Shame is not a pleasant emotion. It can make you feel isolated, unworthy, and guilty (as you may well know). But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. In fact, it’s precisely because shame is so painful that it’s such an essential part of our hardwiring. Shame is meant to alert us to the fact that we’re not acting in accordance with our communal values—in our more primitive days, this might have meant expulsion from our tribe and, ultimately, death. Not great!
Fortunately, most of us no longer live in such life-or-death circumstances. But as we’ve evolved, so too has our shame. In fact, these days being shamed can look a lot more like being manipulated—in the case of the many booming industries intent on selling you the solution to your feelings of inadequacy (beauty, fitness, and self-help, to name a few). It can also look like being humiliated, in the case of the daily social media dogpiles.
“In its myriad forms, modern shame consistently flubs its unifying mission, succeeding only in delivering pain and driving us apart,” writes Cathy O’Neil in her recent book The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the Age of Humiliation.
A mathematician by training (her first book, Weapons of Math Destruction, was longlisted for the National Book Award) who works in data science, O’Neil came to the topic of shame partly through personal experience: both a “lifelong battle with fat shame” and her participation in Occupy Wall Street, a movement built on shaming banks. She developed an interest in building what she calls a “principled taxonomy of shame” to try to answer two questions: When is shame appropriate? And when does it work?
The answers to those questions are wrapped up in other knotty dilemmas: How do we think about using what she calls “healthy” shame to nudge people toward shared norms and values when we can’t even agree on communal norms and values? Is social media vilification an acceptable way of improving someone’s moral behavior? (Hi, Karen.) Who decides what appropriate moral behavior is anyway? Here, O’Neil tries to answer those questions and give us all a better sense of how to best wield the “hot iron” of shame.
GQ: How is shame different from guilt?
Cathy O’Neil: Guilt is like, “I did something wrong and I feel really bad about it.” You can have pretty serious feelings of guilt, but shame is like, “I am wrong. I am a bad person.” Shame makes you feel inherently unworthy, whereas guilt makes you feel like you should amend your behavior. Guilt is inherently a behavior-related issue rather than about who you are.
What is the opposite of shame?
I would say dignity, or conferring dignity. When you’re shaming, you’re saying, “You’re worthless, you’re unsalvageable.”
So who does profit in the age of humiliation? Who are the shame machines?
I’ll distinguish between two types of profiting: the old school shame industry, and the new big tech shame industries. The old school shame industries are cosmetics, anything to make women feel unpretty or too old, the weight loss industry, rehab centers that are based on shame and don’t actually work. The old school is based on: Shame the victim and then offer them a product that they can buy to get rid of the shame. Then there’s the new form of the shame machines: social media platforms. [These companies] build platforms designed to make us shame each other, and they profit off of us doing that. They make the perfect ecosystem where we are with our like-minded friends. The algorithm filters the most outrageous thing that happened to us so we can be outraged and performatively shame the people or the person who that story is about. Then we get liked and retweeted by our little group, and we hate on that other group, that other group gets outraged that we’re trying to shame them. It’s a shame machine because it was designed to be like that, and when we get involved, we are working for free for Facebook. We’re making them profit by jumping on the shame train.