On not Blaming and Shaming Individuals

This is a version of an address given to the Rebel Rising South East, which took place in Brighton in September 2019. It overlaps fairly extensively with this piece on hypocrisy, but focuses more than that does on Extinction Rebellion’s principle of avoiding blaming and shaming.

Image for post
Image for post

I want to talk about one of Extinction Rebellion’s core principles, a principle that’s going to matter a lot during the rebellion in October. It’s going to make a big difference to how we are perceived by everyone who interacts with us or sees us on the news. So it’s going to make big difference to how successful our rebellion is.

The principle I want to talk about, this important principle, is the principle that we avoid blaming and shaming. More precisely, we avoid blaming and shaming individuals. I want to ask: what does this mean, and why is it one of our core principles?

First, then, what does it mean? Let me start with an anecdote. In April this year, as the police cordon around the pink boat tightened, and it was becoming clear that we were going to lose our control of Oxford Circus, one of my fellow rebels lost his temper. He began haranguing one of the police officers in the cordon. How, he wanted to know, could the police officer live with himself? How could he obey orders to shut down a rebellion that was so obviously justified and necessary? Could he not see that he was complicit in the destruction of the natural world, of humanity’s future? The rebel was almost shouting in the impassive policeman’s face, his anger all the greater for his impotence before the cordon.

I share that rebel’s rage. I feel it myself every day. But I felt sorry for the policeman too. I thought he was in a difficult position. And his professional code of conduct meant that he couldn’t really try to defend himself. So after the rebel had given up and was wandering off, I said to the policeman I was sorry about the haranguing.

But the rebel overheard me, and that made him turn back to give me a piece of his mind too. “How dare you apologise for me”, he said. “You don’t speak for me!” At that moment, in his eyes, I was as bad as the policeman. With a contemptuous glare, he left.

I don’t know how the policeman felt after this exchange. But I don’t imagine he felt great. I don’t imagine he felt like joining forces with the angry rebel and turning on his own colleagues in the cordon. And if you think about what blaming and shaming are, that wouldn’t be surprising.

Blaming is about connecting some bad outcome, a harm or a loss, to a person. You blame somebody for something. Blaming says to the person: you did this — this is your work.

It also says something more. Sometimes, when someone does something that causes harm or loss, we say ‘I don’t blame you’. Maybe they couldn’t help it, maybe they had no choice, or maybe they faced a dilemma so that whatever they did would have had bad consequences. Or maybe they just made an honest mistake. When we say ‘I don’t blame you’, we recognise that even though they caused the bad outcome, that wasn’t a sign of a bad will.

But that means when we do blame someone, we’re saying that what’s happened is a sign of bad will. Blaming says that the person is in the wrong for the harm or loss. Blaming says: you did this, and it was evil or bad or thoughtless or unpleasant or stupid of you do it.

So being blamed does not feel good. Someone who blames you is saying you did something bad, and you were at fault for it. No one wants to be told that.

Shaming is even worse. Feeling shame is about feeling exposed. When you’re ashamed, you want to hide away. You feel as if everyone is looking at you and they don’t like what they see. You feel as if something is wrong with you and it’s glaringly obvious to everyone. You feel as if you have to cover yourself up, as if you are not worthy to be seen.

So shaming someone is making them feel like that, or at least trying to make them feel like that. It’s making someone feel as if they have nothing good to offer, as if they should just get out of everyone’s sight. This is one of the most miserable feelings that a human being can experience.

So being blamed feels bad, and being shamed feels even worse. What the Extinction Rebellion principle tells us is that we should not try to make people feel these ways.

The angry rebel was violating that core Extinction Rebellion principle. We all know that climate change and ecosystem destruction are an accelerating catastrophe. But we rebels do not tell other people that they are individually responsible for that catastrophe. We do not blame them for their meat-eating, or their flying and driving, or their use of plastics, or their fast fashion purchases, or their jobs, even though we know that these things are part of a wider pattern of consumption and action that is a major cause of the catastrophe.

And we do not try to make them feel that these actions reflect basic character flaws, either. We do not try to make them feel unworthy of our time or esteem or friendship or love — even though we feel rage every day as we watch the deadly pattern recur over and over again, in millions and millions of individual actions. We do not try to make them feel unworthy even though many of us would feel unworthy ourselves if we made the same choices. Because that is what it means to stick to the principle of avoiding blame and shame.

But why, you might ask, should we stick to this principle? Is our rage at the unfolding catastrophe not righteous? Why should we not blame people for their part in it, especially when no one can claim ignorance any more? Should people not feel ashamed for their complicity in the destruction of our world, for their knowing sabotage of humanity’s future?

Well, I think the principle is right. I think it is right to avoid blaming and shaming individuals, even though our rage is indeed righteous. What I want to do now is give you three reasons for this.

The first reason is tactical. To blame or shame someone is to put yourself above them — to say that you’re in a position to judge their errors and faults. It’s to say that you have the authority to expose them to public condemnation. So when someone blames or shames you, they treat you like an inferior, as if they were your commanding officer or your parent or manager or teacher.

But we humans hate being treated as inferiors. Unless you have already accepted someone as an authority or superior, then their acting like one will come across to you as a kind of power play, an attempt to bend you to their will. Your natural and almost inevitable reaction will not be to think about whether they’re right or wrong about you and what you have done, but to question their right to judge the matter. You will start to think of them as an opponent or an enemy who is trying to gain illegitimate power over you. And you do not join with your opponents and enemies in their fight. No: you fight them.

So it wouldn’t be surprising, then, if the policeman did not find himself wanting to join the rebellion alongside the angry rebel. I think that in fact the policeman will have felt a closer bond with his colleagues, and less sympathy for Extinction Rebellion, after his encounter with the angry rebel. Not the other way around.

But many other police officers were pleasantly surprised, not to say rather confused, by the respect they were shown by the rebels they arrested. The officers policing the April rebellion were quite possibly expecting rebels to resist arrest aggressively. They might well have expected scuffles. Perhaps they were even prepared to defend themselves against a rioting mob. And aggression and scuffles and riots would have allowed them to avoid thinking about whether Extinction Rebellion’s cause is just or not. But instead, when they found dignified, peaceful, respectful rebels, they had the time and mental space to talk to us, and to reflect on why we were rebelling. And many of them found then that they supported us.

If we rebels blame and shame those who are not yet with us, we make it less likely that they will ever be with us. We close our doors to them, and we open doors to opposition. So blaming and shaming is bad tactics. By contrast, if we are open and respectful and welcoming even to people who are not sure about us, we make it more likely that they will join us, and more likely that we can gain the numbers we need make the critical difference.

That, then, is one reason to believe in the core Extinction Rebellion principle.

Let me turn now to the second reason for not blaming and shaming. Blaming and shaming is not only bad tactics; it is bad strategy too. If we blame and shame, we risk diluting our own energies. We risk losing our own single-minded, strategic focus on the goal of radical, systemic change.

When the angry rebel stormed off, the crowd of rebels surrounding the pink boat lost one of its number in that moment. Anger is distracting. We may be angry, but we are not here to indulge that anger. We are not here to point out the faults of others. We are not here to put people in stocks. We are not here to abase them or to revel in their shame. We are not here to exult in our own righteousness, however righteous we are, however just our cause. We are here to bring about radical change.

Anger is not only distracting; it is also draining. When we sign off our emails, we write ‘love and rage’. And Extinction Rebellion is strong partly because so many of us are rebelling out of love as much as rage. We are rebelling out of a kind of desperate love for the Earth and its inhabitants. We are rebelling out of love for the natural world and its wonders. We are rebelling out of love for seasons and landscapes and rhythms going back beyond memory. We are rebelling out of love for home and family and friendship and community and humanity. This love is a beautiful and sustaining motivation, and it makes us stronger where rage alone would make us weaker. Love keeps you coming back even when you are tired. Love keeps you coming back even when hope is slim. Love keeps you coming back even when it is being ignored. Love makes us powerful and resilient.

So feel the rage, feel it every day. But feel the love too, and let the love be what sustains us through the weeks and months and maybe years of rebellion. That is the only way to ensure that it lasts as long as it must. That is the only way to ensure that it grows.

So now we have two powerful reasons for not blaming and shaming. Blaming and shaming closes hearts and minds that we need to open. And blaming and shaming depletes energy that we must conserve. So blaming and shaming is both tactically and strategically imprudent. That alone speaks powerfully in favour of the core Extinction Rebellion principle.

But there is another reason too — perhaps the most important one of all.

Remember that to blame someone is to connect their choices to a bad outcome, to say that they are responsible for that bad outcome. Remember that to blame someone is to say that their actions reflect a fault in them, that they should have done better. And remember that to shame someone, meanwhile, is to say that they are not good enough, that they are unworthy of others.

But if that is right, then blaming and shaming individuals for their contribution to climate and ecological breakdown is not only a tactical and strategic mistake. It is also a mistake in its own right.

The reason is this. Climate breakdown and ecological destruction are systemic problems. They are bred by our current political and economic system at both the state and global levels. This is a system that encourages plundering the earth and ecosystems. This is a system that incentivises polluting the air and oceans. This is a system that subsidises destruction on a planetary scale.

It does all that because it makes protecting the natural world and humanity’s future the expensive choice for most people. Our political and economic institutions make it very expensive for most people to live a life that isn’t part of the deadly pattern. For one thing, the range of visions and ideals and plans for a good life that it suggests to us is dominated by environmentally compromised options. We are constantly bombarded with messages ingeniously engineered to make us think we don’t have enough. We are bombarded with images of the rich and of the super-rich. But this is not just about advertising and media. It’s also about ordinary norms and and examples and the way these have evolved. Many ordinary hopes and ambitions for a life are shaped by the system to be incompatible with anything but business as usual. Many people are already invested in lives and jobs that depend on business as usual. So millions of people cannot afford to have the standard of life the system promises them and yet avoid contributing in some way to the deadly pattern at the same time. Even when they know that something is deeply wrong with the system, making enough money to live a decent life and sustain families and friendships consumes almost all of most people’s time and energy anyway, leaving them with none to spare to agitate for real change.

Our political and economic systems make it too expensive even for most politicians to change our course — too expensive in electoral, career, and financial terms. If you are a politician, it’s hard to win and keep the power to do any good at all if you are honest about the scale of the unfolding disaster and the costs involved in averting it. Electorates, donors, and colleagues will probably not be supportive. It may well cost you your job.

We have to understand that the choices all these people make within the system are not in themselves the cause of the system, or of its terrible consequences. So it is a mistake to blame them for those consequences. And it is not a character flaw or a vice to be born into such a system and to try to secure a decent standard of living for oneself and one’s family and friends within it. So people are not to be shamed for the lives they live in the system either. Perhaps there are some people who are gratuitously destructive, who really don’t care about the deadly pattern. But most people are not like that. They fly because the train costs too much, or because their loved ones are scattered across the globe, or because their job calls for it. They cannot afford green electricity and solar panels and organic, local food. Even the most committed environmentalists will feel compromised by at least some of their choices, for often there is no realistic alternative. People choose as they do because the costs to them of choosing what’s better are too high.

Like us, then, millions of people know that there is something wrong with the system, and like us, they want it to change. Our task as rebels is to make escaping the deadly pattern easier and cheaper, by bringing about such disruption that business as usual becomes the expensive option for those who can affect it, so that it becomes more expensive than the radical change that’s necessary. It should not be cheaper to fly than to take the train. Fossil fuels should not be cheaper than renewables. No parent should be frightened to let their children cycle to school. No one should have to choose between feeding their family and avoiding food sprayed with bee-killing pesticides. No politician should have to choose between their career and honesty about climate change. Our task as rebels is to make it easy for anyone to join us in bringing all this about, not to alienate them with blame and shame for their efforts to find happiness in a system that betrays us all.

Indeed, by blaming and shaming individuals we become more complicit in the system ourselves. Contemporary liberal capitalism fosters a culture of individualised rather than collectivised responsibility. It says that if you make the right choices — you work hard, you play by the rules, and you spend your money wisely — then you can expect to flourish. By implication, if you’re poor, or unhealthy or unhappy, then you have only yourself to blame. This culture of individual choice and responsibility is a big part of what stabilises the liberal capitalist system. When people are unhappy with the way their lives are going, or when they fear for their children’s future, the culture encourages them to turn inwards, to address the problem at the individual level, rather than by trying to change the system. And that helps to keep the system in place, even when millions living under it are unhappy and afraid.

Of course there’s a lot that’s good about a culture of hard work and responsibility for oneself. But it can make it difficult to see how systemic features play their part, in both the good and the bad outcomes. And by blaming and shaming individuals for their environmentally unfriendly choices, we go along with that very narrative of individual responsibility and competitive individual virtue that helps to keep the system in place. We confirm the guilt that many of them feel already, a guilt that makes them think that they cannot join the rebellion unless they are purer than pure in their private choices. We make them feel as if they will be hypocrites if they join us. We make them feel that they cannot demand system change until they have changed themselves. But the truth is that they can’t change themselves fully — none of us can — without the support of a changed system.

We rebels are, of course, often accused of hypocrisy ourselves. We are accused of hypocrisy when we create congestion or block public transport. We are accused of hypocrisy for driving or flying to protests. We are accused of hypocrisy for using PVC signs or buying coffee in disposable cups. But that accusation, too, belongs to the false narrative of individual responsibility for systemic change. We would be hypocrites if we focused on green consumer choice, and yet bought flights and cars and single-use plastic and air-freighted meat ourselves. But we do not do that. Although many of us do in fact avoid flying and driving and plastic and meat, we do not as rebels preach these things. We do not blame and shame each other or anyone else for private choices within a toxic system. So we are not hypocrites.

We might also be hypocrites if we preached radical change of the system yet were not willing to do anything to resist it. But as the past year has shown, and as October will show again, we are willing to resist. Let us focus on that collective resistance, rather than on individual action. By blaming and shaming we encourage the accusation of hypocrisy, and we encourage people not to join us for fear of being hypocrites themselves. And, worst of all, we distract from the fundamentally collective task of overturning the system and replacing it with one that does not cost the earth. We must not let that happen.

I want to close by telling you a bit more of the story of the angry rebel. After he had stormed off, we all stood there in the unseasonably hot April sun — the police in the cordon, and the crowd of rebels around them. And then, after about twenty minutes, the rebel returned. But this time he showed no anger. On the contrary, he was smiling, and he was carrying a box of choc-ices. He offered them to us all, police officers and rebels alike. Now he was blaming and shaming no longer. He was showing humanity and love to all the people overheating in the slow drama of that afternoon.

The police officer he’d harangued had been moved somewhere else, so I don’t think he will have seen the rebel’s actions. But I think he would have softened if he had. And I think that his colleagues in the cordon were touched by the rebel’s thoughtfulness and generosity to them, as so many police were by so many rebels. I think their hearts will have been opened just a little, and who knows how many of them might have spoken positively about Extinction Rebellion after that, or even donated money or time.

The core Extinction Rebellion principle of avoiding blaming and shaming is right. Blaming and shaming is not only tactically and strategically mistaken. It is morally unjustified in its own right. People trying to find room for decent lives in a corrupt, broken system deserve compassion and encouragement to join us in the hope of overturning that system, not blame and shame. I am so grateful and proud to be part of a movement that believes in this principle, just as I will be grateful and proud to stand alongside my fellow rebels in London next month.

Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wadham College and the University of Oxford, UK.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store