Glance at the history of this country, and you’ll notice that humiliation and shame have long been potent weapons of racial oppression, social alienation and disenfranchisement. Many of the important liberal advances in our history are stories of transcending shame and stigmatization, from the civil rights movement to the feminist and LGBT movements.
But there are also moments, scattered throughout the history of modern progressivism, in which shame became a weapon of liberation, justice and equality. Moments in which it was invoked specifically to confront those who oppressed others for their own ends, and then lied about it. In these moments, shame became a call to conscience, and a call to arms.
In 1829, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison publicly rebuked a New England merchant named Francis Todd for profiting off the transportation of slaves. Todd sued Garrison for libel and had him jailed. But Garrison had found both his calling and his method. While sitting in a Baltimore jail pending the adjudication of his case, he penned a defiant defense of his actions, including the following:
So long as a good Providence gives me strength and intellect, I will not cease to declare, that the existence of slavery in this country is a foul reproach to the American name; nor will I hesitate to problem the guilt of kidnappers, slave abettors, or slave owners, wheresoever they may reside, or however high they may be exalted. I am only in the alphabet of my task; time shall perfect a useful work.
Garrison became one of the most vocal and strident opponents of slavery before its abolition in 1865, and a savage critic of its defenders. His unrelenting advocacy in the face of the death threats, jailings, and the bounty placed on his head by the state of Georgia only added to his celebrity, and thus to the power of his cause.
In 1892, Ida B. Wells documented the complicity of the South’s “leading citizens” in the practice of lynching, and punctured the myth that lynching was anything other than white terrorism in the service of racial subordination.
In 1902, Ida Tarbell’s straightforward prose thoroughly exposed the unfair business practices of John D. Rockefeller, leading to the forced disintegration of his Standard Oil monopoly.
In 1955, after a Chicago teenager named Emmett Till was tortured and murdered in Mississippi, his mother Mamie Till-Mobley buried her son’s mutilated body in a glass-topped casket, forcing the nation to confront the brutality that underpinned Jim Crow. Till’s murderers never saw justice for their crimes, but his memory galvanized a movement.
Eight years later, the black children of Birmingham marched against segregation, and transformed public safety commissioner Bull Connor, along with his dogs and firehoses, into potent symbols of the country’s failure to guarantee the rights of citizenship for people of color.
There are so many more exemplars of this kind of love and courage, some recorded, but many lost to history.
In the Trump era, it’s hard to imagine what it would take to shame the Republicans into making more just and inclusive policy.. There's not much that progressives can do to discredit Trump and his party that they haven't already done to discredit themselves. Like all authoritarian movements, the underlying goal of Trumpism (i.e. modern conservatism) is to acquire and wield a kind of power that, like its namesake, can neither be embarrassed nor constrained.
But it’s worth noting that not all of the acts of moral witness listed above achieved immediate change. Nor did they do much to sway the minds of the oppressors themselves. That wasn’t their aim. The reason these moments of moral courage matter, and that we remember them today, is because of the purpose, energy and determination they inspired in other like minded people.
Earlier this month, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, scene of the deadliest high school shooting in American history, traveled to the Tallahassee to implore the radically pro-gun Florida legislature to ban the sale of semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines. That such a reasonable demand seems radical is a testament to how far to the right we are on guns.
For that, they have already become targets of online harassment and death threats. They’ve been dismissed as “crisis actors” by the far-right fringe. The mainstream media assures them that nothing will persuade Congressional Republicans to take meaningful action on gun control. Which is probably true—the modern Republican Party is largely impervious to shame and deeply entangled with the gun industry.
But even though the students are meeting with elected officials, they're really talking to the rest of us. Their moral witness injects momentum and urgency into the flagging effort for sane gun laws. Those who agree with them (the majority) will come out to the polls in force during the upcoming election. Perhaps more importantly, the students’ assumption of responsibility for preventing future massacres is a powerful counterexample to the sociopathically self-centered and short-sighted politics of Trumpism.
The student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are not afraid, and they don't have time for our stupidity when it comes to guns. They’ve set an example that will reverberate for a long time to come.