Hugo Schwyzer says shaming a bully isn’t about silencing him, it’s about making it clear that he’s crossed a boundary.
Is calling out bullies a form of bullying itself? Or is publicly calling out one’s tormentors a healthy catharsis for everyone involved, the bully included? That’s a question worth asking as millions share and discuss the video of television anchor Jennifer Livingston’s eloquent takedown last week of a viewer, Kenneth Krause, who called her a bad example to girls thanks to her weight.
The New York Post, hardly a reliable arbiter of what constitutes charitable human interaction, claimed that Livingston was just a “bully herself” for attacking an “in-shape guy who has a perfect right to express a private opinion to a public person.” (The implication: Being fit makes your bullying more legitimate.) Actress Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, worried that calling Krause a bully watered down the meaning of the term, suggesting that Livingston had been “criticized” but not “bullied.” In countless discussions on social media, Americans have debated the merits of the WKBT anchor’s powerful editorial, arguing about the elasticity of the bullying concept, and revisiting the fraught politics of weight.
At Jezebel (a site for which I am a contributing writer), editor Jessica Coen ran Krause’s photo, noting “this dude looks exactly like you’d expect, multiplied by 100.” In the snapshot, Krause, a personal injury lawyer, poses with his mountain bike, showing off his toned body. Some readers questioned whether identifying Krause (something Livingston did not do on camera) served any purpose other than bullying in reverse, while others suggested he looked exactly like the sort of hyper-privileged know-it-all who dispensed unsolicited opinions on health and diet to all within earshot. When questioned by another reporter, Krause issued the classic modern non-apology, expressing regret for the hurt feelings that resulted but not for his words themselves.
Leaving aside the question of whether Krause’s email constituted bullying (I think it did: Meanness often masquerades behind false expressions of concern), I’m struck by the question of whether calling him out, as Jezebel did, amounted to an unhelpful “shaming” of a well-intentioned dude who wrote a private email to a public figure, or whether naming him was a justifiable response to an act of colossal cluelessness at best or calculated cruelty at worst.
Part of the answer lies in recognizing the positive aspects of shame. In our contemporary culture, we tend to think of shame as an invariably unhealthy private emotion. In her popular TedTalk, Brené Brown builds on a distinction between guilt and shame originally made by John Bradshaw. Shame says “I am a bad person” while guilt says “I did a bad thing.” As Brown and Bradshaw would have it, guilt is about distinguishing right and wrong actions; shame is a negative judgment about one’s intrinsic worth. Guilt is a necessary reminder of the harm we can do to other people; shame is a corrosive force that eats away at our self-worth. The less shame we have, the better—or so one popular conception of shame suggests.
Sex educator and occasional Role/Reboot contributor Charlie Glickman takes a more nuanced approach, one that may help explain why the shaming of Kenneth Krause serves an important public function. Glickman writes about what he calls the “adaptive value of shame,” arguing that shame is a powerful emotion of disconnection:
I expect the folks in my life to demonstrate respect for other people, regardless of their sexual orientation, sexual practices, or gender expression. If you don’t, I will call you on it. If you persist in not changing your actions, I will disengage from you. To the degree that you want to be in connection with me, that can be a motivation to explore your ideas and beliefs and perhaps, change them.
Disconnection isn’t always about toxic alienation, Charlie argues, but about healthy boundary setting. Making clear that there are consequences for disrespecting others is a helpful tool to protect ourselves and our community. It’s a way of reminding people that their words and actions have consequences.
Glickman’s idea of shame as disengagement is useful in understanding the shaming of Kenneth Krause. Livingston framed Krause’s email as bullying and destructive body-policing, challenging viewers to recognize the harm that concern-trolling about fat can do to individual self-esteem and our larger culture. Livingston wasn’t saying Krause was evil—and neither was Jessica Coen when she ran his photo. Rather, both were inviting a very public disengagement not from a bad person but from a bad idea. The implicit question: Is ours a culture that should tolerate body-snarking or not? Naming Krause is about shaming (in a constructive way) him into reconsidering his beliefs about fat. It is also about challenging people to disengage from the politics of cruelty that his email represented.
As someone who has been on the receiving end of very public call-outs, I know very well that it can be very hurtful to have one’s words and appearance critiqued by folks one has never met. At the same time, there’s a difference between a take-down for past wrongs and a public repudiation for an ongoing refusal to change harmful actions. The shaming of Kenneth Krause isn’t designed to ruin his career or his relationships; it isn’t intended to silence him. It’s about making it clear to him personally, and to the broader culture that supports his views, that he violated a boundary in a profoundly hurtful way that he may not fully have understood.
Shaming isn’t about silencing. The goal isn’t to get people to be mean to Kenneth Krause, or even just to make him feel awful. The goal is, as Glickman writes, to get him (and those who share his views) to rethink his beliefs—and eventually to change them. Healthy shaming always invites the possibility of transformation and restoration. For a recent example of what that can produce, consider the case of the Reddit user “European Douchebag” who was called out for his cruel mocking of the appearance of a young Sikh woman, Balpreet Kaur. His repentant apology came after Kaur’s brilliant response to his post, and—just as importantly—after other Reddit users made it clear that he’d crossed a line. The Krause/Livingston case is remarkably similar, with the key difference that in this instance, the offender has been slower to recognize the harm he’s done. The door is still open for him to do so, if not with Livingston personally, than with the public.
It is absolutely true that toxic private shame eats away at our self-esteem. But both in interpersonal relationships and online, shame has another function: The necessary disengagement from words or behaviors that violate human dignity. Shaming invites the individual who has done something harmful to repent, and just as importantly, it invites the rest of us to reconsider our own boundaries. We know that good fences make good neighbors: Shaming is the public reminder of exactly where those fences lie.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.