I Shame, but I don’t Shun

I begin with a point that all political scientists (should) know.  Grim trigger is the name for an approach to interaction with others.  It involves cutting off (aka, defecting from) all future cooperation.  In social terms this becomes the practice of shunning.  It is a nasty strategy, especially when practiced socially, and I find it reprehensible.  Indeed, when practiced by the state it is an internationally recognized human rights violation to deprive a human being of social interaction, though the US government’s Supermax prisons, as well as common practice at Guantanamo Bay, have institutionalized the practice of solitary confinement.  But I raise grim trigger because it hints at the possibility that shunning might also be instrumentally unwise.  Wikipedia offers this:

In iterated prisoner’s dilemma strategy competitions, grim trigger performs poorly even without noise, and adding signal errors makes it even worse. Its ability to threaten permanent defection gives it a theoretically effective way to sustain trust, but because of its unforgiving nature and the inability to communicate this threat in advance, it performs poorly.

The iterated prisoner’s dilemma is an awfully thin (aka “unrealistic,” but I dislike that term) model of the behavior of the members of an academic community, so I will not push the point.  But I nevertheless find thinking about grim trigger a useful starting point to remind myself that while I have enormous ethical and normative problems with shunning, unless I start thinking pretty seriously about the complexities of social interaction, there might also be an instrumental case against it (i.e., I might be making myself worse off by practicing it).

With that as backdrop I ask you to read a passage from Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.  I first read the book when I was 17, and this passage gave me a story I could use to give voice to a what I consider pretty routine social behavior among neurotypical humans (I am an aspie) that had mystified and angered me since I first encountered in school yards (but particularly Middle School).  I will skip the back story, but you need to know that the narrator is a six year old boy who is working for a villager named Lekh.

[Lekh] would stare solemnly at the birds in the cages, mumbling something to himself. Finally, after prolonged scrutiny, he would choose the strongest bird, tie it to his wrist and prepare stinking paints of different colors which he mixed together from the most varied components. When the colors satisfied him, Lekh would turn the bird over and paint its wings, head, and breast in rainbow hues until it became more dappled and vivid than a bouquet of wildflowers.

Then he would go into the thick of the forest. There Lekh took out the painted bird and ordered me to hold it in my hand and squeeze it lightly. The bird would begin to twitter and attract a flock of the same species which would fly nervously over our heads. Our prisoner, hearing them, strained toward them, warbling more loudly, its little heart, locked in its freshly painted breast, beating violently.

When a sufficient number of birds gathered above our heads, Lekh would give me a sign to release the prisoner. It would soar, happy and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds, and then plunge into the waiting grown flock. For an instant the birds were confounded. The painted bird circled from one end of the flock to the other, vainly trying to convince its kin that it was one of them. But, dazzled by its brilliant colors, they flew around it unconvinced. The painted bird would be forced farther and farther away as it zealously tried to enter the ranks of the flock. We saw soon afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. Shortly the many-hued shape lost its place in the sky and dropped to the ground. These incidents happened often. When we finally found the painted birds they were usually dead. Lekh keenly examined the number of blows which the birds had received. Blood seeped through their colored wings, diluting the paint and soiling Lekh’s hands.

One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone.

Kosinski retells the story a few pages later, substituting human beings for the birds and, given appropriate trigger warnings (rape, slut shaming), it is a powerful passage.  But I will let you hunt that out, should you wish to do so.

Do not make me Lekh

I am not Lekh.  I have very publicly shamed Brian Rathbun, but I do not want to become one of the folks who “painted him” to be shunned.  Unfortunately, I am at something of a loss on how best to accomplish that end.  How do I publicly model “not shunning?”  I honestly don’t know, but this post popped into my head as an option, so I have run with it.

As for you, well hey, if you would like to be a member of the shunning community, by all means, knock yourself out.  Have a good ole orgia filled with self- and mutual congratulation as you publicly slay the ogre in your midst.   Why think about the social structures in which we are all socialized, how they affect us all, and what you might do about them?   Why think about your own culpability, which requires the hard work of self reflection and runs the risk of seeing something ugly about yourself?

Fuck that!  The community needs to be cleansed!  We require ritual (see my Morality Play post)! Join the mob, and have a good time.  We could all use a good “cluck.”

Me?  I’ll be off in my usual spot in the corner, shaking my head in resignation about the fellow members of my species.  I don’t believe in treating human beings that way, and I won’t have any part of it.


Correction: in my initial post I failed to identify the triggers, rape and slut shaming, and I have now added them.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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2 Responses to I Shame, but I don’t Shun

  1. You have got to be kidding me. IF the analogy in your post holds, you ARE Lekh. In the story Lekh doesn’t “shun” – the birds do that. Lekh paints. In real life no one shunned in the sense you are describing, since Brian chose to voluntarily resign. But in the act of “shaming” you unquestionably, absolutely did a very significant paint job.

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Charli, thanks for the comment, and no, I am not kidding, though your comment makes me realize that the analogy I drew doesn’t actually work as I was thinking it did when I wrote the post. Your point is on target and I will own that.

      What is missing, but was rattling around in my mind as I wrote, is Lekh’s motive, and I confess I have not reread the book, and do not recall whether Kosinski explains, or intimates, whether Lekh’s purpose was to destroy the birds he painted. File this under non-credible claims (and if readers are unfamiliar with the signaling literature and what that phrase means, well my point here will be lost, but so be it), but what I was trying to communicate that while I am willing to shame behavior, I do not condone shunning, and I turned to the Painted Bird story because I feel that it communicates the horror of that social practice by “humanizing” the painted bird (and more so in the story for which this one is a setup). I very much wanted to put pressure on The Duck for providing a platform for the series of posts that Brian has contributed. But I am adamantly opposed to vilifying Brian, or the Editors at The Duck. This follow up post is my effort to communicate that. Poor behavior does not make a human being “bad,” though I realize that is not the dominant narrative in our society. This post was my kludgey attempt to shame everybody who might be making the mistake of labeling Brian as “bad” (which is easy) rather than using a display of poor behavior (which is, of course, debatable, and I have made my stance public) as an opportunity to say “Hey, we shouldn’t do that shite, and if “bad actors” isn’t a good explanation for that shite, then why does shite like that happen, and what might I do about it?”

      Sorry about the sloppy analogy. You are quite correct.

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