We live in a time with too much shame but not enough of the right kind. Boris Johnson’s resignation as UK prime minister is a rare recent example of shame as a positive force. There are, it seems, standards even in politics—at least in Europe. Amber Heard’s online excoriation by Johnny Depp fans during the former couple’s trial marks the other, much more common extreme: shaming as a sport that, untethered from standards or restraint, turns into a public frenzy of hate and humiliation.
Euler Book Prize winner (Weapons of Math Destruction, 2017) and mathematician Cathy O’Neil explores both salutary and weaponized shame—and the rest of what she calls the “shamescape”—in The Shame Machine, a book that is both a self-help manual and a call to collective action. Early on, O’Neil establishes the cultural uses of shame. The tradition of Hopi shame clowns stands as her example of positive shame. In a public ritual, the clowns single out transgressors (for example, a bootlegger violating the prohibition against liquor sales in the community), mime their inappropriate behavior for the crowd, and then, after having delivered their lesson, invite the transgressors back into the community—with the expectation they will mend their ways.
As for the mechanics of shame, we learn that it follows a four-stage trajectory: hurt, denial, acceptance, and transcendence. Presumably, the bootlegger will at least accept that their behavior has endangered others and desist; ideally, they will come to believe what they have done is wrong.
Of course, profit rather than societal betterment motivates most shame machines in our era. O’Neil begins and ends The Shame Machine with her experiences related to a lifelong battle with obesity. Chapter one details numerous unsuccessful attempts to reduce by following a diet, the earliest of which was supervised by her parents, with requisite morning weigh-ins and a chart tracking progress toward her goal weight. The final chapter relates her decision to undergo bariatric surgery. It’s an effective approach that foregrounds the lived experience and psychological costs of shaming, as well as the difficulty of escaping the reach of shame machines.
O’Neil praises rapper Lizzo, who is unapologetic about her weight, as enviably shameless: when “norms, and the industries profiting from them, punch down on people, shamelessness can be a healthy and freeing response, even a superpower.” (Lizzo’s recent remixing of “Grrrls” to remove what fans identified as an ableist slur marks another recent example of the power of shame to educate and enlighten.)
In Part I, “Industrial Shame”, O’Neil deploys the skills she brought to bear in Weapons of Math Destruction to show how the diet industry both twists statistics to hide the fact that most diets fail and also compels dieters to obsess over personal metrics like her dreaded weigh-ins. Other examples of “industrialized shame” include drug rehab centers that overcharge clients for programs that are unlikely to help them kick their addictions or require labor that amounts to indentured servitude.
The wellness industry shames consumers, especially women, for not conforming to beauty standards or showing signs of aging. Worse, it calls attention to nonexistent problems and shames people for not buying products engineered to “fix” them; O’Neil aptly calls this chapter “Your Vagina Is Fine”.
Part III, “Health Shame”< covers many polarizing issues, including mask use during the pandemic. As she often does in this section, O’Neil points fingers at both sides, providing examples of “conflicting shame streams”. On the Right, a group of agitators confronted masked shoppers at a Ft. Lauderdale Target and tried to convince them to remove their masks. On the Left, masked neighbors whose glares and comments shamed O’Neil’s husband for leaving home without a mask.
“The protesters in that Florida Target were performing for their friends and followers on shame networks” “in defense of freedom”. Maybe. But they were also bullying and threatening masked shoppers into potentially exposing themselves to a deadly disease. That’s not shame, it’s intimidation. It also puts the lie to the defense of freedom argument, which should lead anti-maskers to respect those who choose to mask.
O’Neil argues the online fallout of such instances leads to knee-jerk reactions, anger, and outrage, regardless of political affiliation—that they push us further apart. And because truth is irrelevant to the shame machines involved, there is never resolution; platforms continue to provoke users to generate more advertising dollars. More sinister, algorithms sort users into like-minded categories, where their version of reality is further reinforced. Her description of online participants in this shame storm, hanging on every post and working themselves into a frenzy of outrage, matches my experience, which is why I no longer spend time on Facebook.
Yet, presenting this incident in a Both Sides framework prevents O’Neil from drawing a powerful conclusion about the limits of shame. Of course, she knows the difference between sides and says of the anti-maskers, “they didn’t share the same norms and seemed impervious to the shaming.” All she can muster by way of criticism of the pro-maskers is that “shaming mask skeptics can come across as a self-righteous gesture” online. Point taken. Still, the lack of norm sharing strikes me as the key insight here.
When she praises Lizzo’s shamelessness, O’Neil contrasts her refusal to be punched down by fat shamers with “A kid peeing into a reservoir,” who “is shameless, because society’s standards unconstrain him.”
O’Neil laments that the January 6 insurrection didn’t lead to “at least a semblance of horrified unity” as 9/11 did. Isn’t that because the rioters were metaphorically peeing into a reservoir (and peeing and spreading feces in the US Capitol)? After a brief period of unified horror that lasted little more than a day, so were most Republicans.
How can salutary shame continue to work in the absence of shared norms? O’Neil doesn’t say, but her conclusion does lay out a way to fight back against shame machines. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an example of “the first step for leading populations past the first two stages of shame—hurt and denial—and into the acceptance of reality and responsibility.”
Using shame to “punch up” at “oppressors” is a useful tool at this stage: O’Neil points to the recent #EndSARS movement in Nigeria, Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March, Larry Kramer’s 1980s AIDS activism, and the #MeToo movement. Next, we have to target public services to see how their employment of shame undercuts their missions. Shame-free approaches to solving stubborn societal problems, such as giving substance abusers money for methadone clinics or instituting a guaranteed basic income, have succeeded in limited instances and should be more widely adopted. Social media platforms must also be reformed so that they work to prevent misinformation as a matter of course, even after public scrutiny dies down.
O’Neil counsels at the individual level that we must “detoxify our relations” by looking at our lives “through the lens of shame.” Ask who profits from the shame, ask whether the target has “a viable choice to make” and the power to do so, then decide on the most constructive course of action.
“Be nice,” O’Neil advises. Don’t spread poison. Give people the benefit of the doubt.” It’s a constructive and hopeful message and, in many cases, will help defuse shame storms. However, as her examples of punching up show, activists often employ incivility as a tool, with great success. Patrick Swayze fans know that Dalton, the cooler from his 1989 film Road House, counsels his team of bouncers to do the same “until it’s time to not be nice.”
With all the reservoir peeing, I think that time might be now.