Is Shame Necessary?
is my first book, so I am far from having earned the right to discuss writing a book in general. But I can say something about what it was like to write this book specifically. The main struggle was to keep momentum in the text, which, as for any book, seemed to fall to either plot, force of personality, or argument (or some combination).
It might be obvious from the title that my focus was argument. People who felt guilty about large-scale issues like climate change and other forms of environmental degradation, animal cruelty, and unfair wages have been misled into engaging with their guilt primarily as consumers (leading to the rise of eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and fair-trade products). However, individual purchases often wind up being minor compared to what is needed (organic foods, for instance, only represent four percent of the U.S. food market).
In contrast to guilt, shaming can lead to relatively quick, lasting, large-scale reform because it can work on groups and institutions, and is therefore a better stopgap on the way to regulation. One of the many examples of shaming's success is Greenpeace's campaign against Trader Joe's (which used real-life demonstrations, newspaper ads, and social media to expose "Traitor Joe's" for selling unsustainable seafood). Trader Joe's seafood sustainability score increased from a 2 (out of 10) in 2008 to a score of 7 in 2014 — and the chain jumped from 15th to now 4th place, on the list of 26 national retailers. Despite shaming's checkered reputation, certain problems can benefit from its careful and considered deployment.
Sub-arguments, which I would make less often or forcefully, included that: 1) most people should care about shaming punishments because people now have the power to use them and everyone has the possibility of becoming their victim; 2) certain features of a problem, a transgressor, an audience, as well as the act of shaming itself make shaming more or less effective; and 3) even though the most ideal outcome to shaming is changing the behavior to suit the group, there are many other possible results, many of which are less than desirable.
In addition to knowing what I wanted to argue, it was important to note what I had decided to avoid. I did not want to rehash the bleak ecological situation, or spend too much time on the differences between shame and guilt as emotions, since there are already good books that do both. Is Shame Necessary? was never positioned as an extended discussion about potentially devastating effects of personal shame, which are important, but not always related to shame as a tool or punishment. Instead, I was interested in empirical studies of the effects of shaming during doctor's visits, on smoking, and on voting behavior. I was interested in the way shaming had been used by social movements against groups, and by the weak against the strong.
Once I finally had a draft of the arguments, it became important to test them. I state the overly obvious when I say this is the point when you turn to highly opinionated and trustworthy people (perhaps who owe you a favor, or who want you to owe them a favor). My colleague Paul Smaldino detected several weak points. Here's one instance, in response to a statement that shaming was a zero sum game: "I am going to fight you on this one. Attention is a zero sum game, because when we give attention to one thing, we take it away from anything else. Shaming is less clearly a zero sum game – who are the players, and what are the payoffs? I think it's better to say that attention is zero sum, and note that shaming requires the attention of the audience." I agreed (thanks, Paul).
Others were there to provide tenderness and moral support. To a point I had to clarify over email, a friend (and the book's illustrator) responded: "Unless you plan on sending an email to each person that reads the book (all 12) (including your parents) (my parents will skim it) (Eli will fall asleep) (Kulla will tear it in half with her bare hands (hardcover version)), you should make this clear in your writing, in as few words as possible. Without a million anecdotes, quotations and parables."
The most surprising part of the process was the waste. I wound up deleting entire chapters I had spent months researching (one examining the first possible norms in human society was a particularly difficult departure). Another way to shorten text is through tight line editing, and getting rid of adverbs is a common start (Elmore Leonard referred to adverbs that modify "said" as "a mortal sin"). A smart writer gave me the practical tip of querying just "ly" to assist the process of adverb eradication.
I often enjoyed the challenge of writing and rewriting and repositioning text, but I also sometimes referred to the book with the same expressions I used when describing the mission of Americans for Prosperity or having to go to IKEA. In the end, I kept less than 50 percent of my first draft (recall that a 50 percent success rate in the average undergraduate course translates to an "F"), and have been told this is normal. Severe editing can be a good thing despite how bad it feels — like, in some cases, shame itself.