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How Blame Stops Change

Shame scares people away. Whether it be in a religious context, interpersonal relationships, or some other setting when people feel shame, they tend to react aversively. 


In a 2015 study, psychologists Myungsuh Lim and Yoon Yang found that “shame was significantly related to burnout as a psychological response.” If someone is shamed about a behavior or a belief, they often simply hide that part of themselves.


But our society desperately needs effective methods for change — not simply hiding our differences. We need to implement solutions to racism, classism, environmental decay, and challenges due to materialism. We don’t want people to be shameless in the sense that they resist accountability, but we don’t want to have to shame people to inspire change, since research shows it is not effective enough to lead to true transformation. 


Even when we are not actively shaming people for their beliefs, sometimes a person will find themselves feeling ashamed anyway. For example, suppose I am having a conversation with a wealthy white friend about environmental justice and how it disproportionately affects low-income black and brown people, this friend might feel shame about their inaction and ignorance of the issue. Suppose I try to make them feel ashamed, rather than simply calling out an issue. In that case, this friend is probably more likely to walk away from the conversation fixated on the fact that I was shaming them rather than walking away from the conversation thinking about how they can contribute to the solution. The feeling of shame is not necessarily useless, but the act of actively shaming people is unhelpful. 


However, suppose our conversation was one  about how they can better contribute to the establishment of environmental justice. In that case, my friend has a higher chance of attributing their feeling of shame to a need to actually change their actions and use their privilege to improve the situation as best they can rather being caught up in the feelings they have associated with the way the message was delivered. If shame isn’t a useful tool for raising awareness, we should probably toss it aside and replace it with something more effective. 


So, what would the more effective tool be? The Baha’i writings list education as one of the most critical solutions for humanity’s challenges. Education is a broad term; many of us think of formal settings where children are taught academic skills like mathematics, language arts, history, and science. While this area of education is undoubtedly essential, the Baha’i writings describe a need for moral and spiritual education. 


Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the founder and prophet of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, wrote that “the pathway of life is the road which leads to divine knowledge and attainment. Without training and guidance the soul could never progress beyond the conditions of its lower nature, which is ignorant and defective.” Only a spiritual education can help us advance beyond our ignorance and our defects.


As we share our knowledge, we might still accidentally fall into shaming people for their behaviors or beliefs. The Baha’i writings suggest cultivating attitudes that help support healthy and productive understanding. 


One of these attitudes is tact. Baha’u’llah wrote“Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it.” He also wrote“Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.” 


Sometimes, our example can be more powerful than words, and it’s often wise to wait until a time when an honest conversation free of shame or judgment can be had.

And when the time for that conversation comes, the Universal House of Justice, the elected international governing body of the Baha’i Faith, quoted different excerpts from the Baha’i Writings to offer some clear guidelines for navigating profound, challenging topics: 


Love and harmony, purity of motive, humility and lowliness amongst the friends, patience and long-suffering in difficulties — these inform the attitude with which they proceed “with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views”, each using “perfect liberty” both in so doing and in “unveiling the proof of his demonstration”. “If another contradicts him, he must not become excited because if there be no investigation or verification of questions and matters, the agreeable view will not be discovered neither understood.” “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.”


Like most tendencies and habits of communication, moving from shame to humble communication and holistic education will require patience and persistence, but it’s a path leading to true harmony and understanding in society.

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