I read over the weekend that the government’s school inspection body OFSTED – doubtless with the hearty support of our bizarre Minister for Schools, Michael Gove – intends to “name and shame” failing schools – specifically those who encourage students to take “easier” subjects at GCSE. There isn't anything new in this “naming and shaming” policy - successive governments have used it as a threat/punishment/whip with which to beat those involved in public services.
I also read the ongoing tale of the Italian ship’s captain Francesco Schettino who allegedly sailed his ship onto the rocks off the coast of Italy – and then to add to his shame and misery allegedly saved his own skin by leaving the ship before his passengers. In doing so he incurred the wrath of the world’s tabloid press and clearly was “shamed”- and has been mockingly given the name “Captain Coward“ by the popular press.
|Captain Schettino - the mob|
says he is a coward - but
do they know how they might
behave in similar circumstances?
It all got me thinking about this “shaming” thing.
I remember when I was about 10 – in the mid 1950s – there was a great “to do” in the street where I lived. The street was a humble place of tiny terraced houses – workers cottages common in Lancashire mill towns. The people who lived there were, like my parents, humble, perhaps even poor, folk. The family next door had two daughters – both in their late teens - and one night their mother came into our house to have a talk with my mother. There was much whispering behind closed doors. There was a lot of crying from the kitchen where they sat with cups of tea. I pressed my ten year old ear to the kitchen door to try to catch the tit bits of conversation! It slowly leaked out that one of the daughters (she was about 19) – was “expecting” and not married (we didn’t use such words as “pregnant” in those days! I’m sure that if I had said “Is Stella pregnant?” I would have been told to go and wash my mouth out with soap – but “Is Stella expecting?” would have been ignored and unanswered but acceptable!). Mrs Dean, the mother, was mortified, ashamed, that her daughter should bring this unforgivable thing upon their respectable family. Slowly, of course, the news leaked out to the wider street, there was much whispered talk, veiled looks and comments as the daughter in question walked down the street. A wedding was hurriedly arranged and very slowly the whole thing blew over – but, Mr & Mrs Dean, I remember, seemed to age over night and for me, as a youngster, this event seemed, at the time, to be the most terrible thing that could happen to a family. The family had been shamed – and apart from anything else they were shamed because they knew that everyone else in the street would be looking at them critically and judging them badly. What I learned was that shaming only works if the people being shamed subscribe to the same values as those that point the accusatory finger. If Mr & Mrs Dean had not subscribed to the same values as the rest of the street about unmarried pregnancies and all that they implied at the time; if they had simply laughed it off and got on with their life; if they had simply allowed their daughter to have the baby and for it to be welcomed into the home as the child of a single parent – and proudly shown their new grand-child off to the neighbours (as would undoubtedly happen today) - then they would presumably have felt no shame. They would simply have ignored the conventions and mores of their society and got on with their life.
|Yep, - having experienced OFSTED it can|
sometimes feel like this!
To go back to the examples in the press that I mentioned above. Presumably, OFSTED, in announcing that they are going to “name and shame” these failing schools, hope and desire that the teachers, governors etc. of these schools will be sufficiently mortified at being held up to ridicule that they will mend their ways. Speaking as an ex-teacher, my experience suggests that this will probably be the case. The vast majority of teachers with whom I have worked are conscientious, hard working and anxious to do a good job – often in the face of quite insurmountable problems. In my experience teachers are largely conventional, they subscribe to the sort of conservative values current in society, they pay their bills and taxes, they are overwhelmingly honest, they generally encourage the children that they teach to be kind, considerate, honest, industrious and the like and as a consequence of this outlook on life they will be shamed and feel upset, angry and vulnerable when they, themselves, are told that they have let themselves and society down and that they “should be ashamed of themselves”. I’m pretty sure the same would apply with other groups of public servants – nurses, doctors, social workers and the like.
Leaving aside issues like "is shaming and or ridicule an appropriate action" (after all, if a teacher did it to children in his or her class he would pretty soon make the tabloid headlines for his unacceptable behaviour) or indeed as a reasonable motivator of people (I’m pretty sure that behavioural psychologists would tell us that it is not a particularly good motivator) the issue seems to me to be that the doctrine/policy is applied rather randomly and with random success depending upon who it is meted out to. For example, in the past few years none has been more vilified than bankers and those involved in the City – but this vilification and shaming seems to have had a marked lack of success – the bankers and their like have simply ignored it and gone on as before. Indeed they have heaped on the shame and ridicule by brazenly giving themselves even bigger bonuses – and then laughed all the way to the bank at wider society’s anger. Is this because the bankers do not have the same value system as teachers? Is it because teachers are more angelic and care more? Do the government know this and so feel that it is an appropriate strategy to use on teachers but not on bankers. Why do the government not publish a list of named and shamed banks and employees who are judged greedy, to have failed in their duties etc .– it’s good enough for teachers - why not banks?
|Fred Goodwin ex-CEO of RBS Bank felt |
no shame at his actions or part in the
banking collapse - he metaphorically
stuck two fingers up to society,
and laughed all the way to the
bank with his bonuses!
And what about MPs – the debacle a year or two ago about their expenses was pretty conclusive that naming and shaming had little effect – yes, many were punished but few expressed any regret or contrition.
And what about good old Captain Schettino? Clearly he seems to have acted unwisely in respect of his ship but his shaming because he “jumped ship” is another issue. Yes, naval lore says that the captain of any ship goes down with it but in having this expectation (or is it a convention) we place a huge moral load on ship's captains. Is this something that is written into their job description and that they sign up to when they become a captain. Or is it simply an expectation that this is what a good captain will do? We place the same moral expectations upon other groups. For example, we expect that doctors and nurses will tend the patient even when he has a hugely infectious disease which might pass on to them. We expect that our policemen will show bravery in the face of great danger. If a policemen “ran away” in front of the robber he would soon be “shamed”. And yet we do not expect it of others. None of us, for example, really expect a top class sportsman or woman to display shame – indeed, all too often they flaunt their shamelessness and they are applauded for it by fans. A year or two ago in the World Cup Finals England scored a disputed “goal” against Germany. The goal was disallowed by the referee who felt that the ball had not crossed the goal line. He gave the best decision he could given the position that he was on the pitch. However, immediately after the game, the German goal keeper Manuel Neuer, who saw clearly what happened, admitted to the world’s media that the ball had indeed crossed the line and it should have been a goal. But, he confessed, ”I quickly decided to act naturally as if it hadn’t been a goal to make the referee think the ball hadn’t crossed the line”! In other words he cheated. The result, he was hailed as a hero in Germany and his actions perfectly understood by football fans throughout the world. But why did he not run up to the referee and explain that it was indeed a goal - in other words act, honestly and honourably. Clearly, had he done this he would have been ridiculed by much of the footballing world and probably judged as some kind of fool by his fellow players - and yet we expect Captain Schettino to act honourably in the matter of his life, so why not the footballer in the matter of a goal? He saw no shame in admitting that he cheated - it was acceptable. Sporting stories similar to this are legend. And yet, if a school boy walked out of the examination room and immediately confessed to all and sundry that he had cheated then he would immediately be in trouble and be told that he should be “ashamed” of himself!
The point is that in this shaming “thing” we have different expectations for different people. We expect that the ship’s captain will possess and act upon the personal qualities of bravery and selflessness and “go down with his ship” but we do not necessarily expect the same of others. If we did then perhaps the bankers in recent years would have been so ashamed of their actions and the public's view of them that they would have all taken the Japanese option when shamed and committed hara-kiri. But they didn't and we didn't expect it of them - but poor old Captain Schettino was, however, expected to possibly give up his life.Why these differences in expectations? Had the good Captain Schettino not sailed his ships into the rocks off Italy he might have gone through his whole career and never been tested on this personal quality – and he would have been praised as a good man!
And it seems to me that there is a different aspect to this. Shaming and being shamed assumes that people will act with honesty and integrity. Clearly, the German national goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer fails miserably on this score – he happily admitted his dishonesty and received no admonishment or criticism for his lack of integrity – the ends justified the means. Suppose, on the other hand, a teacher in a school knew that the head teacher was actively altering answers on exam scripts or telling pupils what the questions in the exam were going to be. When the cheating was discovered the teacher confirmed that although he was not in any way involved he knew it was going on. I have absolutely no doubt that he would have been severely reprimanded and shamed for his silence and lack of integrity in not informing the authorities. But not so the sportsman, not the banker, not the politician who has cheated on his expenses or been “economical with the truth” or broken some firm commitment that he gave in order to be elected. Why not? If expectations of integrity are good for some groups why not others? Is there is an agreed rule or imperative that says for some groups we have higher expectations of integrity and other personal qualities than others?. Clearly we expect certain people to have particular skills and professional qualities than enable them to do their job. We expect the sea captain to know all about ships and how to navigate the oceans successfully and safely. We expect the banker to be able to add up, manage the accounts books and make wise decisions about the money that he is entrusted with. We expect the nurse to have the medical and caring skills to make the sick well. We expect the sportsman to have the skills and outlook to be a successful player and team member. But what about these personal qualities of honesty, integrity, bravery, sportsmanship etc. These are personal values and part of the wider society’s value system and are rarely, if ever, referred to in any job specification.
And yet these are the very qualities that shaming relies upon to work and it seems to me that those who would name and shame, those who would point the finger of ridicule only do so when they know that those they are pointing at are vulnerable and likely to be influenced and frightened by the consequences. That all seems to me to be a bit like the same rationale I have seen on the school playground for forty years – except in that context we call it bullying! It goes like this. Find a victim who is likely to be influenced by your ridicule, point the finger, pour scorn on her, make fun of him, upset her, make him do your will – yep, it’s the strategy of the bully. The bully doesn’t attack those who don’t care, who can take the ridicule and walk away - in other words, who have different values. He doesn’t attack those with powerful friends (as have the bankers). He doesn’t pour scorn upon the victim who is physically bigger and stronger - he picks upon the vulnerable and those that will worry and respond to his bullying. Just as OFSTED are doing with “failing schools”. Just as the tabloid press are doing with the Italian ship’s captain.
“ a handy fall guy for a lazy, judgemental media”. Just what I would say about OFSTED (and I have experienced several very successful OFSTED inspections) and other agencies whose role is to name and shame rather than constructively enquire, advise, support, suggest or professionally improve.
|Naming and shaming legitimises|
ridicule and breeds hatred. OFSTED
and governments who promote this
policy should themselves be ashamed!
No, for me it all leaves a hugely unsavoury taste in the mouth – and the worrying thing is where does it all end. It’s Captain Schettino and “failing schools” today – who will it be tomorrow? You? Me? My daughter? Your son? Your grand child? Naming and shaming is a nasty strategy thought up by people who have nothing more to offer – it legitimises criticism, ridicule and bullying into the public domain and provides the mob with the justification for pointing the finger, making fun or fostering hatred. It is highly selective – picking only on the vulnerable or those who are easy targets because of their position or values......... and that is exactly what the playground bully does.