A Shame

To my way of thinking, it’s just plain good manners to avoid insulting people. No one should intentionally embarrass or ridicule another person. To do so would be rude and ill-mannered.

But what about drawing attention to destructive behavior in the hope of influencing people to change it? I don’t mean singling out individuals to criticize, but rather to criticize the behavior generally, even though doing so might cause those engaged in the behavior to feel offended. Is that bad manners?

When I was a boy it seemed that nearly all grown-ups smoked. Smoking was the social norm. There certainly was no social stigma attached to smoking. The newscasters on TV smoked, on the air. It was just something people did.

But as the evidence about the dangers of smoking came to light, things began to change. As the health consequences of smoking became known, smoking suddenly wasn’t so cool anymore. And as the danger of “second-hand smoke” became known, smokers found themselves increasingly isolated in society.

What was the effect of the public awareness of the dangers of smoking? Millions of lives saved.

tobacco consumption

These days it is difficult to criticize destructive behavior without being accused of “shaming” people. But our commendable desire to protect people from ridicule and meanness, can have the effect of silencing criticism of destructive behavior–in order to avoid being accused of “shaming.”

It can be a delicate situation. My book has generated some push-back already, on the grounds that by identifying consequences of destructive food choices, I might be “shaming” those who make those choices.

I’ve tried to handle sensitive issues with appropriate sensitivity. As I say in the book:

Given how broadly our society has now been infected by the consequences of poor food choices and the power of the industrial food complex, recovering the Wesleyan ethic will not be easy. We must remain mindful that criticism of the system and its effects may be perceived as criticism of those who are suffering from those effects. If the Wesleyan ethic is to be recovered, therefore, let it be introduced gently and lovingly. Let it be used to inform, guide and bless people; not to shame, ridicule or condemn them. Millions of people have been lured gradually and unsuspectingly into an unethical and health-destroying food culture. We cannot reasonably expect them to be drawn out of it overnight. But while a sincere desire to avoid producing shame or guilt in those who are suffering the consequences of poor food choice should inform our discussion, it must not silence it. There is too much at stake.

I’m absolutely convinced that we cannot let our desire to avoid giving offense silence us on these vitally urgent issues, and I refuse to believe that we cannot have a frank conversation about destructive food choices without being guilty of “shaming” people.

What if our concern to avoid shaming smokers had silenced the anti-smoking movement? How many lives would have been needlessly ruined and cut short?

It’s not an easy path to navigate, but we simply must find a way to have this conversation, both without intentionally giving offense and without accusing those who seek to bring attention to destructive food choices of having bad manners.

We all have the opportunity to do a lot of good by making better food choices. It would be a shame not to.