Shame – a double-edged sword


Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit. Lucius Annaeus Seneca


Facebook is where you lie to your friends. Twitter is where you’re honest with strangers. Anonymous


A spreadsheet doesn’t make you feel shame; going to church does. Nassim Nicholas Taleb


In the summer of 2000 Dr Yvette Cloete came home one day to find that the word “paedo” had been daubed across the front porch and door of the house she shared with her brother in the village of St Brides, south Wales. What was behind this attack on her property? Cloete was a specialist registrar in paediatric medicine at the Royal Gwent hospital. So the attackers must have confused her professional title with the word “paedophile”. The background to this bizarre incident was a campaign by the News of the World to name and shame paedophiles in the community. Shame is indeed a powerful force.*

This incident came to mind when I was reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which investigates the consequences of public shaming.  It is important to put this in a historical context. The classic expression of public shame is the pillory, a device according to Merriam Webster was “formerly used for publicly punishing offenders consisting of a wooden frame with holes in which the head and hands can be locked.” The word has been documented in English since 1274 and indeed it remains in our language as a verb meaning to expose to public contempt, ridicule, or scorn.

The pillory would be set in a place where it could be se seen. It was designed to be a public. It was a warning not to transgress societal norms. The people being shamed were not generally outsiders – they were those who you lived amongst. On the one hand you could engage in what humans find a pleasurable activity, but there was always a threat lurking underneath – there but for the grace of God go I. It was not until 1837 that the pillory was formally abolished as a form of punishment in England and Wales. And the stocks would remain in use, though extremely infrequently, until 1872.

Now we are modern and can laugh at those barbaric medieval types. There is no doubt we have made enormous scientific and economic progress. But morally are we really better? We no longer have the pillory, but as Ronson shows public humiliation is still very much alive. Many of the shamed could be like us. Once their transgression has been revealed, they are torn apart by the baying masses. Justice has been democratized. We, the silent majority can now have our say. And we are using this power to find other people’s faults. Like in medieval times we are defining the boundaries of normality by stigmatising those outside it. Once again shame has become a form of social control and public entertainment.

Ronson cites a number of cases. Justine Sacco Director of Corporate Communications for IAC, an American media and Internet company. It was 20 December 2013 and she was flying from New York to South Africa. On the stopovers she took advantage to tweet:

“ ‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”

“Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”  

It was of course this last tweet that set things off. The anger soon turned to a shaming frenzy. Sacco was now unreachable on an international flight, oblivious to the fate awaiting her:

“All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail”

Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

But I think she was clearly making a satirical comment. There is a long tradition of using provocation as a satirical weapon. Jonathon Swift suggested that the Irish eat their own children as a solution to famine. Randy Newman argued that short people had no reason to live. South Park has been doing offensive stuff for years. Sacco was not very good at it, though.

Ronson points out, this was in many ways this modern internet shaming is worse than being trolled. Trolls are a minority. Sacco was being attacked by the social media mob. When Caroline Criado-Perez was being threatened with rape for suggesting that Jane Austen be put on the Bank of England £10 note, she had a support network. A Sarah Palin or Jeremy Clarkson will always have their defenders. But someone like Sacco, who had 170 followers, had no one defending her. What’s more it was open season for the mob. One of the tweets about her was:

Somebody(HIV+) must rape this bitch and we’ll see if her skin colour can protect her from AIDS RT.”

This commentary escaped censure. This is what Ronson is uncomfortable with, even though he admits he has done his share of shaming. Sacco did indeed lose her job. Ronson spent two years interviewing people like Justine Sacco. There are some fascinating cases here such as Jonah Lehrer Mike Daisey and Lindsey Stone – I can strongly recommend this book. Like we saw in my post about trolling people are much crueller on the Internet than they are in the real world. Are we creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland?

I am ambivalent about shame. I can see what Ronson is getting at. Shame is always going to be a double-edged sword. We have seen the negative effects it can have. Sometimes shame is all we have to hold the powerful in check. This is what the Nasseem Taleb quote. The bank manager who has abused his position would perhaps be a little more circumspect, if he had to sit with his neighbours in the pews on Sunday. Anonymity can be extremely dangerous. I wouldn’t want to get rid of shame altogether. Members of the Spanish royal family are involved in an embezzlement scandal. The country’s former economy minister has been accused of tax evasion. Multinational companies systematically avoid paying taxes in the countries where they make their money. We should not underestimate the power of shame in these cases.


*This case is more interesting than I thought. There was indeed a minor incident in 2000 but this was then hyped out of recognition, taking on a life of its own. As a piece in the BBC puts it:

The irony is that some in the media, in challenging the scaremongering over sex offenders, indulge in some scaremongering of their own. They raise fears about violent tabloid-reading protesters who will attack, hound and destroy a paediatrician – which seem to be just as unfounded as the fears about thousands of paedophiles stalking the land.”


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