The many uses (and abuses) of shame

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Its absence can be liberating or terrifying, depending on where you sit. When he was president, Donald Trump was often portrayed as shameless, chiding his opponents in the most grim terms, gleefully signaling his imperviousness to proper (even democratic) opinion. His followers still love him for it, fired up by his willingness to say all the hateful things they were “allowed” to say but can’t say anymore. You could call it reactionary shamelessness — a defiant refusal to accept that the norms of the culture have changed and a nostalgia for a time when Trump supporters were the ones to be shamed. Over the past decades, people who might have been the targets of such ridicule have asserted their right not to be shamed for their weight, their sex, their desires.

This claim is also a kind of shamelessness, but according to Cathy O’Neil’s new book, “The Shame Machine”, it’s of a different kind – not bitter and resentful but “wholesome and liberating”. O’Neil distinguishes between shame that “knocks” and shame that “knocks.” Hitting is ridiculing and shunning people for things that O’Neil says are largely shaped by forces beyond their control; for her, these include drug addiction, obesity and poverty. To strike is to hold the powerful accountable for their actions – “police chiefs, governors, CEOs”.

Such distinctions are bound to be controversial – overly categorical or potentially condescending, portraying people as more despicable than they realize. O’Neil’s previous book, “Weapons of Math Destruction”, explored how algorithms encode and exacerbate inequalities; his new book’s “shame machines,” which include the weight-loss and wellness industries, work the same way: fueling bad feelings to drive profits while maintaining an unfair status quo.

But we shouldn’t ignore how shame has also been used as a force for positive change, O’Neil says. She cites what Frederick Douglass said he hoped to do for America: use “the public exposure of the contaminating and degrading influence of slavery” to “shame her for her adherence to such an odious system. to Christianity and its republican institutions. .” At a time when slavery was still legally sanctioned, Douglass could not appeal to governmental authority, but he could appeal to his apparent ideals.

“In some cases, shame is all we have,” environmental studies professor Jennifer Jacquet writes in “Is Shame Necessary?” (2015). Shame is powerful and also extremely imprecise, meaning it must be deployed “skillfully”, she says, with “scrupulous implementation”. An overzealous deployment can backfire, making the target feel victimized and even more isolated. “As with antibiotics, if shame is abused, we could all end up as victims,” she writes.

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