Today Minnesota will become the twelfth state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to remove discrimination against lesbian and gay people from its marriage laws. Just last year, it was the first state in the nation to defeat a ballot initiative that would have amended its constitution to ban marriage between same-sex couples — by 51.2% of the vote. This turnaround is truly remarkable, and from an activist perspective, it illustrates how useful embarrassment can be as a tool for social change.
To be sure, decades of difficult work made this moment possible — including grassroots organizing work, legislative coalition building work and electoral work. But we can’t discount the hard work that spanned more than one generation fighting to take pride in identity, people coming out of the closet — often at significant personal cost — to say, I’m gay and I’m proud, and others standing beside them and saying, and why should we not embrace that?
Ultimately, all of this work together has made it embarrassing to support legal bigotry on the basis of sexual orientation unless you are part of the extremely extreme extremist right wing. For those who are not, it is embarrassing to be associated with those folks. As it should be.
Across movements, greater acceptance and inclusion at a societal level are the underpinnings of progress to protect civil and human rights legislatively. Often the link between societal desire and legislative progress is tenuous (reference the recent failure of a background check expansion for gun purchases, which had the support of 91% of the population and failed in the U.S. Senate), because legislators are more often beholden to donors spending big money to support the status quo. So they tend to move slower.
What this means, as activists, is that embarrassment is a tool we shouldn’t turn our backs on as a motivator for social change. Minnesota, as a state, was rightfully embarrassed by the right-wing push last year to ban same-sex marriage; the law changed. Senators who voted against gun background checks should rightfully be embarrased for acting so far outside the will of the people; there are signs we may get a new vote. Anti-abortion rights extremists who call me a baby killer should rightfully be embarrassed when I remind them I am so pregnant I can hardly see my feet; and a few have apologized when they realize that. This is as it should be. Embarrassment works.
That said, I want to draw a clear line between embarrassment, which I define here as public consternation around one person’s actions or views inasmuch as they hinder the dignity, rights and/or worth of others, and shaming, which I define here as public consternation around one person’s actions or views affecting only themselves. For instance, attacking the weight of Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) is not embarrassment as a sound strategy to effect social change (if you want to get him out of office, stick to his policies), it’s public fat shaming that reifies bad societal ideas that one’s body is an appropriate forum for public comment and intervention. The bottom line is that embarrassment and shaming are different tactics, and one is ethical while the other is not.
People should be embarrassed when their intolerance is showing. At times, they can be embarrassed into change. Public embarrassment is one tool activists shouldn’t be afraid to employ.