top of page

Shame as a Tool of Maintaining the Status Quo

For this piece we collaborated with Sofia Hadjiosif who is a UK-based, multidisciplinary artist and the founder of the Terra Movement. She is currently a student at Manchester Metropolitan University in the Department of Future Media Production, focusing on graphic design and motion graphic design. Sofia founded Terra Movement to create an ‘’Artivist Community’’ for all artists and creators who want to raise environmental awareness through their work.

You can read more about Sofia and Terra Movement's work in our interview from last year here.

Shame in itself can be traced not only as a deterrent to social action but also as a tool used in several activist movements. For instance, shaming corporate inactivity in the context of climate change. I am not here to talk about the weaponisation of shame in the context of climate action. Instead, I want to explore the social function that shame culture has played over the years in preventing meaningful, systemic change and its weaponisation by those profiting from flawed systems, as a means of preventing change.

From the onset of this discussion, I want to distinguish between guilt culture and shame culture. According to Ruth Benedict, in a guilt culture, you are good or bad according to your conscience. In a shame culture, you are good or bad by what your community says about you, where exclusion makes people feel that they are bad. This is especially relevant in the proliferation of social media used as a platform for community development, as well as display and observation - perpetuating a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion founded on uncertain social standards and shifting judgement.

Lucia Osborne-Crowley has written extensively on the correlation between shame and illnesses (physical and mental) in her latest book My Body Keeps Your Secrets in relation to sexual violence. Her book, however, has been a great resource for understanding even the most camouflaged ways that shame has been entrenched in our society, and I want to borrow part of her research to establish what shame means. Lucia cites in her book Joseph Burgo - a clinical psychologist whose research focuses on shame - who sets out that the emotion of shame arises in some key experiences:

  1. feeling exposed;

  2. unrequited attachment;

  3. failing to meet societal expectations;

  4. being excluded based on the idea that there is something wrong with us.

Jennifer Jacquet - assistant professor of Environmental Studies at New York University - has noted that a subcategory of shaming is gossip, used to punish those violating social norms while connecting obedient individuals to a group. A nuanced version of this can be seen in actively trying to persuade people not to act, poised by powerlessness. Michael Apathy - a psychotherapist and ecotherapist at Lucid Psychotherapy and Counselling connects climate despair and the impulse to encourage others to despair to shame.

My friend and I have spoken excessively about the ways that we have occasionally been shamed or bullied through our lifetimes. Growing up in a Mediterranean country it is not easy to speak up against a well consolidated status quo. This year, she went vegan and oh boy was this a challenge - not only because of the limited variety of vegan options, but also because her friends and inner circle were quick to judge her. Small comments alluding to her sustainable activism and lifestyle that sought to exclude her from conversations included: “ah YOU shouldn’t listen to this because I bought this shirt from Zara and you would be unhappy with me.” Other conversations about her veganism included typical phrases such as “this is just a phase” or something along the lines of “you can have your reactionary activist life-style for now but I am certain this will change sometime in the near future.”

Other examples of shame that take place in the online space are hate messages as well as messages shaming the receiver for anything having to do with their work. For example, recently I read an abusive message sent to one of the artists that I follow telling them that “they ruined a perfectly good piece of paper” with their artwork.

Western societies have historically relied on shame as a tool to maintain conformity to community stability. Traces of this have remained in our system. Colonial America saw value in imposing shame-based punishments, Benjamin Rush wrote in 1787 that shame is “universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death.” This is something that began to change in the late-18th century, while laws abolished public stocks in the early 19th century and families were advised to stop shaming their kids to avoid hurting their self-esteem.

Inter-community shame has also been pointed out by several slow-living influencers: not doing enough, working with brands that might be connected to the fossil fuel industry in one way or another, shopping, or somehow functioning in a capitalist system. Isaias Hernandez who goes by queerbrownvegan on Instagram got to the crux of this right before Earth Day when he posted the following twitter thread.

Shame has oftentimes been linked to mental disorders and has been identified as a key component of one’s treatment, while research has also shown that feelings of shame can demoralise people. Other examples that are attached to shame is bullying which can take place at any time in one’s life, but which can shape our feelings around doing work through social media platforms that can increase our exposure, as well as the ways we understand judgement.

These feelings can become consuming. Nevertheless, as pointed out earlier they are borne from a place of defence and oftentimes are a way of reflecting the ways that the sham-er reflects shame back to the receiver.

An interesting resource talking about the flip coin of this and the ways that shame is used to fight the status quo can be found here:


bottom of page