The late French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926-1984) remains one of the Left’s favorite political theorists. He’s particularly celebrated for his critiques of power, whether he was talking about forms of state surveillance and punishment or the ways in which everyday language reinforces oppressive social norms surrounding mental health. In the early 1980s, before his untimely death in 1984, Foucault began formulating a personal ethics that focused on taking charge of one’s individuality, one’s interactions with social environment, and ultimately, one’s choices.

Following Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), he preferred experimentality to conformity, specifically asking us to see each individual’s life as a constantly evolving work of art. He wanted us to see ourselves in that constant process of self-creation, rather than fix ourselves as some type of person. And he concluded that rather than each individual having essential identities, these were more often forced upon us through social norms—noticeably, but certainly not limited to, gender and family roles, racial and class stereotypes, and career expectations.

With this understanding of the individual, Foucault tried to map out a personal ethics defined as “the care of the self,” or more colloquially, selfcare.[1] Given the social pressures on our character, he hypothesized that good selfcare was about freeing oneself from social pressures and trying to develop in a more autonomous fashion. But he also recommended that, since we are not able to fully develop ourselves independent from our engagement with society, part of selfcare should also mean caring for our communities. In this sense, part of Foucault’s ethics was based on his beliefs that “the care of the self always aims for the well-being of others.” [2]

This is where Foucault’s political activism, and his earlier writings on political theory, become relevant. Since he placed considerable emphasis on the role of social norms in influencing our thoughts and behaviors, he saw that an excellent way to care for community was through politically involving oneself in the open critique and rejection of oppressive norms. But to do anything to fight norms, we have to understand how they are created and maintained.

In books like Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault ultimately answered this question by pointing to our everyday language and discourses. It followed, for him, that good political practice meant criticizing words and ideas that were responsible for the maintenance of existing society. For example, he asked us to better fight the use of words like “rational,” “natural,” “normal,” and “straight.” He thought that they were too often uttered in order to constrain people’s freedom and curiosity, and he only had to look at his present era to prove this: implied in the label of “straight” for heterosexual people was the notion that the opposite was crooked and abnormal (for a time, it was popular to refer to gay people as “bent”). For Foucault, then, part of selfcare and community-care meant pointing out and rejecting what he saw as arbitrarily exclusionary standards of normal and good.

The individualism and personal ethics of neoliberalism

At the same time that Foucault was writing about how personal ethics involves an ongoing pursuit of freedom from external influence (“ethics is the reflective part of freedom”), the rhetoric of neoliberalism was beginning to become dominant.[3] Like Foucault’s ethics, it tended to focus on freedom, the individual, and self-creation.  This individualism, it is argued, is led by a desire to be governed less, or as Foucault notes, of “not being governed quite so much.”[4]

Crucially though, proponents of neoliberalism diverge from Foucault in their insistence that our journey towards authenticity and freedom best comes about through engagement with the market and the economy. For neoliberalism, then, to be governed less is to have more freedom in one’s career and consumption choices. It is for this reason that neoliberalism sometime gets equated to “lifestyle capitalism.” However, beyond engagement with the market, Foucault’s work teaches us to be wary of the appearance of, or gesture towards, freedom and choice.

In this regard, Foucault himself lectured and wrote considerably on neoliberalism. He saw it as an era revolving around the maxim of what he called “governmentality,” or in other words, what he called the “art of self-government.”[5] He believed that this self-government, although attractive, was in actuality a false freedom. In his view, what seems like independent self-governance is often the rigid surveilling of oneself around norms that appear natural.

But wait, how does this relate to shaming culture? Isn’t this more about ridiculing oneself, not others? Well, Foucault actually says self-governance accounts for both. Feeling a sense of duty to one’s community, we make both ourselves and others feel guilty for not following social norms. Here we can connect his concept of governmentality to the act of public shaming.

Shaming culture as neoliberal governmentality

Historically, the consequences of not abiding by social norms meant being on the receiving end of some form of state-mandated punishment, like imprisonment, psychiatric confinement, or exile. Such were often the consequences for “mad,” “hysterical,” or “deviant” traits; traits like an unwillingness to accept one’s serfdom or an arranged marriage, or, having a curiosity that leads to questioning religious or royal authority.

In modern societies, though, Foucault argued that on top of state discipline – which certainly remains a powerful force in terms of having institutions of law-and-order – our social behaviors are increasingly disciplined by peers within our communities. He believed that pointing out people as uncouth or deviant ultimately helped to sustain the existing “order of things,” which for him included everything from the class relations of a given society to the way in which we accept narratives set by media and education institutions largely out of popular control.

Crucially, the Foucauldian scholar and historian of psychiatry Nikolas Rose described this social disciplining act as “outing,” where the “shameful, hidden or secret aspects of a person are revealed by another.”[6] Rose argues that outing – i.e., public shaming – can feel like a democratic and personally fulfilling way to engage in the public square. Here, one can use one’s voice to try to be the secular version of a good Samaritan who rids the world of evil.

We can also recall that at least part of Foucault’s personal ethics emphasized an active role in taking care of one’s community, and that good community-care involved criticizing the kind of speech that was considered to perpetuate repressive social norms where people feel like they can’t act or speak freely. At this point, then, public shaming comes closer to Foucault’s ethics than he and his followers might realize.

Indeed, to use Foucault’s preferred word, the act of shaming someone might best be seen as a public act of “problematization.” By problematization, scholars usually mean the act of making something problematic, or more specifically, to expose something as being a problem (or further, to complicate things). Foucault felt that this practice was characteristic of our liberal era, although this was an era he was generally suspicious of. At one point in his later career, he said: “I concern myself with determining problems, unleashing them, revealing them within the framework of such complexity as to shut the mouths of prophets and legislators: all those who speak for others and above others.”[7] Really, the goal of such public problematizing is presumably to spark a social tension that eventually leads to resolving the constituted problem via some sort of popular will.

Through the problematizing of speech and language norms (or what Foucault called “discursive norms”), I believe we can make an especially clear connection to the issue of modern-day shaming culture in progressive politics. I have no doubt in my mind that the public problematizing practices coming out of a variety of progressive circles, particularly when accompanied by moralistic shaming rather than a kind of critical yet participatory discussion, assist in creating a climate of fear and anxiety with regard to abiding by the new set of discursive norms that progressive activists have made increasingly popular and would like to further institutionalize. (I myself would also like to bring about these new norms, such as using correct pronouns and generally speaking in less stereotypical and pejorative terms in regard to people psychologically and demographically different from you, all of which absolutely requires a public examination and critique of words and ideas that seem natural or apolitical).

But further, on top of this anxiety felt by the average onlooker, people who generally don’t follow politics as much – which could be for a great variety of reasons, from privileged disinterest to a sense of disenfranchisement to a lack of free time due to overwork – such people might naturally associate all of “The Left” with a group of righteous activists who are intolerant of anything that is not progressive enough.

The average observer and participant in political discourse might correctly feel this way when, for example, they see knee-jerk denunciations occur where a political commentator is delineated as no longer being a “real” leftist because they bought a big house with the influencer money that their fans paid them.[8] Or when a linguist faces backlash and smears for suggesting compromise and peace in Ukraine.[9] Or when an activist, who since 2009 has dedicated their life to campaigning for single-payer healthcare, is doxed and then harassed by thousands for being a health insurance executive in their former life, even though they had publicly and consistently admitted to their former job being part of the problem they’re now trying to solve.[10] Or most prominently, when a democratic socialist presidential candidate is scolded for touting an informal endorsement from a controversial figure who happens to have the largest podcast audience in America.[11]

In addition to condemning public figures, we’ve also seen regular citizens report that they feel excluded by their progressive-minded peers for something as simple as still preferring to call Latin Americans ‘Latino’ or ‘Latina’ instead of ‘Latinx,’ even when the person feeling excluded is themself Latin American.  In fact, recent polling suggests some 68% percent of Latin Americans still prefer the shorthand ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic.’[12] This is not to say that majority opinion is necessarily the correct position. Rather, the point is that these need to be open discussions where people can be convinced of a new identifier’s validity, rather than have it placed upon them and get shamed for not following along.

More generally, just try to remember any of the times in your life that someone ever said, “You can’t say that anymore,” or, “You shouldn’t say that.” Well, why not? It’s entirely possible that they’re making a good point, but the argument behind it is hardly ever offered. It’s easier for them to just denounce and think they’ve done their part.

Now, you might be wondering why these shaming practices have seemingly increased. Or perhaps we are just becoming more aware of moralistic language in politics.  Has something changed?

How did we get here?

In 1999, Nikolas Rose made the argument that neither governmentality nor public shaming are new, but that contemporary progressive activism had developed a strange relationship with these phenomena. He stated:

“The speaking out of hidden injuries in the service of a demand for redress is not new. But its contemporary form appears to arise from a fusion of the therapeutic ethic of self-realization, with a practice dating from the radical political practices of the late 1960s. “Consciousness raising” gave birth to a family of techniques for collective self-investigation, self-evaluation and the demand for restitution amongst groups claiming a history of oppression.”[13]

With this helpful historical context, it seems that we can see a direct link between Foucault’s forms of ethical-political practice and our modern uses of outing or “calling out.” In fact, Foucault’s preferred terminology of “exposing micro-aggressions,” and pointing out everyday speech or ideas as “problematic,” can quite easily be found today in many spaces where progressive activists congregate — mainly, Twitter and academia.

I worry that although the likes of Foucault offer some of our best critiques of social coercion and conformity, their tradition of personal ethics may also partially be responsible for reinforcing that very thing they criticize. The question becomes whether they’ve fostered a new kind of “Left moralism,” as the socialist philosopher Ben Burgis puts it.[14]

The Right certainly plays its own moral games, renouncing and doxing people and ideas that they see unfit (as these relate to, say, religion, tradition, and class; recent despicable examples being Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill and the range of bills across the U.S. trying to ban Critical Race Theory or “trans ideology”), but this is also a set of practices that progressives have increasingly turned to in the wake of neoliberal economic policies that have stunted both social welfare and collective labor power.

This is confirmed by the Economic Policy Institute, which found that “starting in the late 1970s, policymakers began dismantling all the policy bulwarks helping to ensure that typical workers’ wages grew with productivity.”[15] Specifically, from 1979-2020, U.S. hourly wages have increased by around 17.5% (adjusted for inflation), compared to productivity (per hour) rising by nearly 62%.  Rose suggests that in dealing with “paranoid and depressive anxiety” that comes from these altered material conditions, people turn to pathological forms of communication in pursuit of just some control of their life and just some sense of personal fulfillment.[16]

And at the same time that political activism, community-care, personal ethics, and self-fulfillment were becoming interlinked with one another, we can recall that neoliberalism – much like its predecessor in liberalism – tells us that we should all have the freedom and power to govern ourselves, free of external coercion. (Both Foucault and neoliberalism agree in this regard, although they differ dramatically in what freedom means and how to manifest it).

Fore-fronting these ideals, a great deal of politicians and media pundits have told us that we can govern ourselves better and reach our highest potential in life by “getting the government off of our backs.”

Unfortunately, when in fact the average person in society has much less political (and economic) autonomy than we are told, we resort to one of the few bits of power that we hold in order to achieve the high sense of self promised by neoliberal individualism: the power of our voice.

What’s the matter with relying on one’s voice?

Of course, no one would deny that our voices are an important tool. Our language is part of what makes us human. And democracy, in theory, is based on the use of reasoned speech in the public sphere, where people can debate and decide on policy as a community. Even public shaming has its place in democracy, as it’s important to hold people accountable for their actions. But there are at least two problems here.

One, public shaming requires a common understanding of socially acceptable ideas and behaviors (both in-person and offline), and this is something we simply do not have in many contexts. Breaking the law is one thing, but breaking social norms is another. Who determines what’s right and wrong? Is it a majority of the population, is it a plurality, or is it simply the loudest people? This issue of lacking a shared morality and a democratic mechanism for social norm deliberation makes public shaming a very difficult tool to effectively persuade ideologically diverse populations.

Two, public shaming often amounts to holding “bad apples” within a system or organization accountable, rather than attacking the systemic root or existing power structure. If public shaming focuses on attacking the symptoms of a problem and not the root, then the problem will go unresolved and people will only continue to target individualized cases.

Without addressing these two problems, public shaming culture will continue to serve as a challenge to progressive politics. Surely, public shaming can and does expose pressing concerns that rightfully prompt public deliberation. Still, if we are to accept shaming as a useful political tool, we should approach it more pragmatically and be wary of its misuse or overuse. We also shouldn’t forget our traditionally progressive values of redemption and growth. Indeed, as someone steeped in critical humanities scholarship, I’ve had my fair share of colleagues insist that we admire Foucault’s critiques of surveillance and exclusion while countering with a ‘radical politics of care and love.’[17]

Though his contribution to both academia and the world should in no way be reduced to words written here, perhaps the contradiction of Michel Foucault and his followers – that we should criticize neoliberal governmentality while simultaneously insisting on problematizing people’s everyday speech – can best be summed up by Freddie DeBoer’s recent note:

“It’s a bizarre little quirk of contemporary left politics – people simultaneously believe that many crimes shouldn’t be prosecuted and that we should always work to reintegrate even the worst offenders into society, but if you violate any of the arcane language norms of 21st century liberalism, you can never be redeemed.”[18]

I have no doubt in my mind that we have to fight in an organized fashion to constitutionally protect marginalized communities and ensure socio-economic equality, among other ‘rights.’ But I genuinely feel that the political activism of consciousness-raising – i.e., ensuring that people in your communities understand current social movements and struggles, such as trans rights and anti-racism – is better achieved through participation, education and shared-world building rather than outing, shaming, and shared-world enclosures.

Outing and shaming cannot be our principal way that we choose to rouse and mobilize “apolitical normies.”[19] It’s difficult to change someone’s mind in one good-faith conversation, but if we enter the discourse with a sense of moral superiority then we can almost guarantee that we won’t be given the time of day.


[1] Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, P. Rabinow ed., The New Press, 1997, 287.

[2] Foucault, Ethics, 287.

[3] Foucault, Ethics, 286.

[4] Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” The Politics of Truth, Semiotext(e), 1997, 45.

[5] Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” m/f a feminist journal, no. 5, 1979, 9.

[6] Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self, 2nd ed., Free Association Books, 1999, 266.

[7] Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombardi, Semiotext(e), 1991, 158-9.

[8] Charissa Isidro, “Socialist Twitch Streamer Endures Wrath of Twitter for Buying $3M Home,” Daily Beast, August 20, 2021.

[9] Ben Burgis, “Noam Chomsky Is Right, the U.S. Should Work to Negotiate an End to the War in Ukraine,” Daily Beast, April 18, 2022.

[10] Left Reckoning & Ben Burgis, “What even is Cancel Culture? ft. Ben Burgis,” YouTube, May 1, 2021.

[11] Gregory Krieg, “Bernie Sanders draws criticism for touting Joe Rogan endorsement,” CNN, January 25, 2020.

[12] Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, “Many Latinos say ‘Latinx’ offends or bothers them. Here’s why:” NBC News, December 14, 2021.

[13] Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul, 268-269.

[14] Ben Burgis, Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left, Zer0 Books, 2021.

[15] “The Productivity-Pay Gap,” The Economic Policy Institute, August 2021.

[16] Rose, Governing the Soul, 1999, 90.

[17] Examples: Johnson, A. (2019). “Practicing Radical Forgiveness in the Political now: A Justice Fleet Exhibit Fostering Healing through Art, Dialogue and Play.” Journal of Art for Life 10, (Special Issue: Social Justice); John Nichols, “bell hooks and the new politics of love,” The Cap Times, December 19, 2021.

[18] Freddie deBoer, “Just Stop Apologizing.”, May 9, 2022.

[19] Angela Nagle. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Zero Books, 2017.