unsure of what I could do, continued along on my walk.

Later that day, I saw some of those kids again. This time, though, it wasn’t in person — it was online. Someone had posted an Instagram story of them, again not social distancing. The post, whose caption read “exposed” and included the names of each person in the photo, was now circulating across several Harvard group chats.

I had seen these types of posts before — they’ve become exceedingly common in college communities as of late. I generally thought little of them, but this Instagram story struck me — after all, just earlier that day, I would have been perfectly positioned to create a nearly identical post.

But should I have? During the pandemic, when group gatherings like these are no longer innocent portraits of happiness and glee, but are oftentimes dangerous, what does accountability look like? Admittedly, I should have done something when I saw those kids — something beyond walking away. Passivity is never ideal. That said, “exposing” these students online also isn’t a productive approach.

Effectively holding other students accountable — especially now — is a difficult balancing act. On one hand, we can’t afford to be so lenient that we risk passively enabling their deleterious behavior. But on the other, we also need to extend some degree of sympathy towards students’ inevitably human attempts to grasp onto normalcy of some form. We must be both vigilant and introspective in deciding how we choose to hold others accountable.

We must predicate our approach on the understanding that public shaming lacks social productivity. Shame, unlike other emotions of self-conscious affect like guilt and embarrassment, is self-focused. Whereas guilt, for instance, is rooted in the realization that you’ve done something “bad,” the experience of shame is a result of the belief that you are fundamentally bad. Shame thus clouds the idea that we can improve and do better. The experience is inherently reductive.

Shame doesn’t just stifle meaningful change — it can also brew counterproductive thoughts and patterns of behavior. When we experience shame, our limbic systems bring our bodies into fight-or-flight mode, which can cause us to engage in a defense mechanism known as “armoring-up.” During this self-protective process, our feelings of shame and worthlessness swiftly morph into convictions of moral superiority and righteousness. Essentially, convinced that we cannot change and lacking any other defenses, we work to persuade ourselves that we were “right” all along.

Still, some might contest that, while shame itself is an unproductive tool, the fear of being shamed — of having your risky behaviors photographed and shared — is a preventative force too powerful to disregard. Such fear, though, would likely only prompt dissenters to transfer their risky behaviors to more private settings.

So, shaming clearly isn’t the answer. Neither, though, is looking the other way. How, then, should we work to hold our peers accountable? Ideally, our approach should be direct but remain compassionate. We should candidly express our concerns, but our words should remain unblemished by anger or blame. We should engage empathically and assume best intentions.

Now, admittedly, this is a highly romanticized set of principles, glorious in theory but ridden with practical ambiguities. Candidly expressing my concerns to those students back at the Charles River, for instance, would have been a daunting, emotionally demanding task — one that I’m still not sure I’d feel comfortable taking on.

The most straightforward option would have been to lean into that discomfort anyway — to have approached the group. I could have given them that smile, wave, or “hello” chirp that, just a year ago, I would have offered in an instant. Then, I could’ve tried to find out more about the context of the gathering — were they all members of the same social pod, for example?

Hopefully, following this chatter, any skeptical faces would have softened. Shoulders would have relaxed. I’d feel a wave of confidence and I’d ride on it. “By the way, does anyone want an extra mask?” may have been one strategic ask. While the potential approaches are endless and highly situational, they should all aim to make self-reflection — and reassessment of ideals — not only possible but appealing. They should aim to provoke thought and invite change.

But, no strategy is fool-proof. I could have approached the students on the Charles and been ostracized. I could have been dismissed. Eyes may have rolled, shoulders — still touching — may have tensed, and masks may have remained pushed aside.

What then? I have no plain answer, and looking for one would require a distorted abstraction of life’s complexities. Maybe we allow ourselves to give up. Maybe we try a little harder. Maybe we offer educational resources, or maybe we try to augment our reasoning with some sort of emotional appeal. But hopefully we don’t get frustrated and just snap a photo.

In whatever approach we pursue, we should reject the impulse to draw upon shame as a weapon. Shame doesn’t just blunt growth — it’s also inherently antithetical to change. At best, attempting to use it as an accountability tool is ineffective. At worst, it can kindle and cement harmful views. We shouldn’t let this approach guide our actions anywhere — not in public, not online, and certainly not on the Charles River.

Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pforzheimer House.

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