A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control. Publisher of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Gillian Terzis,, considers Ronson’s latest book to be “impeccably timed.” Here’s why:
Oversharing, once seen as the product of poor (and almost exclusively female) self-restraint, is more accurately understood in the context of the ‘liking’ economy as a form of strategic revelation in service of clicks, likes, retweets and faves. The social media ‘pile on’ seems to function similarly. The momentum of public outrage and the attendant clicks quickly eclipse any genuine moral conviction.
Driven and amplified by social media, the pile-on seems a contemporary phenomenon. Outrage has been commodified, and savvy media outlets couldn’t be happier about it. But its animating impulses are as old as time: it’s often as much about righting wrongs as it is about basking in the approval from others. Pile-ons, perhaps because of their ferocity, are ripe for backlash…
One such pile-on happened to Justine Sacco in 2013 after tweeting “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Among other consequences, she lost her PR job. “Sacco’s offence, according to Ronson, was not that her comments were racist or ignorant, but that they were stripped out of context — a rookie error for a terrible comedian. The magnitude of her public annihilation seemed disproportionate,” states Terzis.
But Sacco’s only one of a group of shamed people Ronson interviewed for the book. “As Ronson makes patently clear, all these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes,” notes Rachel Cook, The Guardian.
Can the purposeful use of public shaming ever motivate people to make healthy changes?
Brené Brown, an expert on shame, elaborates on how this tendency operates in our culture:
…It’s used in our ‘here and now’ society because you can actually see a swift behavior change when you use shame. The consequences, however, are very serious. Shame promotes change by using fear of rejection, fear of not being accepted and fear of disconnection. Ultimately, shame is very destructive to both the person doing the shaming and the person being shamed. When you talk to 200 women about shame (and now some men as well), you quickly learn how many of our deepest scars are from being shamed and many of our most profound regrets can be traced back to experiences when we shamed others.
In a Psychology Today blog post, noted addictions expert Dr. Stanton Peele also warns against public shaming. He refers to neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz, whose article in Time, “Being Ashamed of Drinking Prompts Relapse, Not Recovery,” cites new research results that “add to a body of literature suggesting that widely used shaming and humiliating methods of treating alcohol and other drug problems …are not only ineffective but also may be counterproductive.”
In fact, we just wind up back where we started:
Shame is not only an effect of addiction but also can be a key reason why some people turn to drink or other drugs in the first place. Research suggests that people who feel particularly high levels of shame are at increased risk not just for addictions but also for other conditions that can worsen addictions, like depression…
That can set up a vicious cycle: if you drink to escape shame and then embarrass yourself while drinking, you wind up with even more reasons to drink — and to be ashamed of yourself.