A Sartrean analysis of pandemic shaming

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 22 (5):1235-1253 (2023)
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Abstract

In this paper, we analyse the particular phenomena of COVID-19 pandemic shaming. We examine Sartre’s account of the undifferentiated other in the experience of ‘the look’, and his insistence on shame as a foundational relational affect, in order to give a robust theoretical frame to understand how pandemic shaming circulated both online and offline, in targeted and diffuse manners. We focus on two features of pandemic shaming. First, we draw attention to the structural necessity of an audience in acts of pandemic shaming, where the shamer acts on behalf of a community of others, the audience, to perform and enforce a set of standards, values or norms. We turn to the we-experience and collective emotions literature and discuss how the shamer believes themselves to be ‘speaking’ on behalf of a community who share their outrage along with their values. Second, we discuss how the presumption of a collective emotion was frequently mistaken in acts of pandemic shaming, where shaming frequently led to shame backlashes, where the audience revealed themselves not to share the emotion and values of the shamer, consequently shaming the shamer. We argue that Jean-Paul Sartre’s voyeur example is usefully illustrative of the tripartite structure of (1) shamed, (2) shamer and (3) shamer of the shamer that occurs in iterative processes of pandemic shaming, which are accompanied by shaming backlashes. We conclude by reflecting on the socio-historical context for Sartre’s accounts of shame and ‘the look’, namely the German occupation of Paris and Sartre’s experience of the French Resistance movement, and how these yield a particular socio-historical framing that makes evident how the extraordinary pseudo-wartime conditions of COVID-19 rendered atmospheres of distrust and suspicion prevalent.

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