The Fallacy of Shame

You are educated and politically aware. You check your social media accounts several times  a day. You “keep score” by unconsciously tallying the number of headlines that reinforce your political views. You see a headline calling out those you disagree with for being inconsistent or hypocritical. In your mental tally, this counts as a “win”. It makes you feel that the enemy has suffered some form of defeat.

The trouble is that your enemy couldn’t care less.

This is a common scenario: A politician makes a statement critical of the opposition, and some commentator points out that the politician is criticizing behavior they’ve indulged in themselves. This makes the reader feel good because there’s an unspoken assumption that the politician, having been identified as a hypocrite, will feel shame and walk back their statement or modify their behavior in some other way. This is based on the idea that politicians will feel shame if their integrity is called into question. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

Politicians may feel shame, but not because they get caught in lies, or accused of unethical behavior, or even implicated in illegal activities. Politicians really only feel ashamed of one thing: losing.

Most politicians are incredibly competitive people. Why else would you subject yourself to the grueling ordeal of political campaigns, the endless grind of fundraising, and the interminable meetings with colleagues? They go through all that because it’s the only way to win, and winning is the most important thing in their lives.

Every politician talks about moral principles. The specific flavor of morality changes depending on the constituency the politician needs to win over. Winning over conservatives usually entails appealing to some combination of nationalism, free-market economics, and traditionalist religiosity. Liberals respond better to messages valuing inclusiveness, fairness, and compassion. In any case, the politician makes those appeals because they are shown to work. If at any time a different appeal seems likely to be more effective, most politicians will adopt it.

Moral principles are just another weapon in the politician’s arsenal. They don’t guide political strategy, and they certainly don’t act as a behavioral restraint on the politician’s actions. Accordingly, expecting a politician to modify their behavior out of shame when they appear to violate their supposed principles is deeply foolish.

Next time you see a social media post decrying a politician’s hypocrisy, ask yourself, “What impact will this post have this politician’s behavior?” If the answer is something other than “none at all”, you should go away and think again. If you want to impact a politician’s behavior, threaten their ability to win their next campaign. That will get their attention nice and quick.



Donald and Mitchell went wandering through the halls of the big house, touring the rooms and talking about redecorating. They were followed by Andrea, who was frantically tapping out notes on her phone as Donald announced the changes he wanted.

‘First, we do something about all these boring, boring cream walls,’ declared Donald, making his famous double-pinch gesture. ‘Gold wallpaper with black pinstripes would look tremendous, just tremendous.’

Mitchell smiled his lipless, chinless smile, and nodded slowly, his beady eyes peeing over the top of his glasses. ‘Sure, Donald’, he replied in a reassuring tone, ‘I’d be surprised if we can’t do that.’

‘These paintings are very, very bad’, waving at portraits of Kennedy and Lincoln. ‘We need something more energetic and classy. Everyone thinks Rossetti is great.’ Behind them, Andrea made a quick note to look up Rossetti, having never heard of the Pre-Raphaelites.

‘Oh, absolutely, Donald,’ agreed Mitchell, who knew Rossetti, but secretly preferred N.C. Wyeth. He glanced back at Andrea, knowingly.

‘Then I think we need a sign outside the House. Something bold with lots of stainless steel. We want everyone to know who lives here now.’ Donald was really warming to the task. ‘A lot of people are saying it needs more gold trim.’

‘Well, I think that’s interesting,’ Mitchell crooned, raising the part of his face that should have contained a chin. ‘I’m sure no one will mind.’

‘We’re going to have the best looking house. You won’t believe the plans I have for this place. You don’t even know how many great plans I have. People are going to come from everywhere to see this house.’ Donald was hyperventilating a little now, pulling air in through his nose with a series of short, noisy sniffs.

Andrea looked up in concern, wondering if she should offer Donald a tissue or call a medic or something. Mitchell look back at her, baring his tiny teeth. Andrea was alarmed until she realized it was meant to be a smile.

‘It sounds very impressive, Donald. I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t go ahead with it.’ Mitchell put his hand on Donald’s shoulder, earning a stern look of disapproval from the taller man. The glared at each other in silent confrontation, jowls quivering with unspoken tension. Then Mitchel broke the awkward moment by recalling, ‘Oh, don’t you have that meeting with the Mike and the judges?’

‘Yes, I do’, Donald responded with a little twitch, as if waking from an unpleasant dream. ‘They won’t believe how great that meeting will be, absolutely the biggest, best meeting.’

‘Good, good, Well, I’d better let you go, then.’ Mitchell showed his teeth again for a moment, and Donald turned abruptly and stalked down the hallway, glowering at the wainscoting.

Once Donald had turned the corner, Mitchell took Andrea’s phone to examine her notes. With surprising quickness, he went through Donald’s list of ideas and summarily deleted all but one them. He handed the phone back to a stunned Andrea and turned to leave.

‘He can have one Rossetti.’, Mitchell told her, showing neither teeth or kindness, and left her in the empty house.

Mechanisms of Inaction

Photo Credit: Petr Pavlicek/IAEA, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License

(Taking a break from cryptic fiction fragments to try organize some troubling thoughts.)

Lots of us are frustrated now with the many failures of our government. We see multiple crises looming, any one of which will cause massive upheaval and destruction if left unchecked. We see evidence piled to the ceiling that climate change is happening. We are reminded daily that police and intelligence forces are more inclined to control and contain, not protect and serve, the public. We are increasingly aware that a wealthy oligarchy has taken command of our economy, our media, and our government.

We see these threats, and we know that scientists and expert observers see them too. We feel the rising concern and anger in our communities as the inadequacies of our current system become clearer. We even hear government spokespeople pay lip service to these problems and suggest possible solutions.

But then come the difficult questions: “When?” and “How?”. That’s when the taps are open wide and the endless stream of sidestepping and excuse-making starts pouring down our throats.

“How?” is a simple question to avoid. The trick is, you don’t offer a single plan for solving a problem. You offer three, or five, or ten, and let their proponents fight it out among themselves. Because people who run for office are commonly alpha predators, they’re more than willing to vie aggressively for their little piece of policy turf. Believers in this form of ‘debate’ state confidently that out of this competitive squabbling, the best policy will surely emerge, like the hungriest shark at a feeding frenzy. Problem is, the sharks are all really good at escaping each other’s teeth, and the frenzy becomes an interminable slow-motion dance of avoidance.

“When?” is pretty easily dismissed too. It was once understood that outside of election season, politicians could find common ground on certain issues and agree on concrete action. But because of the nature of the contemporary election cycle, politicians no longer have that time of productive truce. They must be at each other’s throats at all times to avoid “looking weak”, which in past times was viewed as “behaving like an adult”.

The current dynamic, at best, results in weak and temporary solutions to most problems. At worst, it exacerbates problems by creating a false sense that a solution has already been implemented, like the way painting over cracks in plaster allows us to ignore them until they come back bigger and more unstable. Sooner rather than later, probably, chunks of ceiling are going to start coming down around our heads.

These are well-known weaknesses of our political system, but the will to repair them is not present. In fact, the current state of things is preferable to many to a process that fosters rapid, significant change. One might reasonably ask why anyone would find that desirable. I’ll address “Why?” in the next post.