THE SHAMING MACHINE
Who benefits in the new age of humiliation?
By Cathy O’Neil with Stephen Baker
One of my first encounters with shame took place at a wedding when I was 9. Shy and socially awkward, I sat at a table with my parents and a group of elderly relatives, while other children plotted soft crimes and sipped abandoned glasses of champagne. I can’t remember what song was playing when my mom grabbed my pastel purse and playfully threw it on the dance floor, but I do remember picking up the mug of Irish coffee next to her and throwing it over her round. We left the reception immediately, my mother in her torn dress and I with her handprint on my face. An old man stopped us as we approached the exit. “That was really bad what you just did,” he told me, “but I still think you’re a good girl.” I wished the earth would burst open and swallow us both.
In the years that followed, I developed an intimate relationship with shame. I think about what it means to feel it, what it means to impose it, and what role it plays in a culture that alternates between praising or berating those who deviate from the average. The primary social function of shame—often a means of oppression and always a means of controlling those who testify—is to neutralize transgressions through humiliation, to enforce consensus through threats of moral exile. In her new book, “The Shame Machine,” author and data scientist Cathy O’Neil, who co-writes with Stephen Baker, examines how shame is both marketable and weaponized by a society increasingly alienated from real life. Who benefits from our ubiquitous shame-driven culture wars? she wonders. And is there anything to gain from that?
What O’Neil conveniently illustrates is that shame is often a lonely experience, which may be why it’s so easy to exploit it for profit. Nowhere is this revenue generation more apparent than in the weight loss and wellness sectors. Supported by social media influencers and celebrity endorsements, companies that make products that promise to shrink our bodies or re-elasticize our floppy faces have seen astronomical growth over the past decade. “The Shame Machine” suggests that there is much to be gained from our low self-esteem, especially since there is no diet in the world that can remedy it. In what O’Neil calls “the shame industrial complex,” corporations and social infrastructures insist that we have the power to shape our own lives, then blame us when their tools inevitably fail. I’m thinking of supermodel Linda Evangelista, who recently filed a lawsuit over a cosmetic procedure that she claims is permanently disfigured. Evangelista’s is a double shame; first she got older, then she got caught trying to hide it from the rest of us.
It strikes me how bad American shame appears when examined in relief, appealing to such concepts as agency, willpower, and sacrifice. O’Neil carefully dismantles how we relinquish our social responsibility to care for the vulnerable when we surrender to the idea that poverty and drug addiction are the result of an inability to realize ourselves. It’s hard to argue with the author’s condemnation of what she calls “beating down,” a targeted form of humiliation that allows power structures to shift blame onto the very ones injured by it. In an internal email from 2001, then-CEO of Purdue Pharma, Richard Sackler, referred to the people who had become addicted to OxyContin as “criminals” and “abusers.” In such ways shame is used to maintain the status quo; the opioid crisis has been framed as evidence of personal vulnerability rather than evidence of the devastating effects of corporate greed.
When describing the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, O’Neil reminds us that there is great power when we appropriate and reuse the tools of our own oppression. Encouraged by a particularly misogynistic code of sexual shame that silenced his victims, the film producer probably didn’t expect the women he’d assaulted and threatened to eventually lead him to a prison cell. Weinstein’s incarceration followed a decades-long career of abuse and is inextricably linked to the launch of the #MeToo movement, when women publicly named their powerful predators and asked us all to think about what kind of society we wanted to live in. of social pressure is one that O’Neil classifies as productive, one that “stands up” in the service of justice. Larry Kramer and Rosa Parks batted; Gandhi too. A quick reminder that none of them have done their job on the internet.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are especially concerned with sowing discord, especially since political and social disagreements inevitably increase engagement. O’Neil’s characterization of these forums as “networked shame engines” accurately describes the assembly line-like speed at which the Internet targets and punishes the US self-replenishing army of “Kens” and “Karens”. The violence of politicians, O’Neil says, has helped fuel our collective lust to put strangers who disagree with us on the Internet, where we can joke about their avatars and bomb them with digital tomatoes. O’Neil suggests we’re treading treacherous waters when we start Hester Prynne-ing people online; it’s a fantasy to believe it does anything other than enrich Mark Zuckerberg.
Where “The Shame Machine” seems to rattle off the track, in O’Neil’s discussion of what she calls “healthy shaming” – let’s call it a lateral thrust. The lateral blow is the blow we deal to people who don’t share our social value systems; it’s the self-righteous bravado we feel when we tell an internet stranger afterwards to put on his mask; it’s the thrill of seeing someone get reprimanded when they violate our understanding of how things should be† While O’Neil outlines how the lateral thrust often successfully influences behaviors that result in real collective benefit (she cites Covid-19 vaccinations as an example), she completely neglects to dig out what role pure pleasure plays in our impulse to shame in those situations that do not have a clear victim or perpetrator. It seems disingenuous to ignore what’s quietly involved in even the “healthiest” shame: a request for compliance that comes with a threat of banishment. The basic ‘we’ versus ‘you’ dichotomy that puts even the most benign shame to the fore is always overshadowed by the hierarchical tower. It’s a lonely world. We all have to admit that sometimes it secretly feels good to fall into a hurdle.
Sometimes I remember how it felt to sneak to the car with my mom after I left my aunt’s wedding, the mark on my face that was proof of my transgression. I think of the old man who tried to throw me a lifeline, but really only succeeded in reinforcing that we are always being judged. Does shame act as a correction tool? Maybe, but we have to be sensible when we use it. Dignity is easily eroded and difficult to regain.