What’s the Use of Green Shame?

Martha Claeys, University of Antwerp

Sustainable world concept.

In Swedish, there is a word for the shame we feel when we choose air travel over more ecological options. The Swedes call it ‘flygskam.’ They also coined the words ‘tågskryt’ (train pride) en ‘smygflyga’ (flying in secret). The question whether we should feel ashamed when making unecological choices is not restricted to Swedish media. But does this shame actually contribute to the greening of society?

Philosophers distinguish between being guilty, feeling guilty, and feeling shame. In the popular debate, these concepts are often used interchangeably. We can feel guilty without being guilty, as happens in survivor’s guilt, for instance. The feeling of guilt concerns a bad act, not the failure of the whole person, as is often argued to be the core of shame. Even when you hurt someone by accident, you can feel guilty. To feel shame, however, you need to believe that the pain you caused says something about you as a person, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues for instance. Social work researcher Brené Brown makes a similar distinction in a viral Ted Talk. Shame is the feeling we get when we act in a way that does not align with the idea that we have of what it means to live a good life. The feeling of guilt has a much more local role to play, and governs our acts, rather than our whole being.  

Shame is the feeling we get when we act in a way that does not align with the idea that we have of what it means to live a good life.

The Swedes speak of flying shame, not flying guilt. The feeling of green guilt would entail that you have acted unsustainably, but the act does not go against your most personal ideals. Green shame goes much deeper: it is the feeling that the choice you made is irreconcilable with your ideas about what it means to live a good life, a life with dignity. Someone who believes upon consideration that harming the planet and its inhabitants is wrong, but hasn’t really integrated this belief in her idea of a good life, might only feel guilt when she acts in ways that cause this harm. Someone who is convinced that a good person should not willingly and knowingly cause this harm, when other options are within reach, feels shame when she does so.

Fitting or not, green shame is alive and kicking. Does this uncomfortable feeling help us move forward, or are opinion makers right in concluding from the risks of individual shame that we are better off without it entirely?

The shame effect

An often-heard argument against shame is that shame does not change behavior. Shame is an emotion that paralyzes, rather than encourage a change in behavior. Why would a simply feeling of guilt not suffice, if the aim is a mere local change in behavior anyway? Here, it is important to distinguish between shaming another and feeling shame as an inner blush. That the act of shaming is reprehensible is convincingly shown by many psychologists and philosophers. Being shamed damages self-esteem, and is positively correlated with violence and regression.

This argument against shame specifically concerns what happens when one is shamed by another. But what if the felt shame is about a genuine feeling of tension between who you wish to be, and what you do? Is such shame not a motivator stronger than guilt? Jennifer Jacquet, professor in environmental studies at NYU, argues that guilt, precisely because it has such a local focus, is more prone to lead to self-comforting but misled consumerism. We tick the box that we wish to compensate our flight by planting several acres of trees, pay an extra carbon fee, or buy a bamboo toothbrush, and the feeling of guilt melts away. It is not that easy to shake off shame. Once you think you have not acted as a good person would, the solution is not to reverse or compensate the emitted pollution, but to critically reflect on yourself as a person, and what it means to live a good life.

Businesswoman standing under the spotlight

The direction of shame

If we look at the history of shame, the emotion has often sent us in the wrong directions. We have felt shame about things that we now think of as morally irrelevant. The British-Ghanese philosopher Anthony Kwame Appiah points out that moral codes can be wrong. People did not used to feel shame about owning slaves, and did feel shame about premarital sex. Even today, girls and women feel shame about menstruation. How can we be sure that flying shame guides us in the right direction?

Some philosophers find shame unreliable across the board for exactly this reason. But I read such examples of misled shame precisely as a reason to scrutinize the moral codes that guide our shame. We should wonder: is sustainability really a goal worth pursuing, or are we wrong? And that question has been amply answered (for example here, here, and recently here).

Efficiency first?

The argument against green shame that is most often used in popular media goes as follows: the impact of individual choices is the wrong focus, since just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all global emissions. Aviation companies make detours around certain countries un purpose, to avoid overflight fees, and thus effectively spend more hours in the air than necessary. To tackle this large-scale pollution, we need structural measures, not individual change.

But why should one strategy exclude the other? It is not because green shame is not the most efficient way to live sustainably, that it cannot also have value. And isn’t this individual urge to change necessary to enforce structural change? There has to be a broad support base for the measures that can eventually restrict these 100 greatest polluters. There needs to be a public demand, and shame makes this demand urgent.

This game of passing on responsibility eventually risks exculpating everyone.

Green responsibility is passed on like a hot potato: whoever says that companies and institutions are the ones to blame for the climate crisis, is met with the response: but what about the individual? And vice versa. This game of passing on responsibility eventually risks exculpating everyone. But holding responsible is precisely the moral attitude we have towards people that we take seriously as moral antagonists. Feeling shame about our own behavior can indicate that we take ourselves seriously. We regard ourselves as people who can do something, instead of mere victims of the structures above our heads. Apart from that, we can of course still hold companies, institutions, and lobby groups accountable. The moral attitude is to regard all involved parties as real antagonists, and to not underestimate their room for moral improvement.    

Martha Claeys is a PhD student at the University of Antwerp (Belgium), where she is affiliated with the Centre for European Philosophy and the Centre for Ethics. She received a B.A. (2015) and M.A. (2016) in philosophy at the University of Antwerp, with a stay abroad at the Free University Berlin (Germany), and she received an M.A. in philosophy (2017) from the University of Chicago (USA). She currently holds a mandate for fundamental research at the FWO.

Martha’s research interests lie in the domains of moral psychology and the philosophy of emotion. In her PhD thesis, she develops a philosophical account of the emotion of pride and its role in a good life. Next to her academic work, Martha hosts and produces the philosophical podcast Kluwen.   

E-mail: martha.claeys@uantwerpen.be

Doing Collaborative Research

Image result for collaborative research

By Kate Pahl

In the previous post Mathew Flinders identified the ways in which collaborative research touches the emotions of academics and places different kinds of demands on them. In our joint article with Milton Brown, Paul Ward and Zanib Rasool (available here) we identified the emotional work of collaboration and the ways in which it touched us personally. Here I reflect on my own academic journey and explore how it helped to work both inside and outside academia.

After leaving university I worked as an adult literacy outreach worker in Hammersmith and Fulham for several years. I also was poetry editor of a journal, Critical Quarterly. These experiences left me with an understanding that knowledge and experience lay in many different quarters. Working for the Hammersmith and Fulham’s Council for Racial Equality, and learning from academics from the Afro -Caribbean Language and Literacy Unit at the then Inner London Education Authority, taught me that language and literacies did not lie in particular domains of practice but were located in everyday practices and ways of knowing. When I encountered the work of David Barton and Mary Hamilton in their seminal book Local Literacies (1998) which was about literacy practices in communities, this made sense to me.

Soon after finishing my doctorate, I moved to the University of Sheffield to work in the School of Education. I continued to be interested in working in communities. I worked in Rotherham, on a number of projects mostly funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme (www.connected-communities.org.uk).  I was funded by the AHRC to do a small project that explored everyday stories and objects in the homes of British Asian communities.

I then worked on an evaluation of a literacy initiative in Rotherham where I encountered Zanib Rasool, and I remember the feeling of recognition I had when I met her. Both of us had been community development workers in the mid 1980s. We shared the same passion for books and reading.  I realised that her understandings mirrored my own. Sometimes, being in a university can feel quite lonely, as it is an institution that values individualism and does not sometimes support co-production across different domains of practice.

In my work I have been lucky enough to collaborative with people who understood this. Working on the ESRC funded Imagine (http://www.imaginecommunity.org.uk ) a project with Paul Ward, Milton Brown and Zanib Rasool, as well as colleagues such as Angie Hart and Sarah Banks, expanded my horizons and enabled me to understand the ways in which histories and cultures shape and are shaped by everyday social practice.

Collaborative research rests on trust, relationship building and hospitality. It sometimes involves giving up cherished disciplinary roots and learning new ideas. I have never forgotten sitting in Kirklees Local TV hearing Milton’s account of critical race theory. I have learned from Paul Ward about the need for local history to reflect diverse communities and cultures. I have been lucky in that co-production has been a mode of learning and listening for me.

I am currently exploring the potential of collaborative interdisciplinary research in two projects. One, ‘Odd: Feeling Different in the world of education’ (https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/esri/odd-project ) is exploring, with children, their feelings about school, its strangeness and the ways in which the school day can or cannot feel different to normal. Through film making and reciprocal analysis (Campbell and Lassiter 2010) we are feeling our way into what it is like to feel different in school. All of us feel different in some way – how is that?

Su Corcoran and I are exploring the potential of arts methods working with street-connected and refugee young people in Kenya, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, and in this work the collaborations guide and shape the work we do (link to: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/esri/research/projects/kenya-uganda-drc/#d.en.104859 ).

I have written about the process of co-production with Elizabeth Campbell, Elizabeth Pente and Zanib Rasool in a collaborative book about Rotherham (https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/re-imagining-contested-communities  ) and also explored co-production as a community development approach with Sarah Banks, Angie Hart and Paul Ward (: https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/co-producing-research ). In these books we explored the way sin which co-production itself could become a craft, a skill, that people could learn with and in the process of doing and making together.

Co-production is a relational process; it is built on trust. It recognises that university knowledge is partial and that the knowing we do is only a tiny piece of the knowledge that is gathered in the world. I was lucky enough to be involved in the Common Cause project ( https://www.commoncauseresearch.com/) and through this project we have begun to map the ways in which universities can work equitably with communities, particularly Black and Ethnic minority communities, that tend to be under-represented in universities. I think we are only just beginning that journey.

Kate Pahl is Professor of Arts and Literacy at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her forthcoming book, Living Literacies with Jennifer Rowsell, together with Diane Collier, Steve Pool, Zanib Rasool and Terry Trzecak, is being published by MIT press in 2020.


Editor’s Choice

Emotions seem increasingly to mark political movements and discourse. Anger, fear and sadness have, to varying degrees, been implicated in the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump, on the one hand, and the persistence of Black Lives Matter and the impact of the Me Too movement, on the other. A philosophical tradition that stretches from Plato to Martha Nussbaum has urged us to keep negative emotions like anger and jealousy out of politics, and to instead nurture positive ones, like love and compassion. Yet, that must be confounding to minorities, the poor and other marginalized groups, whose political claims frequently originate in negative emotions and take the form of emotional expressions. Indeed, their marginalization and attendant suffering has been exacerbated by processes, such as medicalization, which prompt individuals to think of their anger, fear and other painful emotions as personal problems to be dealt with in the medical or some other ostensibly apolitical sphere. But not everyone believes negative emotions must be kept out of politics. Some feminists have long defended the political value of anger. And, more recently, such thinkers as Judith Butler and Deborah Gould have highlighted the politically empowering and constructive role that other negative emotions can play as well. Moreover, a series of methodological discussions on the importance of affect have brought the role of emotions in research into sharp focus. But whether these newer perspectives can survive the popular trend of blaming our contemporary political problems on passions like anger and fear remains to be seen.

This Editor’s Choice contains three pieces on the place of emotions in politics and means of harnessing those emotions methodologically and politically from the first two issues of volume 10. First, from 10:1 Graham Crow outlines a number of complications in advancing methods grounded in affect, in his ‘Collaborative research and the emotions of overstatement: four cautionary tales but no funeral’. Matt Flinders provides a substantive reply to Crow in ‘Collaborative Research and the Emotions of Overstatement’, arguing that the emotional implications of collaboration with non-academic partners and the value of that work needs much more fully to be understood and, often, appreciated. Finally, from 10:2-3, Karen Adkins‘ ‘“We will march side by side and demand a bigger table’: Anger as dignity claim’ deploys recent feminist perspectives on anger in politics to explain why Martha Nussbaum gets anger wrong. In the process, Adkins explores a range of practical issues, from mansplaining to rape victim impact statements, which will be of interest to a wide range of academic audiences.

In Defence of Collaborative Research: Emotions, Engagement and Existence

Matthew Flinders @politicalspike

The simple fact is that deep, embedded, collaborative research whereby researchers work hand-in-hand with community participants in order to reveal new perspectives and to curate new forms of knowledge is inevitably risky, messy and to some extent even defiant.

Defiant in the sense that collaborative research rarely fits within traditional disciplinary or methodological silos, it demands a huge up-front investment in time and energy in order to forge high-trust relationships with community groups, and the outputs are very often too rich, fluid and varied to fit within conventional academic norms and audit frameworks. And yet the beauty of collaborative research is that it is defiant: it retains a sense of independent criticality that challenges the passive professionalism of the social sciences while also seeking to undertake research not ‘on’ local communities but ‘with’ local communities. In a contemporary context that is almost defined by division, distrust and polarisation my sense is that the ability of collaborative methods to get under the skin of social discord would place it at the forefront of methodological discussions and questions of social relevance.

…the beauty of collaborative research is that it is defiant: it retains a sense of independent criticality that challenges the passive professionalism of the social sciences…

I was therefore surprised to read Graham Crow’s extended critique of collaborative scholarship. Crow argues that arguments for collaborative research are often overstated and sought to warn those who would adopt this position by offering ‘four cautionary tales’ about (1) paying insufficient attention to history, (2) conflating ‘different’ with ‘better’, (3) over-simplifying social complexity and (4) ‘courting conflict’.

The problem, however, is that Crow is not actually concerned with dissecting the pros and cons of collaborative research per se but is actually focused largely upon a critique of one specific and exceptional research programme. As such, Crow (paradoxically) falls into the trap of his own making by overstating the extent to which collaborative scholars have sought to make the case for methodological supremacy in quite the manner he suggests. As such, the ‘four cautionary tales’ that Crow offers would not only be widely accepted as valid by the vast majority of collaborative scholars but are also of generic relevance across the full spectrum of social scientific methods. To seek to place such ‘tales’ so explicitly at the door of collaborative scholars is therefore arguably unfair or, at best, to make a curious case that remains largely unproven.

Possibly the most instructive element of Crow’s article for early career researchers is the manner in which it reveals that, no matter how carefully constructed, strawmen (whether of the theoretical, empirical or common farmyard variety) are generally relatively easy to knock-down.

What Crow’s focus on ‘four cautionary tales of overstatement’ does provide, however, is a platform on which to build a far more robust set of arguments about the link between emotions and methods and about how this relationship is changing in ways that have implications for both the focus and nature of research and research careers. Far from focusing on the link between collaborative research and over-statement could it actually be that a set of fundamental issues have been under-stated and therefore deserve to be foregrounded as part of the ‘conversation’ Crow seeks to initiate?

Four potential tales of under-statement spring to mind and can for the sake of simplicity be set out as: (1) the danger beyond, (2) the danger of going against, (3) the danger within, and (4) the danger of being between.

The danger beyond focusing on the emergence of fearful societies and the significance of emotional intelligence. The core point being made, however, is that – notwithstanding the work of scholars including Sara Ahmed, Ernst Bloch, Martha Nussbaum, Raia Provhovnik, Paul Hoggett and Emma Hutchinson – the role of emotions and particularly why feelings matter and how they affect political attitudes and political behaviour in a context defined by the emergence of anti-political sentiment and populism remains under-studied, under-acknowledged and ultimately under-stated. This case has been powerfully made by Laura Jenkins (2018) but the link back into Crow’s thesis about collaborative scholarship, and particularly the debate concerning ‘different is different’ as opposed to ‘different is better’, is that an argument can be made that collaborative approaches provide specific value in terms of identifying and understanding the emotional dynamics of communities.

Just like politicians who refuse to inflame the public expectations risk not being elected so too do researchers who adopt a more modest approach risk not being funded.

The second ‘tale of under-statement’ revolves around a topic that Crow does actually raise, albeit in a slightly oblique manner: the emotions of the expectations trap, or what I label ‘the danger of going against’. The argument here is very simple: as the pressures and expectations placed on academics increases and as the available research funding decreases (or, in some cases, increases but with increasing strings) so too does the pressure on researchers to over-inflate what their proposed research will deliver increases. This danger is therefore about the risk of over-promising but then under-delivering and the pathological impacts such a pattern of behaviour might produce. Just like politicians who refuse to inflame the public expectations risk not being elected so too do researchers who adopt a more modest approach risk not being funded. This is the ‘expectations trap’ and it is one that all scholars whatever their methodological persuasion must learn to navigate. The twist, however, is that collaborative methods do by their very nature bring with them and additional but rarely acknowledged challenge for researchers due to the manner in which they must persuade external actors (communities, charities, communities, service providers, etc.) to actually collaborate with them in the first place, and then to sustain that engagement. In this context ‘the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device to make the case’, as Crow suggests, could be significant in terms of creating a sense of belief or value in a research project.

And yet this focus on the ‘expectations trap’ actually flows into a very different but related dimension which I label the danger within and that focuses on the emotional dynamics of modern life. The ‘decline of donnish dominion’ – to paraphrase the title of A. H. Halsey’s 1995 book on the British academic professions in the twentieth century – is a well-worn and possibly over-stated narrative but what is arguably under-stated is the impact that increasing professional pressures are having on the mental health and wellbeing of academics. A recent research project found that 43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder (i.e. nearly twice the prevalence of mental disorders compared with the general population). A 2017 RAND report – ‘Understanding Mental Health in a Research Environment’ – also found that higher education staff reported worse mental wellbeing than those in other types of employment but also found that academics were generally reluctant to disclose or discuss their mental health challenges to employers (with only around six per cent of academics disclosing a mental health condition to their employer). Liz Morrish’s 2019 report describes and epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff. (As an academic with a history of mental health challenges I feel well-placed to call for greater attention to be paid to this topic.)

What is it, however, that might make arguments about mental health and well-being of particular significance within debates concerning collaborative research and emotions? The answer brings us back full-circle and to my initial statement that thick, immersive and embedded community-based initiatives are inevitably risky, messy and to some extent even defiant. Such methods are not for the faint-hearted or those that seek to ‘play it safe’ in a professional sense, and the danger is therefore of somehow existing ‘between’ designated professional spheres as neither wholly one or the other. Coping with ambiguity is exhausting but rarely has the link between emotional labour and collaborative research been explicitly stated, let along explored.

Coping with ambiguity is exhausting but rarely has the link between emotional labour and collaborative research been explicitly stated, let along explored.

What I mean by this is that collaborative scholars often exist not as ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ but somewhere in the intersection or nexus between academe and society. This reflects both their belief in the capacity of social science and their commitment to supporting social change. The risk, however, is that by adopting this position they exist as neither-one-nor-the-other, in the sense of not being a ‘mainstream’ academic but also not being a ‘conventional’ social campaigner or activist. Existing between these spheres is arguably akin to operating in a professional hinterland and a fairly lonely place and maybe this is the ‘cautionary tale’ that really needs to be told more often.

Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also President of the Political Studies Association of the UK and a member of the Economic and Social Research Council.                                                                                                                                                                                                         @politicalspike