three long-billed corellas sitting on tree branch, two close together, one apart

Culture is more or less the way we do things around here (see my article What’s Culture? for a bit more detail) and of course, the way we do things doesn’t develop out of a random nowhere, and it requires constant reinforcement (and evolution).

Hello reward and punishment systems.

In this article, we’re exploring a particular kind of punishment system – opprobrium.

NOTE: You might already be making the assumption that punishment=bad. If that’s the case, take a moment and see if you can move to a more curious position about the role of punishment in cultures. The assumption that they’re bad can result in judging other cultures (which is sometimes an expression of domination), but also can miss the value in certain kinds of behavioural reinforcement mechanisms. Onwards…

Opprobrium is a peer-punishment mechanism that primarily uses shame to let people know when they’ve acted outside the social norms of that cultural group.

It’s a moral system of managing social behaviour (as opposed to a legal system) and involves social condemnation and/or social exclusion.

Opprobrium happens on a scale of severity and on multiple levels in society. For example, international opprobrium (name and shame) is the principal strategy of most international human rights campaigning and is a form of emotional diplomacy (with somewhat mixed results).

One of our species’ biggest superpowers is our capacity for collaboration. We’re so good at it that we don’t even notice that we’re doing it ALL. THE. TIME. even when we’re not aware of it or even trying. And we have to collaborate to survive.

This capacity and necessity for collaboration involves many complex and deep bio-psycho mechanisms (beyond what we even currently comprehend), one of which is shame. When we fail to go along with the group norms, shame happens as a warning of impending consequences if we don’t conform. It’s a way to maintain group standards and only happens in the context of other people (as opposed to guilt which is more about individual standards and doesn’t require a social context).

In cultures that have outsourced peer punishment to legal and justice systems (and therefore taking the law into one’s own hands is discouraged), opprobrium/social shaming is less prominent or popular – we start to feel uncomfortable about public shaming, particularly if the behaviour being shamed doesn’t hurt others (a very subjective position of course). In this context, societies start to rely more on individual feelings of guilt to increase collaboration.

Shaming – at the core of opprobrium

I’m going to write a more in-depth article about shame but for now, briefly…

Shame primarily works on the threat of exclusion, which is life-threatening for such an interdependent species (check out the article What’s Belonging? and What’s Othering? for more on the dynamics of inclusion/exclusion) and carries the basic message, stop acting like a berk or you’re on your own.

This fear of exclusion helps us manage conflicts between individual and group interests and makes us more collaborative (we behave better when we think/feel we’re being watched).

Shaming gets a bad rap in general but its a critical mechanism in humans (and not only humans) that supports social cohesion, when done well. It’s a tool that is and can be used for individual and collective wellbeing or harm. Understanding how it works and the nuances of use makes a huge difference in whether we use it in helpful or harmful ways.

When shaming is used in an acute form, that is, very short term, and with an almost instantaneous repair, it doesn’t create ongoing harm. Shaming becomes harmful however when it’s either acute and there’s no repair, or when it’s chronic over a long period. Systems of domination, oppression and discrimination use chronic, intergenerational, social group shaming to maintain themselves – this is obviously a harmful use of shame.

The White Feather Campaign – a fascinating example of cultural opprobrium

A particularly fascinating (at least to me) and little-known example of cultural opprobrium was the White Feather Campaign in England in the First World War.

There are many layers of complexity in the example, including gender, militarisation, constructions of masculinity, patriotism etc but we’ll ignore most of them to just catch the opprobrial essence of the campaign…

Before conscription was introduced, women were encouraged to cajole the men in their lives, husbands, sons, brothers etc, to enlist in the war. In particular, the trope of courage being a defining feature of a real man was used to manipulate men to war.

It all started on August 30, 1914, in the little port town of Folkestone, County Kent. Thirty women were deputised by Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald to hand out white feathers to men not in uniform to “shame every young slacker found loafing about the Leas”. He warned the men of Folkestone that public humiliation by a woman with a white feather was worse than anything they would face on the battlefield.

The strategy spread across the country and continued even after conscription started in 1916. It was well remembered by those who lived it and a painful memory for veterans (the distribution of the feathers was somewhat indiscriminate, ending up on the lapels of many injured soldiers no longer able to fight).

The campaign has received little attention in academia, with a bit of analytical facing off between analyses of female militarisation versus male hysteria, and the like.

For our purposes though, we could barely create a fictional example of cultural opprobrium that would better elucidate the concept!

Is cultural opprobrium the same as cancel culture?

Cultural opprobrium is of course related to the more recent phenomenon of cancel culture but that needs a whole other article to explore – cancel culture has its roots in oppressed social groups shaming oppressors making it next-level complex, not simply peer-punishment.

What do you think?

Cultural opprobrium/peer-shaming is one of those things that kind of makes sense because it’s biologically hard-wired into us, but at the same time unpalatable because we don’t like hurting others and getting hurt. Where’s your thinking on it at the moment? Yay or nay to cultural opprobrium and why? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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