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Emotional triggers: Shame? Or shock, disgust and dignity

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CLTS strategically provokes strong emotions such as shock, disgust, embarrassment and shame and the concurrent (positive) emotions like pride, self-respect and dignity, to trigger community’s collective action towards stopping open defecation.

Many critics of CLTS have latched onto the ‘shame’ element of CLTS in particular, arguing that this is unethical and a questionable way of creating change. The way these commentators understand it, in CLTS outside facilitators ‘shame’ communities into taking action. However, in my view, this is a misinterpretation and overemphasises the role of shame as it is by no means the key emotion that CLTS facilitation plays with. The rendering visible of shit through the transect walk and other triggering exercises primarily evokes disgust. And disgust, as viewed by anthropologists and psychologists alike is a very healthy life-protecting emotion. (See for example Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C.R. (1993). Disgust. In M. Lewis and J. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, pp. 575-594. New York: Guilford or Douglas, Mary (1970), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo and Natural Symbols.)

In CLTS, the impulse for change comes from the shock of realising the implications of one’s actions, ie that open defecation equals eating shit. With that realisation and the powerful emotions prompted by it, the desire for change kicks in. What could be called ‘negative’ emotions such as shock, disgust, embarrassment and shame, are accompanied by the ‘positive’ emotions of self-respect, dignity and pride. The latter motivate people to take action. As Kamal Kar puts it, ‘no human being wants to live in a dirty environment and eat shit’.

Thus, shock, disgust, embarrassment and shame are really the flipside of the positive emotions that act as an incentive for change. Moreover, the shame, if any, is not shame triggered by or necessarily felt in relation to outsiders (there may be embarrassment when showing visitors how the community deals with their shit), but rather an internal process and feeling that comes with the realisation of the implications of shitting in the open.

Humour is key to CLTS and the facilitator plays the role of a devil’s advocate- this does not mean that he or she acts disrespectful towards the community. At the same time, there is no traipsing around on tiptoes or treating people with kid gloves either. Good CLTS facilitators do not judge or comment on the community’s sanitation behaviours but reflect and repeat their own reactions back to them. From the start, it is clear that the facilitators are not there to tell people what to do. What they are there to do, is to facilitate a process that empowers the community to come to their own conclusions and make their own informed judgements.

The fact that around 2.6 billion people do not have access to a toilet and that around 1.8 million a year (6,000 people a day), 90% of whom are children, die of fecally-transmitted diseases, really is shameful and justifies radical means! Business as usual will not do. Making the shit and its consequences visible and evoking strong emotional reactions are what produces change.

Petra Bongartz is Coordination, Communication and Networking Officer for CLTS at the Institute of Development Studies

You may also like to read The ‘shame question’ in CLTS

Date: 24 April 2012