In Praise of Shameless Political Debate

Harold Pollack and I have both written about feeling fatigued by “fauxrage”, the political tactic of trying to shut down a conversation or individual by ginning up self-righteous anger about how offended one is by a putative slight (Harold gives the pluperfect example: Senator Al D’Amato’s fake tears in reaction to an insult by Bob Abrams during a brutal re-election campaign).

I am becoming increasing weary with a variant of fauxrage, namely calculated pronouncements of “shame on you!”. It seems to have caught on more on the left than the right, which is odd because the people who do it sound like morally scolding Catholic Bishops in the 1950s.

In my local newspaper I see an open letter to the city council: “Shame on you for not supporting high-speed rail”. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Clinton said “Shame on you, Barack Obama” for criticizing her health care plan. Policy and politics-oriented websites attract “Shame on you” comments when for example the blogger has — brace yourself — expressed an opinion with which the commenter disagrees or even simply discussed a subject that the commenter feels is a needless distraction from the central issues of the day (those would be the issues that the commenter considers important, of course).

I am comfortable with “Shame on you!” admonishments when someone has violated a clear moral/ethical guideline. If a Congressman robs the church poor box and spends the money at a strip club, by all means let’s as a community denounce his turpitude. But shaming declarations are increasingly being used for something far more self-serving: As a sanctimonious way of muzzling legitimate political debate with which one is uncomfortable.

None of this to deny that there are historical examples of shaming being a useful tactic to bring down an extremely horrific public policy (e.g., slavery). But when shame is invoked with comparable fervor to protest, well, every public policy, any beneficial impact of the tactic evaporates.

Those doing the shaming might say “The political stances I oppose are clearly immoral in all cases — every thing I am against is equal to slavery and should be shamed!”. If that’s you, please get over yourself post-haste. Assuming that you are not a deity in your spare time, your political opinions are not immutable moral principles handed down over the centuries that everyone else should be ashamed to oppose. And while you might believe that repeatedly calling down shame on your opponents is a compelling argument, in most cases it actually makes you look like a prig.

Opposing high-speed rail isn’t shameful; neither is supporting it. Ditto Obamacare, prayer in schools, Keynesian fiscal stimulus, automotive emission standards, the earned income tax credit, Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley and Smoot-Hawley. Healthy democracy requires open debate about these and other public policies, not the attempted shaming into silence of holders of all but one’s own viewpoint.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.