Ridicule & Shaming: Taking Us Further away from a Healthy, Civil Society

Ridicule and shaming are indicators of social disfunction in our society. How did we get here? How did we become a society of people who tolerate and participate in this kind of behaviour? My childhood was chalk full of shaming. It was a consistent aspect of the social atmosphere of both the Catholic school and church experience for me in my early years. Ridicule was also common in my social experience at home and at school from not only siblings and classmates but also teachers and other adults. I guess it’s not surprising that children who are influenced in this way sometimes end up either considering it to be normal or behaving this way themselves, but this influence goes so much further back than that. This is a form of bullying and it’s an ancestral legacy that we are perpetuating but we definitely have an opportunity to end it.  If we choose to do so, it will take awareness, intention and conviction.

How do we form awareness, intention and conviction? We do so through discovering the harm these behaviours cause and the benefits that come from changing them. Part of seeing the harm is to understand how/when this began in our lives, under what circumstances, and how it impacted us. This helps us to get a glimpse of how it may be playing out in our lives today. Once we see this, we form a better understanding of these social dynamics, and with this also comes the innumerable possibilities that could be played out in these scenarios in the absence of this behaviour and its inevitable reactions/repercussions.

My son attended a school that had a very good reputation and had wonderful teachers, but when he began to experience bullying, somehow, things fell apart. In this school, like so many others, there were many posters lining the walls that made statements indicating that the school does not tolerate bullying. There were also days designated as campaign days against this behaviour. On these days, the students were meant to wear certain coloured t-shirts to support this anti-bullying sentiment. Yet, when I called my son’s teacher about the bullying and suggested that we all get together and talk about it – with the kids and their parents – to try to understand what was happening and why, it was not something that was the done thing apparently. This surprised me. The teacher was honest about the reasons – related to her workload – and I know that this is very real that teachers put in a lot of hours both at school and at home. However, it left me with the understanding that this bullying was not going to be addressed. The teacher agreed to keep her eye out and I let my son know this but I knew that this was not a good message to send to him – after all – bullying like this rarely happens in the presence of a teacher, which is why it needs to be reported. What was my son learning through this experience? There was a complete contradiction between the message of the posters and his lived experience. Despite the posters and campaigns, the actual event itself was not considered important enough to make time to discuss and yet his grades were of great importance. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual experience in this world.

When I attended elementary school, bullying was common among both students and teachers, but if the bullying got really bad, teachers at times did bring the students involved ‘to the office’ to discuss it, which was intimidating. There was almost always shaming involved in trying to resolve the matter. Both parents and teachers shamed the child who was doing the bullying to illicit an obligatory apology.  This of course made the child who did the bullying (clearly in need of help) feel even worse and more likely to want to take it out on the child who had been bullied (or themselves – probably both). The child or children who had been bullied were further distressed by all of this and all children involved were learning that this is the way to address/resolve these issues. It was no solution and a clear indication of the social disfunction of the time. Today, in this example with my son, there wasn’t even a discussion, and this is at a time when we are apparently more socially aware of this kind of problem (bullying) and of wellness issues than ever before.

The upshot of this is that, in these meetings of my childhood that were meant to resolve these issues, we really never got to the point where we undersood what was motivating the bullying. We didn’t get to that point, because there wasn’t an open and warm atmosphere within which to do this. Instead, there was more intimidation and bullying (shaming) which only perpetuates this behaviour.  This happens in a subtle way, in adult circles as well. It’s an old inner reaction of defensiveness or learned behaviour that is sparked or ‘triggered’ by something we experience. Then we witness and participate in scenarios where many reactions are played out without ever really getting to the root of the matter because we’re allowing these reactions to dominate the situation rather than leaving room for us to explore inner motivations and to express them outwardly. There are hostile social signals and cues that indicate it’s not safe to do so. Only the most determined and courageous individuals, under these circumstances, manage to tap into and express authentic responses in these situations. This is a powerful thing when it happens and I believe it’s what is changing this world today, little by little, but with immense impact. It has this impact because it changes the tone and possibilities of these situations immediately and that is a wonderful thing to witness and experience. What comes out of these experiences helps us all learn about ourselves and each other and can bring us closer. It gives us all a different kind of behaviour to model and inspires us to explore these possibilities moving forward.

Today we speak of mental health and wellness and I think it’s important to understand what it means to be well so that we may identify ill health, socially, in this regard. When we talk about mental health these days, thankfully, emotional health is often implied but why isn’t it openly stated and demonstrated? I think we’re really in our infancy in understanding what it truly means to be well and this definitely involves everyday behaviour and the way that society functions or disfunctions. I mean, it does function but does that function serve us well and create wellness? Is that what we mean by functioning well? If our body functions well, does that mean that we are well? Are we only bodies in this world?

Unfortunately, I think most systems, institutions and organizations have been set up based on this premise: that we are bodies and brains. It is only recently that emotional abuse has been acknowledged. Now that we acknowledge that this is a concern, let’s try to understand and identify it in our midst. When someone is ridiculed, what is the motivation behind it? Is it habit? It’s more common than we realize and I think all of us can understand and appreciate the reality of social habits. These are strong characteristics of the social dynamic. We become accustomed to the behaviour of those around us and adopt much of it; sometimes, without even being aware of it. This is how mindfulness, or awareness, can play a strong role in making positive social change.

If we took time before reacting in many situations and thought about it or examined our feelings, we probably wouldn’t behave as we sometimes do. When we ridicule others, we shut them down and aren’t really creating that space to understand or appreciate other people’s unique perspective or situation. We are narrowing our social understanding rather than expanding it. Not only is this a form of subtle bullying, which diminishes others, it also reduces the possibilities that may exist in expanding our own intellectual, emotional and social horizons. The more we expand in this way, in understanding or empathizing with others, the more compassion we have in general – for ourselves and for others. When we shut down others by ridiculing them, we create an understanding within ourselves that if we have an opinion or idea, that may be ridiculed by others, it’s not safe to explore it or express it. Imagine how many potentially important ideas get shut down in this way. This is not a progressive or beneficial atmosphere to exist in – inside or out. This is how we know that the way we behave towards others, impacts us as well.

Our current understanding of health and wellness is expanding to include an emotional state of wellbeing. We know that our emotional wellbeing profoundly effects our physical wellbeing. Look up the ACEs study to see the truth of this laid out in a compelling way. Adverse (harmful) early childhood events impact our health for life. That is, unless we actively begin to discover them, heal and change. How many of us, including teachers and leaders in our society, have had some kind of adverse early childhood event that is still unacknowledged and unhealed? Not only do these early experiences ultimately impact our health, in terms of the likelihood of us contracting certain kinds of health conditions in the long term, it also affects our behaviour, which in turn impacts others and makes up our social environment.

In our society, ridicule and shaming is not uncommon.  Our daily political and social world is full of examples of ridicule and shaming which leads so many to follow suit without thinking. It has been normalized. If this is a common element of the social realm of those who lead society, what can we expect of society on the whole in terms of wellbeing? Is this what we want our children to model? We discourage children from bullying, and yet, if they witness us shaming or ridiculing others, we are sending the message that we can say and promote the idea that certain behaviour is not acceptable – bullying in it’s many forms – but it’s ok to continue to behave this way. This contradiction of professed values and behaviour, also becomes normalized. Perhaps it’s time to do the work of dismantling this for all of our sakes. It’s time to be courageous enough, to start to change this and it does take work. It also takes patience and compassion, for ourselves and others. Compassion, patience and openness are powerful tools to use to evolve.

Think of the many people in history who were initially ridiculed (and some imprisoned) for suggesting things like ‘the world is round’ or that the Earth revolves around the sun or the simple fact that for physicians and others, washing hands can save lives. Progress has been thwarted time and again due to the practice of ridiculing which fuelled the widespread rejection of these ideas for so much longer than they would have been if instead they were responded to with open curiosity or at the very least, tolerance. For the love of our children, for the love of ourselves, this world and to create a better atmosphere, inner and outer, let’s consider taking a more open and gentle approach to responding to one another and a more considered approach to evaluating our own reactions.