The Cost of a Pervasive Culture of Shame

Humanity collectively perpetuates shame, a self-regulating mechanism to forcibly coerce others into conforming to society's norms. On a basic level, shame is a powerful tool that can be used to maintain social order. In modern instances sex offenders are registered in a database and this information is publicly available. During the renaissance, a disorderly citizen might be locked in the stocks and have his crimes publicly declared to everyone who will listen.

When someone violates the social code, we respond by criticizing or otherwise punishing them. We learn to shame people who challenge our own ideals or ideas of how society should function.

Modern public shame is primarily provided by the media machine. The nature of social media allows for near instantaneous sharing of opinions and news. Twitter and Facebook both are awash with people rightly protesting the wrongs of society and bringing light to important issues. Unfortunately, this power to instantaneously share can also be horribly abused.

In his article "Internet shaming: The legal history of shame and its cost and benefits" for Slate, Eric Posner writes, "It is possible to argue that the Internet has re-created small-town society, where everyone knew everything about everyone, so everyone acted virtuously in order to avoid ostracism and other sanctions."

He continues saying, "Small-town societies bred small-mindedness and conformity, and if they were ever tolerable, it was only because one could leave. One can't leave the Internet. Once shamed, always shamed."

He goes on to highlight that what is viewed as 'good and just' is highly subjective. One might consider shaming an acceptable tool in the fight toward marriage equality, but to another it might be used instead to protect traditional marriage. Both are different sides of the same coin, and both groups are equally convinced that the humiliating power they wield is justified.

The anonymity of the internet is combined with a distinct lack of empathy, often to devastating effect. Not having to face the person you insult is emboldening. It leads people to act in a manner completely different than in person.

This trend has continued in the persistent harassment of now former Nintendo employee Alison Rapp. Rapp is no stranger to controversy and has taken strong stances on the topics of feminism, Japanese culture, and pornography laws - all topics she later became targeted for. Unfortunately, her controversial views led many people to wrongfully believe that they're entitled to sexually harass and threaten her with death. Some in our society sickeningly delight in assuming the guise of blameless saints, while simultaneously lambasting others for the things they themselves just haven't been caught doing yet.

On the surface it hearkens back to the PR damage control done after Justine Sacco's fateful tweet. In both instances, these individuals were public relations representatives. While holding this type of public position, all eyes are on you as a representative of the company. Many types of social interactions can occur when you occupy such a public role, and this often results in intense public scrutiny via social media. Such was the case to varying extents for both Ms. Sacco and Ms. Rapp.

It is important to note that Ms. Rapp was not fired for her tweets. In this particular instance, Nintendo maintains that Ms. Rapp was terminated because the second job she held did not align with Nintendo's company culture. Now thousands weigh in, operating under the assumption that are entitled to the position of personally casting judgments and delivering punishment, leading sickeningly to the harassment of Alison's family.

In her TED talk, Monica Lewinsky recalled her own experiences and added that,

"The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behavior like cyberbullying, trolling, some forms of hacking, and online harassment. Why? Because they all have humiliation at their cores. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we've created."

How many people thought about the emotional toll on the person receiving this criticism and vitriol in the form of public shaming? Too many, I'm sure, will still believe it justified. It's easy to fly off the handle and blast someone we disagree with, potentially smearing their reputation in the process. Facts are ignored in favor of furor, tempered in turn by anonymity, and delivered to a worldwide audience.

David M Kirby is a screenwriter, editor, and journalist. You can find more of his work at McCauley's Columns.