I don’t use twitter, but I occasionally come across news stories discussing tweets that shame someone for not being politically correct.  How should we think about those tweets?  In principle, shaming should serve a valuable public function—discouraging offensive comments and behavior.  But shaming non-PC speech does not seem to be effective.  Why?

The straightforward interpretation of shaming is that the tweets are punishment for various racist and misogynist comments.  That might be true, but it doesn’t seem to fit the facts very well.  The actual racists and sexists among us are not damaged by the shaming tweets intended to punish them.  In contrast, the people who are damaged are generally not racist or sexist.  Shaming doesn’t hurt Donald Trump or Steve Bannon at all; indeed Bannon insists on wearing the “racist” label as a badge of honor in front of his adoring crowds.  Instead, these sorts of attacks tend to adversely affect people who are not bigoted, someone like Larry Summers.  Those who intentionally make racist or misogynist statements do so precisely because the public shaming will not hurt them.

Now consider the high school model of twitter shaming.  Recall that the cool kids in high school would create a set of rules that were impossible for the uncool kids to adhere to.  When the uncool kids fell short, they were ridiculed.  Isn’t that today’s twitterverse?

Suppose that you want to make sure your group is composed of only those with a high level of political correctness.  One method is to create rules that are so extreme that most people will not be able to keep up.  Thus Katy Perry did not know that dressing up like a geisha is insulting to the Japanese.  Why not?  Well, because Katy Perry dressing up like a geisha is not in fact insulting to the Japanese.  Indeed the Japanese were honored by her performance.  How could it be otherwise, as “cosplay” is a big part of Japanese culture?  If you make political correctness this detached from reality, it’s hard for anyone but the most committed to keep up.

The same dynamic occurred during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where the Red Guards made increasingly extreme demands for ideological purity.  In fact, this technique goes far back in history.  A new book by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson has this anecdote from ancient China:

Zhao Gao was a powerful man hungry for more power.  One day he brought a deer to a meeting with the emperor and many top officials, calling the deer a “great horse”. The emperor, who regarded Zhao Gao as a teacher and therefore trusted him completely, agreed that it was a horse—and many officials agreed as well.  Others, however, remained silent or objected.  This was how Zhao Gao flushed out his enemies.  Soon after, he murdered all the officials who refused to call the deer a horse.

[At least Jeff Flake wasn’t murdered!]

Even people far to the left of Larry Summers can be ensnared in the web.  During the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders got into trouble for saying that “all lives matter”.  For someone of his (1960s) generation, it’s not obvious why this statement is offensive.  After all, don’t all lives matter?  The whole point of PCism is to make things so confusing that only the insiders, the cool kids, avoid shaming. Sanders didn’t realize that saying all lives matter would be seen as an implied criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement (as it sometimes is, but not in Sander’s case). Bernie Sanders was once considered cool, but I predict his age, gender and race will eventually catch up with him, and he’ll be exchanged for someone who is not an old white male.  In 2019, being cool is no longer about standing up for blue collar workers that largely vote for Trump.

Suppose I’m wrong, and that twitter shaming really is about punishing offensive statements.  Let’s consider the most offensive statement in the mainstream media during the past year.  Here’s my vote, from Bloomberg:

A figure of 15 million births would be the third-lowest total since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, He Yafu, one of the demographers cited by China Times, told Bloomberg News. It would only exceed 1960 and 1961, when the country was hit by natural disasters and famine.

As Bob Dole might have said, “Where’s the outrage.”  The Great Leap Forward of 1959-61 was one of the two or three worst crimes in human history.  And unlike the others, it occurred during my lifetime.  Perhaps 30 million died from the cruel policies imposed by Mao, and countless others enduring unspeakable pain, even as Mao was warned that his actions were having disastrous consequences.   Is there anything more offensive than implying this crime was a “natural disaster”?

The problem here is that shaming for ignorance of the Great Leap Forward is nowhere near as effective as shaming for saying that “all lives matter”, or for dressing up like a geisha, if your goal is to ostracize people who have insufficiently extreme views on race, sex and gender.

One popular form of shaming is to criticize statements that are not directly offensive, in a logical sense, but seem tone deaf.  The people likely to make these sorts of statements are often the exact same types who were viewed as “nerdy” in high school. Ironically, some of their oppressors are also former nerds, finally getting their chance to retaliate for all the misery they suffered in school.

PS.  I should say that the ideas in this post were partly inspired by the Simler/Hanson book on hidden motives.  But they should not be blamed (or shamed) if I’ve misused their theories.

PPS.  Please don’t tell me that the Bloomberg quote said natural disasters and famine.  I know that, but what does that phrase clearly imply to most readers?  A natural disaster that led to famine.



14 Responses to “Shaming”

  1. Gravatar of Tom M Tom M
    11. January 2019 at 09:04

    Great post, would definitely like to see more of your thoughts on PCism in general.

  2. Gravatar of stoneybatter stoneybatter
    11. January 2019 at 09:32

    Scott, how do you rate the Simler and Hanson book? That anecdote is certainly interesting. Is the book worth reading?

  3. Gravatar of CMOT CMOT
    11. January 2019 at 09:56

    Putting it in modern terms: Chairman Mao lifted a billion people out of poverty by doing this one simple thing – he died.

  4. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    11. January 2019 at 10:19

    Shaming and PC are forms of communication by which people determine in which group a human being belongs to: in one’s own ideological group or in another?

    I think that explains most examples you have given, if not all.

  5. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover) H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover)
    11. January 2019 at 14:08

    Feel free to wear kimono,I say

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. January 2019 at 14:31

    Thanks Tom.

    Stoneybatter, It’s an excellent book, as is Caplan’s newest. They have some similarities, including being well written.

    CMOT, And not a moment too soon.

    Thanks Wasshoi. I wore a traditional Japanese robe when I stayed at several “ryokans” last spring.

  7. Gravatar of Kgaard Kgaard
    11. January 2019 at 19:32

    Scott you sound almost reactionary here. The “point deer make horse” story is employed by hardcore reactionaries to describe exactly the phenomenon you describe: The left makes adherence to blatant non-truth a sort of litmus test to see who is loyal to the cause. Those who do not agree with the absurdity of the day are thus easy to brand as evil and are purged. (James Damore, for example.)

    The proper response to those who use shaming as a debating tactic is to never apologize. Shaming is not an argument. It is a control tactic fit for 12-year-old girls and nothing more. When someone attempts to control you by shaming, what they are admitting is that they don’t HAVE an argument and are not fit to participate in the political commons. They are admitting they should not have the right to vote.

    Isn’t that really where this has to go? We are led by reason or by shaming. It’s one or the other.

  8. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    11. January 2019 at 21:34

    Sanders would have been a pretty good candidate (for the Democrats) precisely because he’s an old white male. The Democrats got the youth, females, and minorities in their bag anyhow, what they lack is white males.

    As is well known, Sanders was also more popular amongst young people than Hillary. You don’t give a convincing reason why this would change. A candidate like AOC would be a horrible for the Democrats, luckily for them, she is too young to have a real chance at the nomination.

    Sanders’ campaign tactics were superior to Hillary’s precisely because he didn’t jump through every hoop dangled in front of him. His answer to Black Lives Matter was suprisingly smart and very consistent with his brand. He also smelled that the silly focus on idenitiy politics would only hurt the Democrats.

    Hillary had no real consistency and credibility. When there was a hoop from the left or the media, she usually jumped right through it, always firmly convinced that this would help her win the elections. Instead she dug her own grave.

  9. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    11. January 2019 at 22:01

    Is there anything more offensive than implying this crime was a “natural disaster”?

    Uh… it was. When does it make sense to criticize a state for having suboptimal policies? India had more deaths than China over the 1960s. Nobody cares.

  10. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    11. January 2019 at 22:05

    indeed Bannon insists on wearing the “racist” label as a badge of honor in front of his adoring crowds.

    This is a lie, Sumner, and you know it. Sadly, Bannon has zero awareness of the inclining significance of race. Bannon, like Steve King, is thoroughly boring, more interested in preserving Israel’s borders than America’s, unlike more interesting figures like Richard Spencer and Brad Griffin.

  11. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    12. January 2019 at 08:08


    Your comments reflect naivete at best. There are people who will not be persuaded by debate, no matter how wrong or destructive they are. Hence, the need for the application of consequences.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. January 2019 at 10:12

    Kgaard, That story made me think of Trump and the Congressional GOP. Privately they almost all have contempt for Trump. Publicly they praise his idiotic comments.

    Harding, Have you ever heard of Google?

    “Let them call you racists,” Bannon said. “Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

    And the GLF was a natural disaster? Okay . . . .

  13. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    12. January 2019 at 11:39

    And the GLF was a natural disaster? Okay . . .

    Much of the country was beset by natural disasters during 1960. Before Mao, China was known as a “land of famine”, the poorest country on Earth, where famine was always somewhere at all times. Now maybe the Chiang Kai-shek leadership would have done better had it won the war (it was already starting on capitalist developmentalist policies during the 1930s and performed very well at executing them during the 1960s), but Mao’s China compares favorably relative to License Raj India in nearly all respects (which it didn’t before Mao came to power). You still didn’t address the point that India had more deaths during the 1960s than China did.

    Look at the whole context of Bannon’s statements regarding race and racism throughout the 2016-18 period. He is a sad figure, only slightly more sensible than Trump (who just proposed a pathway to citizenship for H1B neosemites).

  14. Gravatar of myb6 myb6
    15. January 2019 at 15:33

    +1 on “Scott sounding reactionary”. The social drift resulting from a subset constantly pushing the boundary in order to status-preen over those a little behind is often referred to as a “holiness spiral”.

    The deer story phenomenon, specifically, has been memed up by the internet as “There are Four Lights!” pulled from Star Trek’s great episode “Chain of Command”, itself an homage to 1984.

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