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Shunning is mostly performative and the left has usually opposed it

Growing up in an Anabaptist community, I occasionally found myself in the middle of debates over the politics of shunning. For those who are unfamiliar, shunning is an old practice shaming and exclusion based on a few lines written by the Apostle Paul:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (I Corinthians 5:9-11)
In practice, this could have some pretty dramatic consequences. While the basic rules of shunning are fairly narrow - don't eat with the person, don't do business with them, don't accept anything from them, etcetera - and sporadically observed, the ostracization that it legitimizes could effectively shut the target out of social life and turn them into a pariah. Justifying all of this, of course, was an elaborate apparatus of theology that few outside of the Amish church would find compelling.

In addition to theological justifications, however, the community also developed various pragmatic rationales that the modern liberal-left will find familiar. "By shunning [the offender] in all social relations," Hostetler writes, "the community gives him a status that minimizes the threat to other members of the community." The Dordrecht Confession of Faith, a central text of the Radical Reformation, advocates shunning so that the offender "may be made ashamed, be affected in his ways." In other words, shunning was supposed to have two practical consequences: 1) to engineer wokeness in the community, and 2) to shame the offender into rehabilitating.


Both of these rationales emerge time and time again in modern liberal-left advocacy for shaming and ostracization as tools of social engineering and personal discipline. And yet strangely enough, anyone at all familiar with the standard left critiques of shunning should have rejected both long ago.

To take the second point first, there is little reason to believe that shunning actually has any kind of rehabilitative effect on its target, and considerable reason to believe that it can actually amplify the problem. Delaney notes that "the effects on the shunned person can be devastating...[and] akin to psychological torture." Tanaka notes research on shunning that
indicates a severe distortion of the self image, for example, 'I am a type of person that everyone hates'...This long-term effect suggests a huge impact on one's identity...[it] has a strong impingement on emotional development, which as Kahn points out is the essence of cumulative trauma. 
Tanaka goes on to add that as a defense mechanism, the target of shunning may "develop a victim's identity...[that] may fix and solidify further their negative identity." This should be an all-to-familiar experience for anyone who has tried to shame an offender, only to watch them double-down and embrace the attack. The point here is not to argue that shunning is simply mean - it's to point out that it's often directly counterproductive in terms of its supposed goal. Instead of rehabilitating the offender, it can just as easily harden the offender and give him a powerful psychological / emotional stake in continuing his behavior. As Massaro observes,
Psychological accounts of shame suggest that the behavioral consequences of this emotion are unpredictable, and may include anger and a desire to retaliate against the one inflicting the shame. The shaming advocates' relative indifference to these concerns suggests that they likely are not particularly concerned with rehabilitating the offender.
Massaro adds that this unpredictability also comes into play regarding rationale (1) - that we should shun people as an exercise in social engineering:
Both the psychological and the anthropological works indicate that the general deterrence and expressive effects of shame measures are likely to be highly contextual and unpredictable...shame penalties often will have multiple potential meanings, depending on the communities to which these expressions are directed, and thus will have an uncertain impact on the targeted audience's behavior. 
Again, this just confirms experiences that everyone is already familiar with. Efforts to shun someone may effectively remove them from discourse and community and attach a social taboo against their behavior - but it is just as likely to do the exact opposite. Frequent readers will probably recognize in this line of criticism frequent skepticism about discourse gaming. The implicit theory behind rationale (1) is that instead of reasoning with people, and persuading them to avoid certain types of behavior, we tactically use all kinds of psychological tactics, like shaming, to manipulate them into behaving appropriately. Say what you will about the ethics of this approach, but as a matter of basic pragmatism there's no compelling reason to believe that it actually works.


The psychology and sociology on shunning and its efficacy are all fairly straightforward - and yet, particularly among the liberal-left, the tactic is still fairly popular as a way to mediate social conflict. A few theories on why we're actually still trying this:

  • Often, we just adopt shunning as a default measure when other efforts don't seem to be working: "Historians and criminologists have noted the extent to which shaming and shunning sanctions emerge from the public's frustration with conventional punishment options," Miller writes.  
  • As Posner writes in Laws and Social Norms, shunning is often just an exercise in self-interested performance. People participate in exercises like shaming "to show each other that they are cooperative types" and because doing so "serves as an opportunity for everyone to signal his reliability...the chief motive for shaming is to enhance reputation, not to do justice."
  • Often, I get the sense that liberals in particular are operating on an essentially capitalistic, marketplace-of-ideas model of socialization where we can essentially boycott and blacklist problematic people out of business. Here, behavior is commodified as a product that we can either patronize or shut out of the market by manipulating demand, which means that sociopolitical relationships can be simplified into a kind of consumer activism.
  • Historically, as suggested above, shunning was often a decisively religious procedure, couched in all kinds of metaphysical beliefs about purity and holiness. Instead of shunning people in order to achieve politically or socially productive ends, one is simply honoring a deontological commandment; there is, that is to say, no theory of social or personal harm at stake if we don't shun people, just some rule that it's what you should do.
Needless to say, none of these motives are particularly compelling, particularly from a left-liberal perspective interested in substantive sociopolitical progress. Without laying out the case for it here, my personal position on the topic is that the best way to deal with people engaged in deviant or problematic behavior is often to present them with arguments on why they should change it. Often, it can also help to establish the kind of good-faith relationship with them where they see you as a constructive critic rather than an adversary - this is really just psychology 101. This sort of relationship isn't always possible, of course, but it's exceedingly rare that anything resembling constructive interpersonal influence appears without it.

UPDATE: Readers from Twitter will have recognized that this piece was written amid a controversy over a Lebanese man who tweeted a violent threat to an American woman. Specifically, however, I wrote it in response to a particular argument, floated by Daniel Sieradski, that one should not follow this user for the specific reason that doing so "confers legitimacy on him".

It seems obvious to me that one can criticize that narrow argument without dictating broader conclusions about the controversy at hand. One can for instance say that a Twitter follow does not confer legitimacy, but that we should nevertheless shun out of solidarity with victims, in order to make them feel welcomed and safe and so on. That's a justification, grounded in personal support for and empathy with the oppressed, that is entirely distinct from Sieradski's elaborate scheme of using shunning as a mechanism for social-engineering legitimacy and illegitimacy norms.

In an effort to focus my argument on that narrow point and disentangle it from broader conclusions, this piece avoids reference to the Twitter controversy entirely. I also rely on the example of the Amish community, not simply because it gives background into my own experience with the issue, but also because it largely avoids the considerations of solidarity that emerge when shunning involves a victim. My focus here is simply on the social engineering argument, for reasons that any frequent reader will immediately recognize: I have a longstanding interest with liberal-left ventures in discourse-gaming / social-engineering and am generally skeptical of their efficacy, a point I've written about at length on multiple occasions.

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of feedback I've received on this article has been positive, coming from readers (a majority of them women, incidentally) who recognize this narrow concern. Nevertheless, a few readers (almost all of them men, by the way) have read into this piece dispositive conclusions about the Twitter controversy and independent claims about solidarity. This reading has little to do with anything I've actually written here, for reasons given.