For an important emotion, shame is strangely easy to get wrong. This is a conundrum of our age, with its constant access to a worldwide gallery of the shameful, but also of most other ages. The very first moment of human shame, according to Genesis, was misplaced: Adam and Eve hide from God in Eden not because they’ve disobeyed him and eaten the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, but because, having eaten the fruit, they are ashamed of being naked.
Shame is a social emotion. It is something you feel, but it is also something you believe—or feel, through your other emotions—that other people should be feeling. “It is administered,” Cathy O’Neil writes in the introduction to The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation, “by a collective whose rules and taboos are etched into our psyches. Its goal is the survival not of the individual, but of the society.”
So when that societal collective is unstable, shame becomes slippery. Amid competing and conflicting value systems, anyone may have the power to convince someone else they’ve failed to live up to some standard or another. “The shamescape is in constant flux,” O’Neil writes, “but always brimming with opportunity.” If you are enterprising enough to find, or to manufacture, a person’s weak point, you can push them “to buy a treadmill, get a nose job, click on an ad, pay for a useless degree, sign up for a high-priced diet, or vote for a certain presidential candidate.”
That same slipperiness, though, makes it difficult to be prescriptive (or sometimes even descriptive) about the contemporary role of shame. Shame is what unjustly hounds fat people and people randomly targeted by Internet outrage. It is also what drags police brutality into the open and forces the justice system to respond. Shame is a weapon with which the powerless can stop the powerful from harming them, and it is a weapon the powerful can use to deal out harm.
O’Neil, warning against the cynical use of moral frameworks, quotes a 2001 e-mail from Richard Sackler, then the president of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, about how to deflect the blame for the opioid epidemic that the company had both promoted and made billions of dollars from: “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” Sackler advised the company. “They are the culprits and the problem.”
There is too much shame at work in Sackler’s world, and obviously also, in a very important sense, nowhere near enough of it.
If you are enterprising enough to find, or to manufacture, a person’s weak point, you can push them “to buy a treadmill, get a nose job … or vote for a certain presidential candidate.”
In O’Neil’s previous book, Weapons of Math Destruction, she raised a clear alarm about the rising power of opaque, unaccountable, and self-justifying algorithms. Here, though, it’s not always so easy to follow her account of how the shame machines work, what they are, or what to do about them.
The book opens and closes with a very precise account of how and why one kind of shaming machinery does work, as O’Neil describes her experiences growing up and living as an overweight person in a fat-loathing society.
Her overweight, otherwise rational parents lovingly try to put her on the same kind of diets that have failed them. After O’Neil undergoes adult bariatric surgery, her nurse practitioner insists she pursue a lower target weight, even though her own health goals are to lower her blood sugar and to become more active. Logic and knowledge are no match for the emotional power of a societal story, or for the industries that have grown up to take advantage of that kind of shame.
Those lessons don’t necessarily transfer to other problems of shame, though. “Shamelessness can be a healthy and freeing response, even a superpower,” O’Neil writes. Here she cites the singer Lizzo’s exuberant enjoyment of her large body, in defiance of society’s contempt. But, give or take the word “healthy,” it is also a description of how Donald Trump became the most powerful person in the world.
Logic and knowledge are no match for the industries that have grown up to take advantage of shame.
O’Neil tries to clarify the differences between good and bad shame, or good and bad shamelessness, by repeatedly (unto repetitively) classifying efforts to shame someone as “punching up” or “punching down.” The former is a good and just re-alignment of power; the latter is abuse. Yet amid shifting contexts and value systems—to say nothing of widespread moral opportunism—“up” and “down” are dangerously undefined.
A mob is, after all, a device for inverting the usual directions of power. The people who oppose pandemic mask or vaccination requirements by shouting death threats at school-board members perceive that they are punching up at an indifferent bureaucracy; the school-board members perceive that they are being individually and personally menaced.
O’Neil describes how wealthy New Yorkers mobilized against a coronavirus shelter for homeless people, with one lifelong liberal suggesting spraying the shelter residents in the eyes with insecticide: “My former neighbors on the Upper West Side could very well have believed they were punching up at the mayor, while in fact they were punching down, some of them brutally, on the most unfortunate New Yorkers.”
“Shamelessness can be a healthy and freeing response, even a superpower,” Cathy O’Neil writes about Lizzo. But, give or take the word “healthy,” it is also a description of Donald Trump.
Even discussing these dynamics of shaming creates new dynamics. Of the woman who wanted to attack the homeless with bug spray, for whom she uses the pseudonym “Roberta,” O’Neil writes, “You could say I’m punching down on Roberta, since here I am writing about her mistakes again and publishing them for a global audience.”
O’Neil hopes to offer readers a way out of all the shaming, if only by reminding us to pay attention to the brutal emotional power attached to something so easy to deploy. “Only by creating mental inventories of the shame we emit can we refrain from poisoning people’s sense of self-worth with snotty comments, ugly comparisons, judgy retweets, impossible expectations, and so on,” she writes.
The book would like to be optimistic. “There are shame-free solutions to almost all of our social problems,” O’Neil writes. Homeless people could be given public housing, she argues, and people with drug addictions could be treated, with their habits decriminalized. But self-righteousness is a useful weapon; even now, Republicans are denouncing safe-injection centers as a scheme to hand out government-funded crack pipes.
“Shaming the poor not only saves the wealthier classes money but also makes them feel virtuous,” O’Neil writes. “It’s akin to the self-satisfaction felt by the thin in the presence of the obese and the sober when comparing themselves to others with a drug or alcohol problem.” Well, it is akin, to an extent, except the sober don’t become even more sober by disdaining the drunks. The rich, as she said, get to keep their money.
Tom Scocca is the former politics editor of Slate and the editor of Hmm Weekly