Criticism, Ridicule, Shame, Ostracism Is Not Coercion


Yesterday Cathy argued that shaming others is unjustifiable coercion. In her explanation she includes criticism, ridicule, shame, and ostracism. But after reading her article, I find myself wholly disagreeing with the notion that criticism, ridicule, shame, and ostracism are on the same level as coercion.

Coercion is defined as “the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats”. Yet, criticism is simply “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes”. Definitions of ridicule, shame, and ostracism are similar in that they stem from disapproval of another’s actions. Yet, there is nothing about the use of force. Force is not a prerequisite to criticize, ridicule, shame, and ostracize.

Now here’s the thing, I’m far from being a slut-shaming apologist. I find their views repulsive, but I defend their right to say and believe it. The fact is, it’s not coercive when people talk about how they hate sluts or don’t agree with certain behaviors. I mean, even those who are against slut-shaming criticize, ridicule, shame, and ostracize slut-shamers. Why? Because we don’t want to associate with those people! If they think that those life choices need to be criticized, then they can choose to not associate with me.

I don’t think that this College Humor article, for instance, necessarily coerces anyone to do anything, even though it castigates shame and ridicule onto others. But coercion should not be simplified into hurt feelings, because that’s not what it is. Nobody wants to be told that what they are doing with their lives is bad or wrong or immoral — especially if there is no victim. And while criticism, ridicule, shame, and ostracism might make us feel bad when we’re the targets, it’s hardly on par with forcing somebody to do something (or employing the threat of force to achieve their means).

However, I do agree with Cathy that this is a language problem, and shaming doesn’t actually further the goal of changing people’s hearts and minds. I also agree that it’s better to have an open, respectful discussion, but clearly not everybody is capable of putting their predetermined biases and judgments on hold in order to actually listen to and learn from one another. Despite these obstacles, an inability to engage in reasonable, constructive dialogue doesn’t translate hurtful language into coercion.

By claiming that these words and/or actions are coercive, then freedom of speech and association can be viewed as the equivalent of using force. I’ll be honest—I criticize people I don’t agree with. I shame and ridicule people when they say something racist, sexist, or homophobic. I choose not to associate myself with people that I don’t agree with.

On a lighter note, as a hockey fanatic, I ridicule and shame Pittsburgh Penguin fans, but am I coercing them into liking the Washington Capitals? No! And just like sports, there are competing “teams” and competing opinions in all walks of life. At the end of the day, that’s okay. We might not like it, but it’s what a free society is all about.

If we choose to accept and live in a free society then we must allow for free thought and divergence of opinion. Criticism, ridicule, shame, and ostracism are methods of expression and a means to relay such thoughts. We might not like being shamed, criticized, or ostracized, but we also can’t expect that everybody in a free society will share the same values. Simply because our feelings can be hurt through the less-than-charitably-expressed opinions of others, it doesn’t mean that we’re being coerced. Coercion is serious, it’s the actual use of force, and its severity shouldn’t be downgraded to the parallel of criticism.