Shame is that feeling you get when you realize you’ve violated the norms of your community. But it only works when it comes from your community. And can backfire when it doesn’t.
When I heard Megan Phelps-Roper make this point in a talk I watched on YouTube, it explained so much. Megan is the host of a thought-provoking and controversial podcast called “The Witch Trials of JK Rowling.” But years before that, she was a spokesperson for something far more notorious: the Westboro Baptist Church. I remember seeing news coverage from years ago. At funerals for gay people, or soldiers, or anyone they preached was an irredeemable sinner or had died as punishment for society’s sins, WBC members would be there, protesting, usually with their most famous sign: “God hates fags.” When Megan started posting the group's cruel teachings on Twitter more than a decade ago, she got — as you would expect — loads of outrage in return. Insults. Attacks. For shame, people said, over and over. But Megan didn’t feel shame. She felt pride. Why? Because she didn’t see the people sending her nonstop attacks and insults as her community — people whose rejection could signal to her that she had gone way off track. She saw them as the “other side,” the foolish nonbelievers. Her job was to tell them the truth, and their job was to call her hateful for it. The more she heard she was hateful, the more people she knew she was reaching. That divide turned their shame into encouragement. Megan famously left the group — and renounced all the awful things she believed — thanks to folks on Twitter who had the courage to listen to her and point out inconsistencies that led her to question everything. They didn’t start off as her community, but grew to become it. This lesson on shame is not one I’m about to forget. I think of our politics: The Left “shaming” the Right. The Right “shaming” the Left. Are you sending shame, over any divide, that’s turning into encouragement? How much more accountable would we be to each other if we were connected enough for shame to actually work?