It all started with plastic straws.
It was that one video of a poor turtle with a straw stuck up its nose that set the whole internet on fire. Suddenly if you or your business used them (even one!), you were the devil. It didn’t matter if you disposed of it properly. It didn’t matter if you had a disability that meant you needed it. It didn’t matter if you asked not to have one but still got it. As far as the internet was concerned, you were the main reason that sea life was dying at such an alarming rate.
Of course, the reality is that straws make up only 4% of the ocean’s plastic pollution. So, as heart breaking as that video is and as great as it would be if we could eradicate that 4%, it’s a problem that is only the very tip of the iceberg. And yet, online, it seemed to become the deciding factor in whether someone was a good or a bad person. That is, whether they actually cared about the planet or whether they were happy to watch its demise whilst sipping on a frapuccino.
It’s this blown-up, ill-informed anger that’s got me thinking recently. Should we all be encouraged to say “no” to straws if we possibly can? Obviously, yes. Should we be shamed to that huge extent over something that is, in the grand scheme of environmental issues, relatively minor? I don’t think so. And whilst I think it all started with straws, this eco shaming has become more and more common. It’s literally everywhere on social media. I mean, God forbid you have a relatively substantial following and post something on your Instagram where you’re holding a disposable bottle. You’ll be cancelled before you can say “compostable”. So, whilst the widespread awareness of environmental and ethical issues is important, it’s also become a form of ammunition. It seems that a lot of the anger at the state of our planet and the passion to make change is too often misdirected at individuals doing one, teeny tiny “bad” thing online, with no context of the other ways that they’re living their lives. As fellow blogger Annabelle Brittle pointed out in a DM, there’s “a lot of shame being thrown at people who still use disposable toothbrushes or still eat meat…That feels pretty misguided, especially when 100 major corporations are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions”.
I suppose that’s the nature of the internet, isn’t it? We attack what we see. Which, of course, is never the destruction left by corporations with killer PR teams, but the snapshots of one person’s day on our timeline. So, if you happen to be using a straw, or wearing a Topshop t-shirt or eating a burger in that one picture, even if the rest of your day was spent doing a beach clean and weaving socks from hemp, someone is bound to jump down your throat.
But why? What makes us think that it’s okay, or even potentially positive, to shame people for their habits?
Well, within our culture it’s something that we do a lot, perhaps without even realising it. Shame is a powerful, powerful tool. For example, Krystine I. Batcho Ph.D writes for Psychology Today that “Achieving change or elimination of certain overt behaviours [through shame] can have its own inherent value. For example, eliminating child abuse by shaming abusers would enhance the lives of children spared abuse.” Of course, I’m not likening using a disposable water bottle to being an abuser, but I’m sure you understand the point. Perhaps when people make shaming comments about not-so-ethical life choices online, they’re hoping that it will incite change not only in that person, but for our planet.
Honestly, I’d like to think that was the case.
However, it just doesn’t sit right with the more cynical side of me. Since the vast majority of us are not completely ethical consumers (if you’re reading this on a laptop or a phone, soz, you fall into this category too), we’re more than likely pointing fingers whilst still having our own negative habits. We’re throwing stones in glass houses. Understanding that, the shaming doesn’t seem so much a way of inciting change, but of making us, the shamer, feel better. As Melissa Kirk highlights, “Shaming behaviours make us feel superior to that other person, as well as communicate to them that we wish they’d be or act differently, without us having to actually talk to them in an adult way and take responsibility for our own feelings.” As such, I see these acts online less as a case of encouraging others to change, and more as an opportunity for the shamer to say “phew, at least I’m not as bad as them and their demon straw”.
On top of that, for shame to work as a catalyst for change, there has to be the possibility that someone can actually change. In my last post on the subject of the zero-waste community and elitism, I spoke about the economic hurdles to living plastic-free and the fact that the more money and the more free time you have, the more likely to are to be able to easily reduce your environmental impact. However, there are limitations that reach far, far beyond money, many of which my readers spoke to me about after that post went live. I received a DM from Hayley Waghorn who pointed out that some illnesses or disabilities also mean that it is literally impossible to not use disposable plastic. She uses a stoma bag which needs to be disposed of and replaced relatively regularly and, as she says, “as hard as I tried I could never live a zero waste lifestyle”. As well as that, there are many other products that are widely seen as “wasteful” but are essential for individuals with certain physical disabilities. For example, some people rely on plastic straws and baby wipes to be able to live day to day.
The list is nearly endless. There is always an exception to the rule, which makes you realise how damaging these sweeping statements about straws and veganism and not buying any fast fashion can be. I think Stephen Pattinson summarises the problem perfectly in his book Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology: “Because no external, formal process is required to administer shame, people may misunderstand individuals and situations so that the innocent suffer” (150).
And finally, shaming, as most of us will have experienced, is often more alienating than it is a reason to change. If someone makes you feel like crap, you probably won’t want to link arms with them in a fight to make the world a better place. Maybe you just want to point out their faults instead. That’s certainly the way the internet seems to work and it gets us nowhere. Whilst I was in the middle of writing this post Grace Beverly of Grace Fit UK shared some thoughts on her Instagram story that resonated with me as someone who speaks about ethical living in an online space. She said, “the more I’m told I’m not doing enough, the more I sort of want to hide away and just do everything in private because the more I do, the more it seems I should always be doing more. Everyone can do their bit, for some that might be not shopping and eating meat, for some that might be going vegan but shopping cheaply from time to time, for some that might be living in the forest with no electricity and wearing each piece of clothing until it falls apart.”
To some extent, I think anyone that spends any amount of time online has felt that. We’re all scared that we’ll put a foot wrong and be a victim of the vegan police, the plastic straw police or the fast fashion police. That we’ll be a victim of getting “cancelled” or boycotted. If anything, the shame doesn’t plant seeds of change in our minds, but stops us wanting to make positive changes because, like Grace said, it only leads to us being held to higher, almost entirely unattainable standards.
Whatever our reasons are for criticising the habits we see online – be it to make us feel better about ourselves or because we want to see positive change – we need to all realise that eveyone is on a journey. As far as I’m concerned, pointing fingers at people who are clearly trying their best only slows that journey down. And makes you look like a dick in the process.