for shame

Dave and our friend Beth have a semi-regular gig on the local CBC morning show‘s social media panel…but this week, Dave’s away. Since it’s handy to have a literal in-house replacement to offer up, I got to play pinch hitter. And thanks to last week’s #FHRITP spectacle last week in Toronto, they were talking online shaming, which I’ve been thinking and writing about since the conclusion of my thesis.

So…I spent last evening to trying to unpack what’s actually happening with shame and scale in contemporary culture.

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Here are Beth & I at the brisk and perky hour of 7:30 in the morning, talking it all through. But being me, I made notes that could have filled a three-hour show, and it got me thinking about shame and scale and social media at a level that I couldn’t manage to pack into our ten minutes on air.

Here are the highlights of what a combination of years of background research into social media + frantic Googling + the threat of making a totally unprepared arse of myself on-air got me thinking about shame and all the sensationalism-driven conversations we’re having, societally, about social media and shame.

First, public shaming is in no way a new or online phenomenon. We may be experiencing a glorious new glut of it in our Twitter and Facebook feeds, but our fascination with it shouldn’t fool us…we’re not gawking because it’s new. We’re gawking because it’s uncomfortable.

We’re gawking because Call-Out Culture calls us out – no matter what sanitized shade of bland we may be as individuals – and reveals our participation in the engines of power that allow some people to chew others up. We’re not supposed to talk about power. It works hard to make itself invisible. But I think social media platforms hail us, in Althusserian terms, into complex and collapsed social and political ideologies of power in ways we can’t quite naturalize because the platforms are still so new and constantly changing. Online, we have to grapple with our own interpellation as subjects.

Second, there are two ways public shaming has always worked.

  • To control people, & force them to comply with the status quo. The Scarlet Letter is a great way to keep wives faithful.
  • To push back against that status quo or speak truth to power. If you can actually show that the Emperor has no clothes, you delegitimize his power and call into question the whole system he rules.

So I think online shaming and Call-Out Culture is a clash of these two archaic forms of public shaming. And which is which depends on where the speaker aligns – at that moment, in his or her complex and intersectional identity.

Here’s how you tell: does the speech act he or she engages in reinforce the status quo or challenge it?

The first is trolling. Trolling silences through shame. It reinforces status quo power positions: male over female, rich over poor, white over black, abled over disabled…any of those societal norms that govern who gets heard.

The second is hashtag activism. Hashtag activism allows people who experience marginalization to band together to speak back – to call out and critique others for the degrading or insulting or even just casually ignorant thing they’ve said in public.

Sometimes people have a hard time figuring out which side that status quo is actually on. Both trolling and calling out can be nasty, from a personal perspective, and people like to feel righteous, so you’ll see cases like the dude with the TV reporter who’s acting all offended that she’s calling him out for having leapt into her WORK to sexually degrade her for his own entertainment and…what? Fame?

Well, he got his 15 minutes. And he needs a new job.

And call out culture can be like that – when the hashtag activists succeed sometimes the consequence can seem out of proportion to the offence. But it raises real questions of what SHOULD the consequences of public speech be?

Because if people DO get away with disrupting and degrading others just to reinforce power positions – oh hey, it’s funny, can’t you take a joke? – then REAL PEOPLE end up living with that, feeling degraded…and that has consequences too.

Both individually and for that status quo of who gets to speak and be heard.

We don’t want a society entirely driven by shame. Those always turn out dangerous. But I am wary of the ways that pundits and media are lining up to denounce shame at this juncture, particularly when their words tend to sympathize with the risks that white, middle class Justine Saccos face in this “mob morality,” rather than with the risks and shame that those #FHRITP guys were trying to inflame as they aggressively asserted their own right to complete and utter shamelessness. Shame should not be a zero-sum. Shame as a tactical response to marginalization should not be needed…but if it works, let’s not focus on shutting down the very few effective means we have for speaking truth to power at scale.

13 Comments for shame

  1. Michael Caulfield

    Thanks, Bonnie, this is wonderful and succinct. And you’ve obviously got more background thinking about this than me, so this question is offered as an extension of conversation not a critique — but the thing I wonder about this type of shaming is whether it works, or whether it might backfire.

    The thing about web culture that seems really different is that there’s much less cost to going and getting new friends than in real life. If someone in my real life social circle shames me, I’m stuck with that, I’m going to have to deal with that and alter my own behavior.

    Not so much on the net, where there’s plenty of features to block people out and plenty of new groups that will take me.

    I think about a moment in college that changed me 25 years ago — after a class where the very liberal professor had spent an hour going over issues of racism, I said something to people while walking out of that class about “why didn’t he cover reverse racism?” And the classmate looked at me like I was an idiot and said very condescendingly “Because there’s no such thing?”

    That was really painful socially, because I was just trying to be a “devil’s advocate” as so many 19 year olds do, and now I was a racist idiot. But I couldn’t really change my social group, I liked these people, so I took that and over time I bent to their way of thinking and saw they were right.

    But what happens online as a 19 y.o.? I say something stupid, I get shamed. Other people I don’t know watching it stick up for me. Hmmm, I think. Maybe the problem is that I’m not hanging with the right folks. In about 24 hours I’m hanging out with Men’s Rights Activists, with no idea what I’ve got myself into.

    That’s a huge diffference from getting called out by a local IRL community, I think we need to process that.

    1. bon

      Totally, Mike. I agree…and it’s a really important point.

      I think shame is a dangerous tool, flat out. I’ve been reading Brene Brown as part of the research I’m doing with George Veletsianos on disclosure and I think generally the damage shame wreaks outweighs its benefits on any individual.

      So when we’re talking individual people, especially young people, I don’t think there’s really much truth to power going on. I think scale’s probably required for actual truth to power…I don’t mean network scale necessarily but some kind of weight to throw around somewhere. I definitely don’t think we should leave the complex business of teaching young people how to navigate the intersectionality of their identity and be decent to others to online mobs.

      YET. Yet. That lens of how to deal with individuals is not where I’m writing from, here. Like I say, “I am wary of the ways that pundits and media are lining up to denounce shame…”

      What I see happening is media conflating two very separate things because their tactics are similar. We have a false equivalency problem in society right now where, having decided racism is bad, but refusing to address structural racism, we have a huge proportion of the population (and media) who accept the idea that raising the issue of race is what’s racist. Same with the assumption that calling out a person who bolsters the status quo from a position of power is the same as calling out some kid, or some hurting benighted nobody. If I saw the calls against shame being used to talk about real effects on people and pushing increased empathy, I’d feel very different than I do. What I mostly see is “let’s not indict middle-class white people for their peccadillos that really hurt and oppress others!”

      And so when people make more vulnerable groups stand in the gap to bolster their own power & then get caught in the pushback? I don’t think it’s a good or effective way to teach those individuals. I’m not entirely sure it’s more than good theatre. But until we’re willing to grapple with these questions for real, it’s what’s available. I may not participate, but neither do I necessarily condemn…because the other tools of making one’s position and case known are not always available to those who don’t have power.

      Those of us who teach probably need to be getting all of this stuff on our radar, messy as it is.

      1. Mike Caulfield

        I think we’re broadly in agreement, though maybe with different inflections.

        I remember being a online political organizer during the Iraq War. We’d say things like “Dick Cheney is a war criminal”, which true or false is a valid claim to put forth, and the Democratic establishment looking on would say “You’re shrill! You’re uncivil! You’re ruining our chances to legitimize debate!”. I remember getting so sick to my stomach over our Democratic leadership in our State Senate nixing a marriage equality bill that I put on the front page of our 5,000 member site the photo of a newly dead 14-year-old who had been bullied to death about his sexuality and wrote an perhaps over the top article on how the lack of access to marriage served to perpetuate this sort of thing.

        And it drove our membership wild, they loved it, they got riled up etc., etc. And it drove the Democratice establish nuts because such things were “impolite” and therefore out of bounds. And I was good at it, which felt really good!

        I’m not sure if those posts helped our cause. What helped, actually, was we got a whole bunch of people talking to each other on the less controversial things. We educated people on the structure of government. We took people in who were libertarian and nudged them into progressivism. We got a lot of people who were sick of the Democratic party to see that there was a place in that party for them. And that happened through relentless moderation — our *own* policing, as a matter of fact, just on a different axis than the establishment.

        The way it works now on Twitter now is quite different and weird to me — for example, up above I wrote the phrase “Back during the Iraq War”. You and I know what I meant, I know you know what I meant — but without a bond — without a charity of interpretation you can score some easy points.

        DURING the Iraq War?!?!??!? Ha ha nice one. I suppose you can tell all the murdered babies in Iraq the war is over now. Or the Gitmo prisoners. Tell ISIL too! #imperialismrocks.

        If you do that in front of the the right people you’ll get a lot of liberal points for it. There’s nobody to police that sort of comment and lots of people to look on approvingly.

        But if you’re me, and if you get enough of those sorts of comments, you start thinking to yourself — my god, I’m sick of wasting my psychic energy on these fucking liberals. And that’s a surprising thought, because you were actually once a progressive activist who helped win elections and get marriage equality passed. In fact, you thought you still WERE a progressive activist until Twitter came along every day and told you you weren’t pure enough for the club anymore.

        I know you know this stuff BTW. You’re an expert on it. But I wanted to share my frame of experience. As an early online organizer I’m complicit in all this, and starting to get concerned about what we wrought. I may also just be an old dude all the young ‘uns need to sweep out of the way — “For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled…” I might be too old to get the point anymore, I really might.

  2. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

    Whether netshame is different or the same as “IRL” is a long discussion, but at some point in both one person decides to use words with an intent to hurt another in front of an audience.

    I’m often late to see movies or talks long after most others have heard them. For some reason recently, late at night, I came across on a course site about equity issues the video of Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk. Putting aside whatever baggage one has of living in that time, the whole wrapping of privilege in TEDlandia, that she read what was a polished talk– I was mesmerized. And shaken. At how anyone could be brave enough to putting that story she bears all the time into public again. I doubt I could get on stage and give that talk. She can never escape her story, she cannot simply choose a new group, Mike.

    Whatever life she might have had in front of her in her early twenties was swept away. “That man” has gone on to enjoy the benefits of his privilege with little more than some locker-room snickering and late night talk show jokes.

    Two things she said that have been ratting around, one is the recognition of an industry of shaming, that there are those that do this for economic or perhaps just reputational benefit. What price did Matt Drudge pay for his “innovative” work? The stuff that used to be relegated to the tacky tabloids is now fodder for internet traffic, driving ads, and imprints. There is money to be made from shame, shameful as that sounds.

    The other is her assertion that “shame cannot survive empathy.” I want to believe it, but wonder about how lopsided the empathy to shame ratio needs to be for that happens. Shame is easy, quick, abundant, and is effect when anonymously delivered. Empathy is difficulty, takes work, rare, and is ineffective unless done in public.


    1. bon

      Alan, thanks for this.

      I think what you touch on, in reference to Lewinsky, is scale…at some point of notoriety, your reputation exceeds *you.* Growing up in a small town I gathered implicitly there were things that could be allowed to recede under the bridge, especially if one had the right last name…but certain things – especially if attached to the reputations of women AND made visible beyond one’s immediate circle – that would follow you around for the rest of your life. I’ve since re-learned it as an adult in the culture of the 24 hour news cycle and now, on Twitter.

      There is totally money to be made from shame. There is power to be gained from shaming others too…even when they may (by your lights and alignments) deserve it. And yet empathy IS hard, like you say, especially from a distance. I’ve been watching my own reaction to the whole Duggar trainwreck closely, thinking about this conversation, thinking about my own schadenfreude. My empathy there is for the daughters…that part’s easy. It is fed by the fact that the whole story reinforces my distaste for a highly visible, highly patriarchal family who’ve gotten rich preaching that shit through the spectacle of themselves. But my empathy for the son – even though I know boys are victims of patriarchy in their own ways – is a little harder to access. And for the parents – in truth, I’m all game for a public stocks and rotten tomatoes show…and I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t talk about it (here excepted) because I’m not proud of it…but their scale is such and the scale of their selling their daughters downriver such that I struggle for the empathy, you know? And I’m wary of even calling for it…because then maybe it excuses the blatant focus on son over daughters, the blatant selling of their family. And mostly it’s no business of mine but again, their scale has shaped conversations and choices in people’s lives all over the place over these past ten years. And so I’m left just…sitting here, mired in disgust and sorrow.

  3. Frances Bell

    Thanks Bon and Mike and Alan. I read this post a few days ago but I was off wifi and wasn’t able to respond at the time. I enjoyed the post and the comments and they are helping me think but I still think that I (and probably others ) have more thinking to do.
    Following Ferguson activists on Twitter has been an education for me since August. I read the #FHRITP story – I admired Shauna Hunt’s action and felt little or no sympathy for the abusive fan who was sacked but one thing did trouble me slightly. I just wondered if the immediate sacking decision was a knee jerk reaction to negative media response, rather than a real intent to change culture within the organisation that employed this well-paid abusive fan. Sacking him and burying the story might make corporate sense but I wonder if due process might not be a better way to make change.
    I also thought about the experience of a ‘powerful’ women Mary Beard, a classics professor. She had nasty trolling experiences after daring to be an intelligent grey-haired women appearing on tv. She routinely RTed the troll tweets but also responded humanely to her trolls see
    It’s complicated.

    1. bon

      Really interesting point, Frances, about why major corporations or institutions respond to negative public visibility and shaming with action – it’s where the #FHRITP story intersects with Salaita and Saida Grundy…issues of what is speakable played out in courts primarily of public opinion.

      I have watched Mary Beard with great respect. Complicated indeed…though I’m interested in your use of the term “powerful.” Since she was attacked for not really being acceptable as a voice of power even if she had a position of power…I definitely see her more in the #gamergate vein of being trolled, and sense you do too…yet the fact that we are all intersectional points out why it’s so seldom black and white to call people out, and why so many people online get stuck in their own victimization (as with the MRAs, etc).

      1. Frances Bell

        Thanks for that response Bon, it’s helping me inch forward in understanding. Over the last year, I have been blogging and writing my way through ideas of polarisation and binaries. So whilst #whitelivesmatter seems to me to be a completely petty and inappropriate response to the visceral and potentially game-changing rallying cry that is #blacklivesmatter, I am interested in public discourse that can change minds. I can’t fully articulate it, but I think that we need to find ways of changing minds and behaviours that will require the possibility to express ideas clumsily, make mistakes, recover from them, changes our minds gradually – it’s messy.
        I think I used the word powerful in quotes for Mary Beard because I wanted to recognise that many would see her as irrelevant though she does have some sort of public platform (occasional tv pundit/ panellist, blogger, journalist, public speaker). But I was also thinking that she may have a sense of her own local power as an academic used to engaging with students (and for all I know a mother of sons) who can become comfortable with irritating young men who say stupid things, and even help them get past that. It’s a combination of tolerance, forgiveness and care that seems valuable in a world of right/wrong.
        How do we engage in spaces between polarities without collapsing into insipid relativism? When we are dragged out to the polarities I think we can just feed the media froth, becoming the viralnova of public discourse.

        1. bon

          Ah yes…I see both very much in Mary Beard’s writing and words…thanks for explaining, Frances.

          The whole question of how we speak is a huge one. And messy, like you say. Yet I’m wary of saying we should stay away from polarities entirely…or at least I’m wary of prescribing that from my many positions of relative privilege. I think owning our alignments – ie making them visible, yet holding them flexible and open to being reconfigured for us as our understandings complexify – is important to any kind of public engagement. And to some, yes, we’ll appear to be speaking in and for polarities even if we ourselves don’t see it that way…just because being in any way out of the centre is a polarity to many. But we cannot control other people’s perceptions…and I think only in using language as explicitly as we can do we maybe/hopefully contribute to other people’s perceptions…not of us but of those positions and what they mean.

          #blacklives matter has taught me a great deal this year…has truly changed my mind. Even though I would have said I was aligned and onside with anti-racism, as a white Canadian who’s never lived in the US, there was a great deal about the structure and operations and even presence of white supremacy there that I did not recognize or know how to read and understand. I have had to confront many of my own assumptions about what particular positions mean while following #blacklivesmatter, and I’m grateful to those who shared their understandings using the hashtag. They didn’t have to de-polarize it for me to learn from them…I just had to shut up and learn to know them as people actually IN those positions.

          That said, tactical uses of public speech aimed to go viral still make me uncomfortable. But some of them are fighting structural systems of public speech that already control broadcast narratives. And I wonder if that’s the only way, even if it’s sometimes an awful way. Or if Mike above is right and it only encourages retrenchment? I don’t know.

          1. Frances Bell

            Thanks Bon, I will have to stop soon as the reply column keeps getting thinner but I am still making progress from the interaction:) Like you, I have learned so much from reading #blacklivesmatter. As a site of more local learning, what has taught me so much about my own racism (despite my best and ongoing efforts) and more insidious, the racism of institutions like the police and the media, has been the sad murder (over 20 years ago) of Stephen Lawrence, and the ongoing seesaw between repeated injustices revealed and attempts to put them right . His mother Doreen now serves as a Baroness in the House of Lords, continuing to work for diversity and against racism. She and we have hard work ahead. I’ll leave you in peace:)

  4. Maha Bali

    What a thought-provoking post, and it intersects with some of what we talked about in our recent #hastac2015 hangout and a discussion we’re having in #rhizo15 (slightly). The post and the rich comments have my head spinning, and also because I have been thinking for a while about how complex it is to unpack “mutual oppression” and know for sure which “side” of such an issue is the one challenging power. We often think it might be obvious that of course the woman has less power than the man, but in the complexity of certain situations, it is really black and white that way? I need to think about this a lot more, and I am coming at it from a non-shame angle – i am going to follow up on all the links because that’s maybe the third time i heard of Monika Lewinsky and Justine in a week, so I must be missing someting here. Thanks for writing this and to Mike and Alan and Frances for taking it so much deeper. I learned a lot and my mind is spinning from all this.

  5. Paul-Olivier Dehaye

    I will pile on the bandwagon, and link to a post I wrote back in September 2014 about Monica Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair article.

    Bonnie details two ways public shaming has always worked:
    – To control people, & force them to comply with the status quo.
    – To push back against that status quo or speak truth to power.

    Most interesting is when both ways intersect, something documented at length by Evgeny Morozov in the “Net Delusion” (few extracts below):

    “Take a closer look at the blogospheres in almost any authoritarian regime, and you are likely to discover that they are teeming with nationalism and xenophobia, sometimes so poisonous that official government policy looks cosmopolitan in comparison. What impact such radicalization of nationalist opinion would have on the governments’ legitimacy is hard to predict, but things don’t look particularly bright for the kind of flawless democratization that some expect from the Internet’s arrival. Likewise, bloggers uncovering and publicizing corruption in local governments could be—and are— easily co-opted by higher-ranking politicians and made part of the anti-corruption campaign. The overall impact on the strength of the regime in this case is hard to determine; the bloggers may be diminishing the power of local authorities but boosting the power of the federal government.”

    “Anyone with a grudge against a local bureaucrat can leave a complaint as a comment on Medvedev’s blog, a popular practice in Russia. And to score some bonus propaganda points, Medvedev’s subordinates like to take highly publicized action in response to such complaints, replacing the crumbling infrastructure and firing the corrupt bureaucrats. This, however, is done selectively, more for the propaganda value it creates than for the purpose of fixing the system. No one knows what happens to the complaints that are too critical or border on whistle-blowing, but quite a few angry messages are removed from the blog very quickly.”
    (touches on Frances’ response)

    “Similarly, while China’s notorious “human flesh search engines” have mostly been mentioned in the Western media for their courageous online pursuits of corrupt bureaucrats, they also have a darker side. In fact, they have a history of attacking people who voice unpopular political positions (urging respect for ethnic minorities) or simply behaving slightly outside of the accepted norm (being unfaithful to one’s spouse).”

    I have been at the receiving end of such an assemblage of bloggers, many the same readers or commenters to this blog (and to be fair, have also received help from some). This was detailed here:

    This ordeal has had a definite cost to myself, and members in my family, that many of these authors would be shocked at (Lewinsky’s mention of the impact of her ordeal on her mom was pretty jarring).

    While I am quite convinced that many of these commenters have _now_ come to understand that my particular situation was much more complex than they originally thought, and that I could clear many remaining doubts by meeting IRL, as Bonnie says your “reputation *exceeds* you”.

    This is a drastically magnified online. How many lurkers, of the present or the future, human or automated, can and will thanks to Google, access what has been written about me, long after the original authors have forgotten or changed their mind?

  6. Pat

    Was pondering shame, and wonder how much of it, as a concept is based around a concept of the filter bubble ( we create for ourselves on twitter. We have a very precise control over the “signal”, and in this case I would use position shame as “noise”.

    I wonder how much of the “i’m leaving twitter” is a reflection, like the mass myspace to facebook exodus (facebook was the officer’s site, myspace the private’s site – which is almost gentrification or something like *used with caution* a digital “white flight”?

    I think the reverse of call out is what – “shout out”? I grow weary of a twitter in which I see mutual backslapping and praise handed out without any of the reverse being used. I’ve seen lazy racism, sexism and some pretty out of order high level racism from some groups, who’d call it out in a second from some one outside of their group. I’ve thought about mentioning it, but I don’t want to have my “signal” swamped with the “noise” of being called out, or perhaps, having my bubble burst and suddenly getting a load of strangers all tweeting me.

    So to continue the idea, is shame a sudden collapse in pride, caused by a bubble bursting?


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