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Shame on Them

Updated: Jul 22, 2018

I’ve been struggling lately with the issue of social shaming. Or rather, social accountability. I’m puzzling over what role it should play, if any, in the campaign against political and economic corruption I think the United States needs.

The distinction I made above is important. By “social shaming” I mean the taunts and threats, the disgusting language infecting social media, the ostracism of people who deviate from the norm. The usual targets are little people – schoolchildren, even – odd people, or in any case, people who lack power. (Radio has covered this phenomenon well, see On the Media here, This American Life here, and Invisibilia here.) Social accountability is a bit rarer. That’s when little people, together, call out the powerful.

There have been some high-profile examples of that too, in the past year. I’ll touch on them later.

But it was something different that started me thinking. Not long ago, this topic came up on two separate list-serves I’m part of. One is of scholars and activists who work on corruption overseas. The other is focused on good governance in the U.S. On each list, a day or two apart, someone asked whether we should put some effort into challenging otherwise respectable people or institutions that are aiding and abetting corruption by servicing corrupt officials.

A Washington think tank, in one case, was provided a prestigious forum to cronies of a well-known kleptocratic head of state. At issue in the other example were Washington lawyers who choose to represent corrupt officials.

On both lists, the prospect of taking some action proved controversial. Even self-described anti-corruption activists did not, on the whole, feel comfortable leaning on an “honorable man,” as one respondent described a lawyer in question, or signing a public letter to the think tank.

I was startled. Don’t my friends and colleagues realize that corrupt officials and their business cronies work as at least as hard to launder their images as to launder their money? And that the blessing of “honorable” think tanks and law firms is a big part of how they do that?

A book (on a very different topic) I happened to be reading helped clarify why the criminal and corrupt care so much about their reputations. It also bolstered my sense that social accountability may be an important element of the fight to curb their practices.

The book, by Christopher Boehm, is called Moral Origins. (Read Smithsonian’s review here.) It can be a bit tough to get through the supposedly clarifying repetitions. But the gist is riveting. Boehm, an anthropologist and a primatologist, is trying to figure out how the human conscience evolved.

One thing that set early humans apart from their primate cousins, he argues, was a switch to big game meat as the mainstay of their diet. That change had cascading implications. No single Homo could bring down a wooly mammoth by himself; so if these huge animals’ meat was going to be more than an occasional treat, then cooperation became essential to the survival of our early ancestors.

And here comes the real transformation: the only way to ensure cooperation was by sharing equally whatever meat the party captured – no matter which hunter delivered the death blow that day. That practice represents a major departure from other apes. Chimps and gorillas are hierarchical. When they hunt together, the alpha male snatches the carcass, even if he didn’t help kill it. He’ll usually give some of the meat away, grudgingly, to a few allies who come begging. But that's as far as the sharing goes.

We’re different. Boehm argues that for at least 40,000 years, humans were decisively distinguished from these primate cousins by their radical egalitarianism.

And how was this novel social structure maintained? Largely, Boehm finds, by way of shaming. He’s been building a database of hunter-gatherer societies that most resemble early humans, noting what types of behavior get punished, in what ways. Social shaming, he finds, is a constant. After gossiping a bit to reach a consensus, tribesmen and –women embarrass mis-behavers with public teasing or criticism. If those fail, the group turns a collective cold shoulder, or even ostracizes or expels the wrongdoer.

I said “social shaming.” But in fact, this hunter-gatherer practice amounts to social accountability. Because it’s not the misfits who get roasted. It’s the most powerful members of the band. Bullying meat-hoggers, Boehm terms them. Alpha male types who are physically powerful and tend to boast and throw their weight around and try to grab more than their fair share of collectively hunted game, are mercilessly cut down to size. In extreme cases, they are actually executed. The band decides together on this extreme and rare form of punishment, and either kills the offender in a group, or delegates a member of his family to do it.

With this kind of threat lurking in the background, domineering types usually worked to keep their selfishness in check and to cultivate a reputation as decent, cooperative, “honorable” people.

Today’s “meat hogs” are still doing it -- or at least the second part of the sentence above. They use philanthropy, honorary degrees at respected universities, speeches at think tanks, and representation by big-name lawyers and lobbyists to launder their images. But they are not putting much effort into holding their greed in check. On the contrary, they are focused on changing the rules to make their practices technically legal. So there is almost no recourse against them.

As for social accountability, it is not so common anymore. That’s what struck me when the opportunity was presented my list-serves. While many of us don’t hesitate to pick on the weak, especially with the help of the internet’s anonymity, even anti-corruption champions shied away from publicly calling out the powerful allies of blatantly corrupt officials.

There have, it’s true, been some major exceptions to that reluctance. Companies, even states, have been boycotted for their stance on LGBT rights. The #MeToo movement toppled previously untouchable men across the political spectrum. Most recently, Trump administration officials connected with the policy of separating the children of prospective immigrant families from their parents have faced protesters in the streets. (See this McClatchy article about taking aim at the working level, as well as top officials.)

Still, these examples aren’t quite what I’m talking about. While their targets undeniably have been powerful, the policies and practices sparking the outrage are not “meat hogging.” That is, the behavior being sanctioned is not related to grabbing more than a fair share of the wealth that Americans have collectively produced -- the game, so to speak, that we have hunted together. People who do that are less likely to be publicly called out.

I can think of one recent example.

Remember, despite the crippling damage suffered by millions of Americans, no top executive of any bank involved in the economic crisis of 2008 went to jail. Widespread public indignation gradually died down, without causing real discomfort to any institution or executive. But when, in September 2016, it emerged that Wells Fargo had opened millions of bank and credit card accounts without customers’ knowledge or permission, and had charged the usual fees on these unauthorized accounts, the backlash was immediate and severe. (Here is a Senate hearing on the scandal. Forbes Magazine wrote about the public outcry, which included a presidential tweet, here.) Nobody was sent to prison for that massive crime, either, nor did the bank lose its license. The CEO and a few board members resigned, after an uncomfortable grilling in Congress, and the bank agreed to pay an impressive-sounding $1b. fine. (Fortune Magazine ran this commentary on the usefulness of fines: )

But the shaming hit home. Especially when customers started switching banks.

Wells Fargo raced to show it was turning over a new leaf. In a major advertising campaign launched this spring (Here is the L.A. Times coverage), it called 2018 the year of its “refounding” – on a renewed commitment to ethical values. (See above on the criminal and corrupt caring a lot about their reputations.)

I’m trying to figure this out. I certainly don’t want to start calling for vigilante action. But as more laws are tailored to serve our era’s version of powerful meat-hogs and not the rest of us, and those meat hogs almost never get punished, can imposing social accountability -- respectfully but firmly -- be a way to change what passes as “honorable?” And would that shift pave the way to better laws, and their enforcement, against people who just can’t resist grabbing an ever-larger share of the meat?

Let me know your thoughts.


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