Why Online ‘Woke-Shaming’ Doesn’t Work

Approach the conversation with empathy, rather than a foregone conclusion

We seem to be stuck in an era that can’t decide how it feels about shame.

On one hand, the digital age has seen a major rise in activism and social justice efforts working to fight discriminatory and oppressive patterns of systemic shame (think: institutional racism, the patriarchy).

On the other hand, shame seems to also be the tool many activist circles are using to get their point across.

What gives?

A social emotion with many faces

For much of human history, shame has been a major tool used to silence marginalized voices and maintain social order based on a narrow idea of “normalcy.”

Illustration of two text bubbles with hearts overlapping. Wok-Shaming pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
The key to breaking this cycle of shame is vulnerability and empathy.

However (and thankfully), the advent of the internet has made it easier than ever to do away with these narrow social norms (thanks to an abundance of information and platforms for marginalized voices).

The result? An increasingly “woke” society that places a high value on social justice and awareness.

But shame is a tricky beast. It has the ability to twist even the most progressive social values into rigid structures for maintaining social order.

Enter woke-shaming.

Defined by blogger Caitlin White in her Medium article “How Woke Became a Weapon,” woke-shaming is “a specific type of public shaming done in the name of social justice, or the practice of calling out those who weigh in on discussions of marginalized groups and participate in movements that target inequalities like racism, sexism, and the nonacceptance of queer/trans identities.”

Essentially, woke-shaming targets anyone who speaks up with good intentions but without enough information. And immediately shutting down these folks can actually backfire.

A counterproductive methodology

As many activist communities have found gathering spaces on the internet (especially social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram), woke-shaming mostly takes place online.

And this makes it nastier. Because screens tend to vaporize our inhibitions, these gathering spaces can quickly become battlegrounds

But it doesn’t really seem to work.

According to psychologist, author and professor Mary Lamia, shame is really only effective in changing behavior when it’s followed up with an opportunity to learn from the mistake.

“If we shame others without giving them an opportunity to learn, we negate its adaptive function,” she said.

When woke-shaming happens online, there’s rarely a follow-up conversation. Without this opportunity for recovery, shamed individuals are left with a small but dangerous armada of defense mechanisms: withdrawal, avoidance and inflicting harm upon themselves and others.

In other words, online woke-shaming achieves the exact opposite of social change. Rather, it creates more scared and angry people hellbent on protecting their own egos.

Let’s start with dialogue

Whereas activism seeks to drive change, shame is inherently unproductive.

“If we are trying to build a movement to save all of us, we need to be able to invoke faith in people who are new, who are learning, and who are willing to grow,” said Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors in an interview with Complex.

“There is a difference between people who are bigots and people who are trying to figure out their way in this. We should have patience.”

Now, this doesn’t mean we need to give the floor to people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Especially for privileged people, it’s important to listen and learn before speaking.

It also doesn’t mean that we should stop shaming racist, bigoted behaviors. Many arguments have been made that public shaming is helpful, and even necessary, in those cases.

However, woke-shaming is most often inflicted not on bigoted enemies, but on uneducated would-be allies. They may be trying and failing, but they are trying.

“I think with the online meanness in exchanges like these, oppressed people can act out trauma on allies who really are just trying to learn and help,” said Alex Ashford, a black author, writer and teacher.

Lamia explains that we can turn shaming into an opportunity for change if we learn to educate rather than ostracize.

“If you want to affect change, you have to institute some mutual effort to reach higher levels of understanding,” she said. “However, it doesn’t begin with offensive language or accusations or assumptions… and I think that’s the bottom line. Don’t attack.”

Breaking a cycle of shame

Lamia believes that a great deal of woke-shaming is part of a greater shame cycle, especially when it’s coming from someone in a marginalized population.

“Woke-shaming can be an unintentional attack response from someone dealing with their own shame or trauma,” she said. “In order to have a more woke society, we need to explore our own shame rather than respond to our own shame by attacking others.”

The key to breaking this cycle of shame is vulnerability and empathy, Lamia said.

She suggests starting by asking a question, like: “I don’t know if you meant to hurt me, (but) you did. Where did that come from in you?”

That’ll provide some insight into their perspective, and they’ll get some insight into yours. Once we are able to understand someone else’s perspective, we are more likely to engage in productive dialogue that actually drives change.

Kelsey Yandura

Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver). Though her first love is fiction (namely sci-fi and anything influenced by folklore), she’s also a big fan of writing about social groups, technology and relationships. Follow her on social media (@kelseyyan) for vaguely humorous tidbits, as well as updates on her creative writing projects.