Shame and Medicine Exeter
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On Shame, Empathy, and COVID-19 vaccinations

We have all likely felt shame during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps you felt ashamed of not being “productive enough” while working at home. Perhaps you felt shame when you got sick with COVID-19 and then infected a loved one. Perhaps you felt shame for being the only person in your family to get vaccinated. Perhaps you even thought others should feel shame because, for example, they refuse to get vaccinated.

We have all also likely felt empathy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps you felt empathy for those—like grocery store employees and healthcare workers—who continued going to work in person. Perhaps you felt empathy for those juggling work from home with their children doing school from home too. Perhaps you felt empathy for those who chose not to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons.

In my research, I explore the relationship between shame and empathy through a feminist phenomenological perspective, as well as through a COVID-19 vaccination case study. My interest in this topic started when the US government announced it would support a proposal to waive patent protections for the COVID-19 vaccine. Naomi Klein, a Canadian-American political activist and author, tweeted the following in response: “Organizing works. Activism works. Shaming works. #PeoplesVaccine” (3:07pm EST, May 5, 2021). Next, Brené Brown, a popular American social work academic and author, tweeted in reply to Klein: “There are numerous studying [sic] confirming that shaming does NOT work and that empathy and listening to concerns actually has the highest conversion vaccination rates. Shame is a tool of oppression – it will never be a tool for social justice (or public health).” (3:57pm EST, May 5, 2021). A debate followed in the replies to both tweets, with many clarifying to Brown that she misunderstood Klein’s original tweet: Klein was not writing about shaming individuals who are vaccine hesitant, but rather shaming a government who fails to put public and global health above private profits. Regardless of this misunderstanding, Brown and her supporters doubled down on their stance that shame does not “work” in any context and is not justified for any reason, regardless of whether it is directed at individuals or institutions.

This Twitter thread prompted me to ask: does shame ever work? And if so, what is this “work”? Is empathy really a better alternative? Does empathy even work, and if so, what is this “work”? To begin answering these questions, I first turned to feminist phenomenology to better understand what shame and empathy are, and especially what their relationship is to each other. To do so, I drew upon Luna Dolezal and Sarah Ahmed’s feminist phenomenology in their respective books The Body and Shame (2016) and Strange Encounters (2000), as well as Ahmed’s feminist affect theory in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004).

Through their work, I found that shame and empathy are more alike than one would expect. The shamed self takes in the view of real or imagined others’ feelings, judgements, and experiences, re-shaping themselves through the lens of that other. Similarly, the empathizing self takes in the view of real or imagined others’ feelings, judgements, and experiences (or at the very least tries to) and re-shapes themselves through the lens of that other.

Dolezal argues that shame “is a double-edged force; it contains the potential for individual and social transformation, while also containing the potential for world-shattering personal and social devastation.” Ahmed similarly argues that “shame is a political action, which is not yet finished, as it depends on how it gets ‘taken up’. Shame, in other words, does not require responsible action, but it also does not [necessarily] prevent it.” That is, shame, as a politically unfinished act, has the potential for progressive transformation of oppressive devastation or even just something milder in-between. Through the case study of COVID-19 vaccinations, I explore how the double-edged work of shame depends on whether it is levied towards individuals or institutions, while also exploring how empathy too has this double-edged potential.

When we view shame and empathy as working in opposition, we maintain the illusion that empathy is only “good” and shame is only “bad,” thus missing the “double-edged” potential for both to be transformative or oppressive at the individual or institutional levels. If, as Dolezal writes, shame is really about visibility (“When one experiences shame, one is seen (by oneself or others) to be doing something untoward or inappropriate”) then when one experiences shame, one is not just seen (by oneself or others) to do something untoward or inappropriate, but to actually be something untoward or inappropriate.

To see an individual who is not vaccinated as being untoward, even morally inferior, is a very different thing than making visible an institution or system as such. In this way, one can imagine, or have experienced, how shame can actually prevent responsible action by alienating individuals, triggering defensiveness, and ultimately pushing individuals further from ever getting vaccinated. In contrast, shaming an institution, like the U.S. government, as per Naomi Klein’s argument, can make visible its role in global vaccine inequity, and this heightened visibility through shame incited the government to be politically responsible and responsive. Shame thus is not so simply “bad.”

With regards to empathy, attention to the individual versus institutional also matters. An example is empathizing with, for example, Indigenous peoples who are vaccine hesitant by recognizing that such hesitancy may justifiably be a symptom of mistrusting a healthcare system that continues to systematically harm them. In this way, empathy seems to indeed be a tool working towards social justice, as Brené Brown contends. And yet, this empathy also risks objectifying Indigenous peoples as victimized others who cannot act otherwise to their oppressed positions. The data in Canada shows that Indigenous people below 60 have higher vaccination rates than non-Indigenous people, and the rates above 60 are nearly equal. Empathy thus doesn’t always work in the “good” way it was intended to.

Ultimately, my goal has been to demonstrate how shame and empathy philosophically and practically work in more complex, vexed, and even contradictory ways than they are typically considered. And I think attending to such complexity is necessary if we are to work towards effectively levying affects like shame and empathy towards justice.


Maryam Golafshani, University of Toronto


Photo by Guido Hofmann on Unsplash

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