Is Shame a Productive Tactic for Affecting Change?

By now you’ve probably heard of Nice Guys of OK Cupid. It’s been taken down, but here’s a link about it in case you’re not in the know. Basically, someone went through OK Cupid profiles and took excerpts from the profiles of men who claimed to be “nice guys” but whose profiles also contained sexist or misogynist statements, imposed these statements over their pictures, and posted them on a tumblr. I think this offers a moment to pause and ask some questions, questions about privacy and shaming, about privilege distress, and about the most effective way to change minds and affect change.

It seems fairly obvious to me that Nice Guys of OK Cupid constituted a violation of privacy. Although it did not release the names of the men it was dedicated to mocking, it did release their images. Is it really okay to publish people’s pictures on the internet like this, especially when the result is shaming and mockery? We talk a lot about the importance of respecting women’s privacy. Yes, this is in large part to protect victims, and also because when women have their privacy violated this violation is frequently accompanied by threats of violence. But is privacy also a universal right for its own sake? And if so, shouldn’t we view the sort of violation of privacy carried out by Nice Guys of OK Cupid as a problem? [This section was edited in response to feedback from a reader.]

Furthermore, what is the purpose of shaming these men? To make an example of them? I get that we should talk about the huge problems with the belief held by these men and many others that women owe them sex. Amen and amen to having those discussions! But I don’t think that those discussions have to employ this sort of shaming or violation of privacy. It’s not like the men featured on Nice Guys of OK Cupid are even especially powerful or influential. If you read the tumblr, they describe themselves as down and out, unable to get a date. This isn’t a case of the little guys standing up to the big guy. Is this sort of shaming really productive? Does it actually challenge and change these men’s beliefs, or does it just make them angry and result in them withdrawing even further from feminism and gender equality? Does it educate, or does it serve merely to further alienate them and push them away? Does this sort of thing actually benefit feminism, or does it instead serve to make the sort of men featured on Nice Guys of OK cupid see feminism as an enemy to be opposed?

I am reminded of an interesting article I read recently about privilege distress. After beginning with the image of stereotypical 1950s TV father George Parker suddenly transported in time to the present, and suddenly bereft of servile wife and doting children, the article continues as follows:

George Parker’s choices. All his life, George has tried to be a good guy by the lights of his society. But society has changed and he hasn’t, so he isn’t seen as a good guy any more. He feels terrible about that, but what can he do?

One possibility: Maybe he could learn to be a good guy by the lights of this new society. It would be hard. He’d have to give up some of his privileges. He’d have to examine his habits to see which ones embody assumptions of supremacy. He’d have to learn how to see the world through the eyes of others, rather than just assume that they will play their designated social roles. Early on, he would probably make a lot of mistakes and his former inferiors would correct him. It would be embarrassing.

But there is an alternative: counter-revolution. George could decide that his habits, his expectations, and the society they fit are RIGHT, and this new society is WRONG. If he joined with the other fathers (and right-thinking mothers like the one in the poster) of Pleasantville, maybe they could force everyone else back into their traditional roles.

Which choice he makes will depend largely on the other characters. If they aren’t firm in their convictions, the counter-revolution may seem easy. (“There, there, honey. I know you’re upset. But be reasonable.”) But if their resentment is implacable, becoming a good guy in the new world may seem impossible.

Only the middle path — firmness together with understanding — has a chance to tame George and bring him back into society on new terms.

I think there’s something to be said for this post, and I suggest that you read the whole thing. It’s very tempting to simply mock men who are facing what the article calls “privilege distress.” Very tempting. I get it. But is it right? Is that the example we want to be setting? And furthermore, is it productive? What does it accomplish? What if the result is to simply alienate men and drive them further into resentment? Is that really what we want to be doing?

I am also reminded of a recent comment on my blog:

The three major patriarchal male roles are provider, protector, and head of household. The feminist or post-patriarchal vision of masculinity that you outline here envisions men sharing these roles with their wives or partners and assuming their share of the patriarchal female roles of child rearing and domestic labor. The egalitarian partnership and stay at home dads are featured in these discussions. But what if that’s not what happens? What if heterosexual men simply reject their patriarchal roles without assuming any of the female roles? What if they walk away from committed relationships with women entirely?

Of course, scores and scores of feminist men are today are showing that living a life of gender equality isn’t all that complicated. I don’t think it’s at all as complicated as this reader seems to suggest. But I also don’t think we should simply ignore what he says here. I don’t think we should respond to those men who do find change challenging or distressing by mocking them because I don’t think that’s productive. Sure, if given a chance between being single my entire life and marrying a sexist jerk, I’d pick single any day. But I don’t think the world is as simple or black and white as to be divided unchangingly into “feminist guys” and “sexist jerks.” Like the author of the piece on privilege distress points out, I think the way we respond to men who find change discomfiting affects how those men will go on to handle that change. Will they accommodate to a world where their privilege is diminished, or will they recoil and resist? I think our actions and responses have the potential to affect that choice.

In the end, I feel very strongly that if we want to change people’s minds, we need to treat them with civility – even when we don’t think they deserve it or that it will do any good. When I was a conservative evangelical, being mocked never led me to rethink my beliefs and positions. Instead, it made me dig in my heels. It exacerbated the us versus them way I saw the world. It was when I found people ready to patiently point out my mistakes and errors that I was able and willing to listen and, ultimately, to change. I think the same is true for a lot of people, and probably for many of the “nice guys” of OK Cupid as well. I only hope that the mocking and shaming has not driven them away.

***Update (1/9/13)***: I’ve changed the name of this post, which was originally called “Let’s Stop Shaming Men,” after reading this comment left by LeftSidePositive:

And another thing: the title of this piece is misleading. “Let’s stop shaming men” implies that men are being shamed simply for being men, and this is emphatically not true. What these men are being shamed for is having grossly entitled, misogynistic views. Now, you may make the argument that we shouldn’t shame even then (I disagree with you, for the reasons I have already listed above), but your actual proposal is “Let’s stop shaming self-entitled misogynists,” so you should try to defend it specifically on those terms (I suppose you could even soften it to “Let’s stop shaming those with self-entitled misogynist views,” but frankly most of what I saw on NGoOKC when it was up crossed well into the territory where a more encompassing label was appropriate!).

LeftSidePositive is completely right. I chose my original title very poorly. So I’ve changed it. I chose “Is Shame a Productive Tactic for Affecting Change?” because I think it reflects what I was trying to get at. The question I am raising is one of tactics.

Many of the comments below have also pointed out is that by shaming those who hold reprehensible views, projects like Nice Guys of OK Cupid serve a purpose by making it clear that that those views are unacceptable. Others have pointed out that the goal of projects like Nice Guys of OK Cupid is not to reach the men whose images it has posted but rather to send a message to others watching and thus hopefully positively affect change. Others suggested that we shouldn’t worry about changing misogynists because they are beyond reach, and we should therefore instead focus on isolating and marginalizing them. These are all excellent points, and they have been helpful in further informing my views on this subject.

I think my disagreement rests on two points. First, I don’t think everyone who holds sexist or misogynist beliefs is beyond reach. And second, while I would admit that shaming serves a purpose, I would argue that it also has some significant negative side effects. And interestingly, I think both of these digressions rest in my own past personal experiences.

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