Our emerging culture of shame


I remember a speech that the novelist Tom Wolfe gave on CSPAN or some such back in the 1990s in which he said something like “Nietzsche predicted that the 20th century would be the age of ideology, and that the century after the age of morality, and I believe him” I’ve never been able to find the source of the quote, but the more the 21st century rolls on, the more I’m finding it to be increasingly, frighteningly true.

Thing is, I didn’t really get Wolfe’s point at the time given that the 90’s were a period in which relativism of one sort or another was so ascendant- at least on college campuses -in America. While such relativism dominates it’s hard to  see that the ultimate outcome is  either going to be a growing inability to distinguish genuine communication from manipulation and propaganda, or more surprisingly, will result in an environment of cultural and political fanaticism where seemingly everything, including the interpersonal give and take of everyday life, becomes subsumed into unresolvable moral conflicts.

All that’s probably pretty confusing, so let me start with the latter point, and especially one peculiar aspect of this reality which all of us are probably guilty of.  If we most often recognize moral fanaticism when it comes in the form of shootings and bombings done by humans who act like automatons, much, much more often it comes in the form of nasty tweets and comments by us. This verbal violence we inflict aims to psychologically rather than physically injure- to inspire shame, through which we hope to enforce our own ideal of what is right and just. It’s a behavior I myself have engaged in and felt superior while doing so, and hadn’t thought of questioning until I read  Jon Ronson’s, remarkable, hilarious, and incredibly sad, book So you’ve been publicly shamed.

The book starts off with a story that would not have made sense until our early 21st century world. A group of academic researchers, without Ronson’s permission, created a bot with his name- a simulcra that sends out tweets he finds alien. For the academics it’s a kind of experiment in postmodern theories of the self. For Ronson it’s identity theft.

It’s in the Twitter mob that came to Ronson’s defense that he found the subject for his book. At first aligned with their anger over the blatant attempt to misrepresent his identity, Ronson became both disturbed and intrigued by the forceful and sometimes violent rhetoric of those who used Twitter to shame his tormentors into taking down their bot.

Ronson then goes on a journey to understand this online shaming, a journey that takes him to some strange and sometimes disturbing places. There’s Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced science journalists who confessed his misdeeds in front of a live frothing Twitter wall. There was the case of Justine Sacco whose thoughtless, many thought racist, joke led to the end of her career and threats against her life.

This justice of the mob in part grows out of the nature of the internet itself. Social media democratizes power, but this is a power stripped of the accumulated lessons of history. The problem is not so much that groups collectively pursue what they believe to be right and just. It is that they do so without all the mechanisms designed for discovering some shadow of the truth. To actually discern whether someone actually deserved any public reprobate or other form of social punishment would actually require some agreed upon mechanism for deciding upon an approximation of the truth.

This amounts to frankly boring procedures whose purpose is to restrain emotion especially the desire for revenge which arises out of our need for justice. Something  that in a different context Jaron Lanier referred to as “low pass filtering” and is an essential component of the civilization in which we live that we take for granted at our peril.

These procedures and emotional restraints are exactly the opposite of a Twitter mob, and in a clever twist that I’m not sure Ronson was aware of, like the creators of the tormenting bot that began his quest to understand shame, such mobs are impervious to facts because they do not believe anything resembling truth actually exist.

Yet this is more my darkness and bleak perspective poking through than what can be found in Ronson. He wants nothing to do with a resurrected Gustav Le Bon, or even something like the Stanford Prison Experiment. (As a side note he points out that this famous demonstration of the human potential for depravity was mostly fake. There was only one “evil” guard, and he was acting the part he thought he was expected to play. It made me wonder how much the villainy of the present and future will be influenced by what the media has defined a villain to be.)

Ronson, however, sees the kinds of dark rhetoric that is so often found on the internet, as less a reflection of human darkness than something that arose out of the anarchic spirit of the early internet itself. A spirit which, though it might no longer exist on the corporatized web, can still be found on a forum like 4chan.

I think this less jaundiced view of human beings stems from Ronson’s obvious compassion towards our flawed nature. Because (I believe) he rightly, holds true evil to be very rare, he needs to explain the prevalence of human “baddness”, our verbal attacks upon persons we believe have committed moral infractions such as Justine Sacco or Jonah Lehrer.

His explanation ends up being remarkably similar to that of the evolutionary psychologist, Mark Pagel, in his book Wired for Culture. Pagels argued that our inhibitions against violence can most quickly be unleashed against those who violate the norms of the groups to which we belong. Our unrivaled capacity for violence, and shame is a form of violence whose aim is most often coercion, is but the dark side of our equally unrivaled capacity for culture.

But unlike Pagels, Ronson is driven to understand the desire to police norms through shame caused by himself. Reflecting on what had driven his own engagement in online shaming he writes:

… it was the desire to do something good that propelled me. Which was definitely a better thing to be propelled by than group madness. But my desire had taken a lot of scalps- I’d torn a lot of people I couldn’t now remember- which made me suspect that it was coming from some weird dark well, some place I really didn’t want to think about. Which is why I had to think about it. (109)

It’s the same impulse that led so many East Germans to report their neighbors activity to the Stasi:

It was an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing. (271)

Ronson’s book could not have come at a better time for shame seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance lately. The journalist David Brooks has recently done some fascinating pieces on the subject, the most important takeaway from which I think should be, when he said:

Some sort of moral system is coming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of this new moral system?

Here Brooks is building off of the work of writers like Andy Crouch, whose work he cites:

Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.

…there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

… people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is celebrity — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform.

On the positive side, this new shame culture might rebind the social and communal fabric. It might reverse, a bit, the individualistic, atomizing thrust of the past 50 years.

On the other hand, everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along.

I think this description of Brooks/ Crouch is really onto something and that someone with just the right eye in the 1980’s and 90’s who had combined the kind of psychological lynchings on shows like Jerry Springer, with the kinds of assaults on privacy and paparazzi caused destruction and politically driven character assassination, along with the democratization of media and communications technology might have gotten the zeitgeist of 2016 eerily correct. It’s weird, but for how technologically advanced we are, the culture our technology is helping give rise to looks like something out of the morally balkanized Reformation period, combined with the prying, social climbing and vindictiveness of the court at Versailles.

This points to how I differ from either Brooks or Crouch’s view that the “new shame culture might rebind the social and communal fabric.” It probably is the case that the use of shaming as punishment is the oldest way in which human groups have enforced their norms, though one might respond to Brooks and Crouch that shame culture is only possible in tribal scale societies and becomes impossible once a society is too large for any individual to be able to keep track of all of his neighbors business.

That objection, however, isn’t really true. You can indeed use shame to enforce norms across large societies as anyone from a large society like China, South Korea or Japan will tell you. There was even a famous book about it The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. In that book she contrasted Western cultures where norms were enforced via externalized guilt with Japan where similar norms were enforced through shame.

Indeed I’ve been wondering of late how the large shame based societies in East Asia have been interacting with the new social media, curious if Neal Stephenson’s prediction of how the internet in China way back in 1994 has becoming true. Stephenson wondered that while the internet in the West promised grassroots democracy:

…. but the Chinese are just as apt to think of it as a finely engineered snare for tying the whole country together even more firmly than its predecessor.

If the internet hasn’t even brought grassroots democracy to countries where republicanism is a deep, indeed defining, part of their identity, it certainly won’t bring it to China, which means only the darker aspect of Stephenson’s prediction can come true. But I digress.

Back on topic, it is nevertheless the case that thinking we are moving from a guilt culture to a shame culture thanks to communications technologies, and that this shame is robust enough to hold up a large society such as ours because it can do so for even larger societies in Asia, actually collapses upon inspection. The distinction between East Asian shame based societies and our own formerly guilt based one is just how heterogeneous Western societies are compared to their counterparts. That is, you need a shared understanding of what is “shamable” behavior and what is not for shame to work as the basis for enforcing social norms in the first place, which probably entails some shared understanding of the truth or deference to some group that defines good and the truth. In fact we’re moving in the opposite direction.

Globally it’s even worse, which is why I think a project such as Jennifer Jacquet’s proposal to use “shaming at scale” to pursue environmental justice, however laudable, just isn’t feasible over the long term, and would likely fail in the same way it has failed in the US where efforts to shame CEOs and companies over horrors such as global warming leads to deliberate agontology which is quickly followed up by a nationalist backlash against “elites”using the language of environmental protection and human rights to pursue their own agenda.

Yet while the difficulty in using shame to enforce social norms globally and broadly across Western societies may end up being a fool’s errand that doesn’t mean it won’t be tried. Maybe we’ll use AI to overcome the the fact that shame becomes harder to enforce once it gets so big there are more people than you could ever personally know, let alone keep track of. Though in that case- those who control the AI will also control the social norms. Or maybe we’ll find ourselves in something like David Brin’s Transparent Society- gag. In the end it might happen, but that makes it even more important that we understand what Ronson has to say about the soul destroying effects of shame and the attempts to escape it.

One response to shame is to become shameless. Ronson finds this in a group whose shame “cure” is based on the adoption of radical honesty. The group spends most of its time insulting one another. This might be yet another way to explain the rise of Trump- as a revolt of the shamed who have declared their own shamelessness.

I think what many of Trump’s supporters are revolting against, over and above legitimate economic grievances, is the sense that they are not merely ridiculed as “white trash”, by what they think are “smug”, “liberal”, “elites”. Perhaps they feel that well off people who believe themselves to be superior think they are supposed to feel ashamed for what they think. Their anger and total transparency are forms of protection against shame.

Given the absence of shared norms and a  shared understanding of truth all continued shame and ridicule seems to do is to cause people to become even angrier and in their anger they have torn up not merely their filters, but the very civility that makes shared political life possible.

Another response to shame which Ronson explores which is applicable to our situation is not transparency but the mask. “Reputation management” is now a service meant to smother in the banal and benign something that has brought a person into public derision.

We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive was to be bland. (266)

It’s also incredibly expensive, which is why in the transparent society before us only the poor and lower middle classes are actually seen through. 

Lastly Ronson, jumping off of the work of the psychologist James Gilligan ,shows how deep shame is perhaps universally at the root of extreme violence, that those driven to such violence see it as a way to expunge their otherwise unbearable shame. Even should we not be capable of Ronson-level compassion towards fellow our human beings, given the ever increasing capacity of “the little guy” to exercise violence ,this is not a seed we should continue to sow.

4 comments on “Our emerging culture of shame

  1. […] via Our emerging culture of shame — Utopia or Dystopia […]

  2. […] truth and goodness could ever be satisfactorily defined most human beings were going to continue to sort themselves along these lines, and the new forms of media were going to vastly increase their capacity to do so free from any […]

  3. […] via Our emerging culture of shame — Utopia or Dystopia […]

  4. […] of the 1960’s and 70’s) we’ve instead chosen to create a balkanized society held together via ostracism and technologically empowered shame. […]

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