As one of the most powerful of human emotions, shame has always been a tool of governments and societies alike. In an increasingly tech-centric world, what will shame’s role be in new developments?
In a bustling metropolis of twelve million people, strict enforcement of road rules has become a prime safety concern. To combat this, the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen has started using artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology to deter jaywalkers. However, there’s another element needed for the system to work: shame.
The technology implemented by the city police in collaboration with Intellifusion will mean that jaywalkers will be publicly named and shamed. Offenders will have their faces displayed on large LED screens for all to see.
Multiple violations of the rules will have even more drastic consequences. The system also registers how many times a pedestrian has been caught jaywalking.
Once this record reaches a certain number it will affect the offender’s social credit score. This could potentially cause a number of implications for repeat offenders. For example, negative point scores could limit their ability to take out loans and even to travel within the country.
As we can see, the combination of technology and psychology can be a very effective social tool.
The Power of Shame
My childhood is punctuated with memories of my sister dropping an assortment of glassware and promptly bursting into tears. I think this sums up shame in its rawest form.
She wasn’t crying because she thought she’d be punished but because she felt ashamed. Just like children who break the rules, shame follows us throughout our lives. When we mess up presentations at work or eat a whole tub of ice-cream, there’s no explicit reason for us to feel shame.
There are no rules that explicitly say you shouldn’t eat that whole tub in one sitting, yet we still feel shame after the fact. However, we are ruled by a set of social expectations that we are taught to adhere to.
If you fail to meet these expectations, we are often shamed by others and feel embarrassed. This, in turn, puts us off repeating shame-inducing actions for fear of being devalued by those around us.
Have you ever blushed so much that you wished the earth would swallow you whole? Think back to the most embarrassing moment of your existence. It’s painful, right?
Shame cannot be described in any other way besides pain-inducing. Shame can be so harmful to humans. If we let our mind obsess over shame surrounding past mistakes it can drag us into the depths of depression. So, why is it a recurring part of human existence?
Thanks to Evolution, Shame is in Our Genes
Good news, we can blame evolution for our cringe-inducing moments. Well, sort of. If shame wasn’t necessary for survival then it wouldn’t affect us.
Arguably, humans are designed with one biological imperative, survive and to procreate. In the close-knit foraging communities of our ancestors, shame was an incentive for our ancestors to behave well.
100,000 years ago, behaving well meant sharing food, caring for another’s child, cooperating, and putting the needs of the group before your own.
Studies have shown that shame is a common factor seen across many different cultures. Human history shows that we rely on the group for individual survival.
Today, this has translated to the creation of social norms and our ability to follow them becoming a survival mechanism. If we see someone else violate them, our biology tells us that they are a threat to our survival. This is why it is easy for us to shame others in the name of justice.
Why is Shame Such an Important Element of Control?
As humans, we seek recognition and fear being devalued. Just as the plan to prevent jaywalkers in Shenzhen, this is how shame functions. It is a pervasive mechanism that makes us conform.
This can be a powerful tool in our society. The United Nations basically names and shames nations that are not upholding human rights standards.
Public shaming on a global area works like airing dirty laundry. The aim of this shame is, ironically, to induce governments to improve the way they treat citizens.
However, the human potential for shame can be dangerous if it is exploited.
Shame is commonly used by cult leaders to expose a person’s capacity to feel unworthy. In the case of many cults, shame is manipulated by leaders to maintain submission and, therefore, control.
Dystopian and sci-fi works have explored this concept. Recently adapted for television, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale explores the issue and concept of shame.
It takes place in an imagined society, Gilead, after the patriarchal theocracy has taken over America. The tale is told through the eyes of Offred, a handmaid and one of the few remaining fertile women on earth.
The handmaids are used as vessels so that powerful men can continue the human race. This world of inequality portrays how powerful shame can be when used as a means of control.
The handmaids dress piously in red. This represents their fertility, which they are in one sense placed on a pedestal for.
However, echoes of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ cannot be ignored and female sexuality is also equated with shame. In the television adaptation, we get glimpses of life before the new regime. The modern setting is all too familiar. In one scene, Offred is called a ‘slut’ by a barista.
This reminds us how misogyny often rears its ugly head even today. In some ways, shaming women can be another mode of control, oppression, or aggression.
In some of some of the most harrowing scenes of the television adaptation, we see the handmaids hurry past the bodies of those who have been damned for being gay, Catholic, or working in an abortion clinic. They serve as a warning to similar people who have survived, forcing them into a shamed existence.
The Handmaid’s Tale is no doubt disturbing. This is intensified by the fact that Atwood’s dystopian world was wholly inspired by real historical events such as the Nazi’s Lebensborn program, designed to increase the birthrate ‘Aryan’ children. How far from reality are these stories? To what extent can shame be manipulated to cause harm?
In history, society has often forced people to conform or suffer the consequences.
The McCarthy era in 1950’s America comes to mind. This time saw hundreds of Americans accused of being communists. These accusations were often based on inconclusive evidence and the threat of people with such beliefs was blown out of proportion.
Their alleged political beliefs lead to aggressive investigations and questioning before the government. Laws that were later declared unconstitutional and illegal caused many people to lose their jobs or even be imprisoned.
How Do we Avoid The Over-Enforcement of Shame?
Technology is a tool like any other. It is not inherently good or evil, it depends on how it’s used. The facial recognition technology used in Shenzhen has also been used to fight crime and enhance security.
No matter how much we advance as a race, our inherent sense of shame is going to remain. When technology is combined with human psychology, its power is even greater. It’s up to us to recognize this in order to benefit from its capacities in the best way possible.