Shaming Others is Unjustifiable Coercion


There are lots of ways to attempt to control other people’s behavior. You can look at all attempts as existing on a scale from friendly persuasion to force. When you think about it, all threats of force where there’s any agency left to choose, even if the other choice is death, are persuasion. The only question is, once threats are involved, what the threat is and who will administer the repercussions.

In the first world, states threaten people who “misbehave” with arrest, fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. But individuals and groups threaten people who “misbehave” as well, with criticism, ridicule, shame, and sometimes complete ostracization.

Somewhere we’ve decided that the tools the state uses to influence behavior are “coercion” while the tools non-state actors use are cooperation. Where is the justification for this? I didn’t sign a contract with slut-shamers any more than I did with my government. I may find complete ostracism much more oppressive than a small fine. In fact, there are studies which indicate that social exclusion is far more psychologically damaging than property crime.

Of course when it comes to non-cooperative behavior, in the absence of sufficient contracts, sometimes coercion is necessary.

But say my actions are completely and totally cooperative, but frowned upon. Maybe I’m doing heroin, or having sex with lots of dudes. What right then does anyone have to coerce me by threatening to criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize me?

And how is this private coercion any better than public coercion? It is safe to say that those who would criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize me do not have all of the information I have about my environment and behavior. The same knowledge problem which makes state planning inferior to markets makes other people shaming me into certain behavior inferior to me making decisions separate from that outside threat of shame.

It may be “clear” to you that I shouldn’t do heroin or bang lots of dudes. But it’s also “clear” to planners that redistribution works to create prosperity. And if you want to justify your attempts to control my behavior by claiming that the state forces you to pay for my methadone and AIDS treatment, maybe you should be focused on replacing state help with private charity instead.

Now, maybe you’re right, and it would be better for me to do no heroin and bang no dudes. Instead of threatening me with criticism, ridicule, shame, and sometimes complete ostracization, sell me on your view. There is no coercion in educating me about the natural pitfalls of my activities. There is no coercion in explaining to me the benefits of abstaining.

Coercion comes in many forms. There is no need or sufficient justification for coercion as a response to cooperative behavior.

UPDATE: Cathy has followed up on her ideas and clarified some things in this post.