The Shame industrial complex is booming. Who collects?

THE SHAME MACHINE Who benefits from the new era of humiliation By Cathy O’Neil with Stephen Baker One of my first encounters with shame...


THE SHAME MACHINE
Who benefits from the new era of humiliation
By Cathy O’Neil with Stephen Baker

One of my first encounters with shame happened at a wedding when I was 9 years old. Shy and socially awkward, I found myself at a table with my parents and a group of elderly parents while other kids plotted petty crimes and sipped discarded champagne glasses. I don’t remember what song was playing when my mom grabbed my little pastel-colored handbag and playfully tossed it onto the dance floor, but I do remember picking up the mug of Irish coffee that was sitting next side of her and knocking her down on her knees. We left the reception immediately, my mother in her ruined dress and me with her handprint engraved on my face. An old man stopped us as we approached the exit. “It was a bad thing you just did,” he told me, “but I still think you’re a good girl.” I wanted the earth to crack and swallow us both.

Over the years that followed, I developed an intimate relationship with shame. I reflect on what it means to feel it, what it means to inflict it, and what role it plays in a culture that alternately praises or castigates those who deviate from the average. The first social function of shame – often a tool of oppression and always a tool that aims to control those who testify – is to neutralize transgression by humiliation, to force consensus by the threat of moral exile. In her new book, “The Shame Machine,” writer and data scientist Cathy O’Neil, writing with Stephen Baker, examines how shame has been both commodified and weaponized by a society increasingly alienated from real life. Who can profit from our pervasive, shame-driven culture wars? She wonders. And is there anything to get out of it?

What O’Neil aptly illustrates is that shame is often a lonely experience, which perhaps explains why it’s so easy to exploit it for profit. Nowhere is this monetization more evident than in the weight loss and wellness industries. Backed by social media influencers and celebrities, companies that make products that promise to shrink our bodies or re-elasticate our flabby faces have achieved astronomical growth over the past decade. “The Shame Machine” suggests that there’s a lot to be gained from our low self-esteem, mostly because there’s no diet in the world that can fix it. In what O’Neil calls “the industrial complex of shame,” corporations and social infrastructures insist that we are endowed with the power to shape our own lives, then blame us when their tools inevitably fail. I’m thinking of supermodel Linda Evangelista, who recently filed a lawsuit related to a cosmetic procedure that she claims left her permanently disfigured. That of Evangelista is a double disgrace; first she got old, then she got caught trying to hide it from the rest of us.

I am struck by how much American shame appears when examined in relief, invoking as it does notions of agency, will and sacrifice. O’Neil carefully dismantles how we abdicate our social responsibility to care for the vulnerable when we indulge in the idea that poverty and addiction result from a failure to fulfill ourselves. It’s hard to argue with the author’s condemnation of what she calls ‘punching’, a form of targeted humiliation that allows power structures to shift blame onto those who have been hurt by them. . In a 2001 internal email, Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler called people who became addicted to OxyContin “criminals” and “abusers.” In this way, shame is used to maintain the status quo; the opioid crisis has been presented as evidence of personal fragility rather than evidence of the devastating consequences of corporate greed.

When detailing the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, O’Neil reminds us that there is great power to be had when we appropriate and reuse the tools of our own oppression. Emboldened by a particularly misogynistic code of sexual shame that silenced his victims, the film’s producer probably didn’t anticipate that the women he assaulted and threatened would end up landing him in a jail cell. Weinstein’s incarceration follows a decades-long career of abuse and is inextricably linked to the launch of the #MeToo movement, when women publicly named their powerful predators and asked us all to reflect on the kind of society we live in. wanted to live. This type of social pressure is that which O’Neil classifies as productive, that which “strikes” in the service of justice. Larry Kramer and Rosa Parks hit; Gandi too. A quick reminder that none of them have done their job on the internet.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are particularly invested in sowing the seeds of discord, primarily because political and social disagreements inevitably deepen engagement. O’Neil’s characterization of these forums as “networked shame engines” accurately describes how quickly the Internet targets and punishes the US military for “Kens” and “Karens.” Violence by politicians, O’Neil says, has helped spur our collective urge to put strangers who disagree with us in internet palisades, where we can mock their avatars and bombard them with tomatoes. digital. O’Neil suggests we are entering dangerous waters when we launch Hester Prynne-ing people online; it is a fantasy to believe that he is doing anything other than enriching Mark Zuckerberg.

Where “The Shame Machine” seems to go off the rails is in O’Neil’s discussion of what she calls “healthy shame” – let’s call it a side punch. The side punch is the blow we deliver to people who do not share our social value systems; it’s the self-righteous bravado we feel when we tell an internet stranger, after the fact, to put on their mask; it’s the thrill of watching someone get reprimanded when they violate our understanding of how things should be. Although O’Neil explains how the side punch often successfully influences behaviors that result in true collective advantage (she provides Covid-19 vaccinations as an example), she neglects to fully dig into the role that the pure pleasure plays into our impulse to shame in these situations. who have no obvious victim or aggressor. It seems dishonest to ignore what is quietly at stake in even the most “healthy” shame: a demand for conformity articulated with a threat of ostracism. The basic “we” versus “you” dichotomy that foregrounds even the most benign shame still stands in the shadow of the hierarchical tower. It’s a lonely world. We should all admit that sometimes it feels secretly good to disappear into a rowdy crowd.

I sometimes remember what it felt like to sneak back to the car with my mother after leaving my aunt’s wedding, the mark on my face testifying to my transgression. I think of the old man who tried to throw me a lifeline, but only really succeeded in reinforcing the fact that we are always valued. Does shame work as a corrective tool? Maybe, but you have to be judicious when deploying it. Dignity is easily eroded and difficult to regain.

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