On public shaming and the expected utility thereof

Via Eric Crampton we discover this post by Timothy Burke:

It’s long and difficult to do justice with an excerpt, so I’ll quote this teaser and hope that it’ll motivate you to click through:

I heard just a small bit of a story on NPR this morning about “crunch time” in family life, where working parents feel the pressure of getting their kids fed with a decent meal, finished with homework, and to sleep at a reasonable hour, and how exercise and play both tend to fall out of the picture many days.

The segment I heard featured a woman who talked about how she cried when she saw the NPR solicitation for the story on Facebook and another mother who talked about how she didn’t think this is what family life was all about. And then the experts came on and said, “Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do” (in terms of making sure kids get enough exercise and eat well to avoid obesity) and concluded that what we really need to do is figure out why so few people do what they know they’re supposed to do.

In brief and incomplete terms: Burke laments the contemporary nanny discourse in which the Experts blame horrible social phenomena like kids playing too many hours of videogames on “noncompliance”, and then chide the noncompliant — and encourage others to do so as well — for being “a burden on the system”:

If you want an explanation of the meanness of 21st Century American public discourse, for the fractures in the body politic, this will do as a starting place. “Get that guy to wear his helmet, because otherwise he’s going to cost you money.” “Get that woman to lose weight, because otherwise she’s going to cost you money.” “Hassle that couple because their kid plays too many video games and might slightly underperform in school and not make the contribution to net productivity that we are expecting of him.”

We are offered a thousand reasons to complain of other people’s behavior (and to excoriate and loath our own) on the grounds that it will cost us too much. That we should talk about what is good and bad, right and wrong, mostly in terms of the selfish consequences, or at best, in terms of the kind of closeted idea of a collective interest that neoliberalism dare not directly speak of–sort of the nation, sort of the economy, sort of the community, but really none of those directly or clearly.

Now, Dr. Crampton has done an excellent job of phrasing the post in terms of the brilliant diversity of personal utility functions, and if I haven’t persuaded you by now that you should go read Burke’s excellent post in full I’m simply not able to do so.  But I can add one more very speculative wrinkle from the perspective of a glib dilettante physiology nerd.

Burke offers this rebuttal to the idea that we ought to go around shaming each other into what the experts tell us is good behaviour:

“Stop costing me money” in a society that also protects the autonomy of individual choice is a perverse and counterproductive angle of approach: it makes me want to do more of whatever that is up until I’m not allowed to any longer. It is, ultimately, the voice of the Boss, and at least for now, we can still say, most of the time, that the experts and the government and the human resource specialists and the doctors are not the Boss of Me. Small wonder that many policy wonks and technocratic experts flirt so relentlessly with prohibition and restriction as the big stick behind the soft talk.

I’ll offer another: By constantly policing each other, by constantly monitoring our behaviour for and censoring our discourse against anything that might invite expert-mandated criticism from others, we turn ourselves and others into tightly-wound highly-strung chronic stress machines.  This leads to chronic systemic inflammation with nonzero probability, and chronic systemic inflammation is, if not the root of all evil, certainly a top-level directory (and probably a big one, like /usr).  Any cost-benefit analysis of nannyism that doesn’t take into account the health effects of this sort of pervasive stressor, and its downstream pathologia, is incomplete at best.

2 Responses to “On public shaming and the expected utility thereof”

  1. March 4, 2013 at 12:35

    I’d add a tweak to your theory. The tail of the distribution for whom the advice is most needed is also the tail most likely simply to switch off from any of the advice – it’s too shrill, and the dire warnings of doom contrast too sharply with lived experience. It’s the group in the middle – the ones who are already basically doing fine and are paranoid about whether they’re doing enough – who’ll get the stress hit you’re talking about.

    Just talk to any middle-class pregnant woman. How much stress and awfulness does she put herself through for little-to-no benefit to the fetus? A glass of wine every other day does zero harm and may do good. Nobody talks about it for fear of encouraging the lower tail to go and drink a jug of whisky while pregnant. Meanwhile, the conscientious types freak themselves out.

  2. 2 perlhaqr
    March 5, 2013 at 10:43

    Ta da! Crazy anti-government anarchocapitalist man back here!

    And part of the reason it’s so hard to cook good meals, etc, that this entire “crunch time” exists, is because as a society we’ve made it nearly impossible to live on one income.

    Yes folks, that’s right, I can blame just about anything on the government… ;)

    Also, it doesn’t matter what other people do, or how much their choices cost, if other people aren’t forced by the government to pay for it.

    I don’t have to give a flying fuck if you smoke 3 packs and drink a quart of whiskey to wash down your dozen eggs and 2 pounds of bacon every day, if when you get cancer in your lipid system, I’m not financially on the hook for it.

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