Shame Is A Problem For The Travel Ban

Any ban may backfire because of the role of shame.
02/11/2017 07:45 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2017

The fate of the travel ban remains in limbo, with the courts striking it down and the administration considering a new executive for its return. So what might happen if it—or something like it—went back into effect?

The purpose of the ban is ostensibly to keep terrorists out of the United States, yet the risk of a refugee executing a terrorist plot is less than the risk of an American-born toddler shooting someone, and it does not cover the countries from which the September 11th terrorists hailed. Experts have suggested that it will strengthen terrorist organizations that fuel their followers with the rhetoric that the United States is waging a war on Islam under the guise of fighting terrorism. This may well be the case.

But any ban resembling the previous one may also backfire because of the role of shame.

Shame plays a critical role in the perpetuation of violence, and punishment tends to create shame. Psychiatrist James Gilligan established this by studying the American prison system, and he found that the more one person or system shames another, the more violent that other person or system becomes. This is part of why the recidivism rate in the United States is so high: Our prisons punish without rehabilitation. Punishment produces shame, and shame produces more violence.

Psychologists who study human development have drawn the same conclusions: Punishing children creates shame and, in turn, more bad behavior. However, children’s behavior improves with discipline instead of punishment. This occurs because disciplining teaches children how to behave in positive ways instead of trying to inhibit behavior with shame-based responses like spankings or timeouts.

In short, punishment is ineffective. It doesn’t work with children, and it doesn’t work with adults. If reinstated, the travel ban will function the same way. It is an extended timeout for residents of seven countries, many of whom are innocent refugees, an act of public shaming that will, in turn, incite violence among people who may never have been violent otherwise.

Linking the Muslim ban with the American prison system or child development may seem a curious juxtaposition, and yet, all three share this: They seek to prevent harm. The ban aims to prevent terrorism, the American prison system uses incarceration to prevent future crime, and punishment is an attempt to teach children appropriate ways of acting in the world. Yet, when based in shame, each can backfire.

James Gilligan’s research into the prison system has one more relevant insight about the significance of shame. He writes that prison guards may allow powerful prisoners to abuse—and in turn shame—powerless ones because it deflects attention (think prisoners beating up or assaulting other prisoners). The guards keep power by allowing prisoners to get angry at each other, creating a system where those the top of the power chain maintain authority by scapegoating the most vulnerable. Gilligan concludes that what happens in the prison represents what happens in American society: Those with the most power shift blame to those with the least. This prevents the vulnerable from attaining any authority and distracts those in the middle from taking aim at the ones who deserve accountability the most—the people in charge.

The travel ban works the same way. The current administration wants to scapegoat residents of seven countries to deflect our attention, to lull us into a sense of safety, though the ban does relatively little to effectively keep us safe. After all, if reinstated in any form, one of the residents of the seven countries who is in the United States now and could not leave because of the ban could feel shamed, become reactive, and undertake an act of terrorism. The ban does not account for that. Meanwhile, a native-born American citizen could attack us with or without the ban—indeed, more have killed Americans than Muslim immigrants have. A toddler could shoot someone with a gun.

The way that this administration uses shame for the supposed purpose of instilling safety is ill-conceived. That this same administration is scapegoating the innocent is dangerous and calls for greater awareness on the part of the American public and the global community. Experts have shown time and again that shame does not work and neither do the punitive measures that accompany it.

That we need greater safety is not at issue. We certainly do. Terrorist attacks are never permissible, and the safety of the American public is of paramount importance. But if we want a more secure country and world, then however the administration responds to this week’s court decision, it needs to take a different approach.

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