Guilt vs Shame in Fostering Greater Accountability

This past week I was able to speak with faculty and staff at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville about my research on college men, including recommendations for being more effective in engaging men. One of the big challenges facing these folks was how to hold men accountable for their inappropriate behavior, whether that is homophobic comments, vandalism, irresponsible alcohol use, sexual harassment, or even physical violence.

I’ve often seen student affairs professionals who observe someone who represents privileged identities doing something harmful and chastise the student. I’ve even heard some brag about how they have done this. Jason Laker describes this as “bad dogging,” using shame to admonish the student, often publicly.

This is neither ethical nor is it effective, perhaps especially with men.

This is not ethical because in our role as educators we should never use a potential learning moment to tear someone down, especially in a fit of self-righteousness or to repair our own past hurts. This may be tempting for those who have been harmed by men with privileged identities; however, this student is not a place for you to work out your personal hurts and trauma. You should find time and space to do that, when you do not bear role responsibility as an educator.

This is not effective because for men who have been socialized in this culture, shaming can leave them feeling emasculated. When we have been emasculated we have been socialized to resort to misogyny, homophobia, and other hyper masculine behaviors to restore our manhood.

Shaming men for their transgressions could escalate and provoke even more damaging transgressions.

My research participants also explained that some of their anti-social behavior often came when they were feeling the most emasculated and included behaviors that they were disappointed with themselves. How do we hold men accountable effectively?

In Brené Brown’s most recent TED Talk she described the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt is, “I made a mistake.” Shame is, “I am a mistake.” Shame is an obstacle to learning that is highly correlated with depression, suicide, eating disorders, alcohol and drug use, anxiety, and much more. Guilt on the other hand can effectively foster accountability and learning and is inversely correlated with all of those things that are highly correlated with shame.

For many of us, guilt and shame are conflated in our mind because when we have made mistakes we have been shamed.

How do we express disappointment with the behavior and affirm who they are? How do we do that when they won’t show us the real them behind the mask of their masculine performance?

How about this: “I just heard you make that comment. I was really disappointed because I expected more from you. Have you thought about the impact that could have on others in the community, including me and you? I know you are capable of doing better than that. Do you think we can talk about that?”

Let’s remember that the goal here is grace and avoiding shame so that we can foster MORE accountability and learning, not less.

How much shaming have you experienced? How much shaming have you done in the name of learning and social justice? How can we do better?

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