Monday, July 22, 2024
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Benefitting from the Shame Machine

Emily Balcetis

THE WASHINGTON POST – I remember one awful day in middle school when I was sitting in front of a trombone player during band rehearsal.

With confusion first and burning embarrassment next, I felt the oil that musicians use to grease their instruments ooze down my hair, neck and face. In an act of imperious adolescent spite, that trombone player had opened his bottle and poured the oil on my head.

I skipped lunch to shower in the gym locker room.

I washed my hair three more times when I got home. Still, it took a week for the soap to cut the residue and for the caustic smell to seep out of my pores. It took far longer for the humiliation to fade.

In The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation mathematician and journalist Cathy O’Neil investigates the people and institutions that benefit from creating and feeding private and public shame.

O’Neil begins her argument by recounting an experience with a bodega owner who worked against his own bottom line by shaming her. The shopkeeper publicly questioned whether O’Neil should be buying ingredients to bake cookies, given the size of her body.

She ended up bringing home the flour, sugar, chocolate chips and an unhealthy dose of disgrace.

The Shame Machine is not a diary of O’Neil’s grief but instead a data-driven, anecdote-fuelled narrative of the multitude of human experiences that are targets for ridicule and others’ reward. She vividly portrays the indignities of poverty, addiction, ageing, dementia and other conditions we all may face but hope to avoid, and she shows how the pain experienced by people with these afflictions can be used for others’ financial and social profits.

For example, she unearths how diet companies erroneously substantiate their fraudulent promises of body makeovers.

She warns about the psychological damage that could come from programmes like the Weight Watchers offshoot Kurbo, which pairs children as young as eight with virtual diet coaches ready to judge their caloric consumption.

Likewise, she illustrates the irony of The Biggest Loser, a television show that mockingly celebrates obese individuals’ efforts to lose weight. “Why are we celebrating her body?” one show host asked with fake concern on BuzzFeed TV.

It “isn’t going to be awesome if she gets diabetes”, she offered, in a superficial attempt to disguise her disdain and disgust.

Fat shaming, O’Neil argues, masquerades as concern-trolling, giving unsympathetic outsiders license to humiliate those with weight struggles and gain attention for themselves.

O’Neil quantifies the booming profits that come from ganging up on and calling out individuals who deviate from socially prescribed ideals. She probes the financial wins for the largely unregulated pharmaceutical supplement industry of shaming those who fear memory loss.

She takes a historical look at Lysol, and the company’s past calls for women to douche with the product to avoid being considered disgusting and encouraging a husband’s infidelity.

O’Neil also exposes cafeteria staff in public schools who stamp children’s hands when they cannot pay for lunch. They do this, they believe, to encourage parents to top off accounts before the ledgers are in the red.

These sad case studies do more than chastise enterprises that seek to profit from others’ suffering. O’Neil’s exposés also evoke philosophical questions, including about the definition of “shame”. Is it shame if one individual embarrasses another in private, or does it require others to see the embarrassment?

Can people without power shame those with it?

O’Neil offers answers to these questions and more, such as: How can people justify shaming when it hurts others so much? She suggests that shamers believe that others could have made different choices.

If shamers think that people addicted to drugs and alcohol could have chosen another lifestyle, they do not have to accept the moral responsibility to help.

If shamers think that those living without housing could find shelter if they tried harder, they don’t feel guilty when they ignore pleas for spare change or when they vote to withhold funding for social services and welfare programmes.

And: What is the purpose of shame? O’Neil posits that shame is intended to change others’ behavior. In situations where values are agreed upon and violations are clear, she finds that shaming nudges individuals to abide by social norms.

When O’Neil’s husband walked around New York City maskless during a spike in coronavirus transmission, for instance, a dose of shaming by a passerby got him forever after to mask up outside their home.

But I wonder if O’Neil has gotten it right. If shame is a mechanism for changing others’ choices, why do anti-vaxxers defy social pressures or even legal mandates to get the shot? Neighbours, strangers and politicians have sent subtle – and overt – messages shaming the choice to reject the needle.

O’Neil cites the Reverend Gabriel Salguero of Orlando, who advised his congregation, “In getting yourself vaccinated, you are helping your neighbour.”

He sermonised that those who didn’t were failing their moral responsibility to care for others. Despite hearing the message, vaccine holdouts remained. So, is shame an effective vehicle for social change, even when it comes from someone you know and trust?

In my take, not always. Shaming may not work in the case of these parishioners, or more generally when it is levelled against a group. You can deflect shame if you don’t see the finger wagging at you personally.

Maybe shame is meant to bring awareness. In Nigeria, O’Neil shares, the police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had a bad reputation, as did the country’s leaders who turned a blind eye to the group’s extrajudicial killings, corruption, abuse, rape and extortion.

In the past five years, advocacy campaigns demanded an end to SARS. Mainstream media picked up footage showing its officers tear-gassing protesters, shooting live ammunition and using water cannons.

A SARS officer shot a young Nigerian man in front of a hotel and drove off in the civilian’s Lexus. This, and other acts of police violence, led protesters to create hashtags unique to the events. O’Neil says those hashtags were acts of public shaming of the federal government.

But were they? Like O’Neil, I believe that protesters were using the hashtags to prompt international curiosity and concern and change the situation.

Did they think that #EndSARS would make, for example, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari feel ashamed? I doubt it. Change happened, yes. But through shame, perhaps not.

I’m also not convinced that shame is always intended for profit. Take the #MeToo movement. The hashtag turned the target of shame around: We could shame men, O’Neil writes, and reclaim a power that had been wielded against women.

But were women using that power for monetary or social gain? I think not. Most people who added this hashtag to their Twitter posts did not name names and were not involved in litigation against attackers. Instead, the motives behind the trend were more likely compassion, anger or opportunity for catharsis. Nonetheless, O’Neil’s reflections on #MeToo serve as a reminder that collective action spurred by an individual’s experience of shame can transform social practices.

Beyond these points of contention, O’Neil offers a provocative takeaway. She argues that shame can serve as an indirect means for growth. “Shame lurks,” she writes, “in repressed thoughts and unspoken fear”.

If we confront “shame machines”, we will “be able to dismantle them”. If we acknowledge that mistakes happen, then experiencing shame may encourage us to recognise when we’ve transgressed, and if we can give ourselves and others the latitude to change, we can acknowledge it and apologise.

We can then move past shame to forgiveness. When we talk about the ugly truths of our past offences, we can begin to redress injustice and unfairness.

Shame may be one tool, flawed and dangerous as it is, that can shed light on dark acts and catalyse real efforts to make change happen.