sorry for length!:
The idea that “shame works”—that stigmatizing behaviors and shaming the people who do them are necessary and honorable tools of public policy—is a recurring theme in both conservative and more communitarian/paternalistic liberal rhetoric. It’s often based on personal experience, or home truths from one’s mom, and because people do sometimes say that shame worked for them I had a hard time articulating why I rejected this rhetoric so completely.
But I recently finished reading Middlemarch for the first time. Shame motivates several of the characters, and it shapes their lives in sharply distinct ways: At least one person really does clean up his act in part due to being shamed, whereas another person becomes much worse than he needed to be and yet another reacts to shame by becoming defiant and a bit superior. Looking at these divergent reactions might illuminate what’s going on when shame “works”—and why it’s not, in my view, a valid tool of social control. Spoilers below, for those who prefer to go into their 19th-century novels with as little background as possible!