THE SHAME MACHINE
Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation
By Cathy O’Neil with Stephen Baker
One of my earliest encounters with shame occurred at a wedding when I was 9. Shy and socially awkward, I found myself at a table with my parents and a group of elderly relatives while other kids plotted soft crimes and sipped from abandoned glasses of champagne. I don’t remember what song was playing when my mother reached for my little pastel-colored purse and playfully tossed it onto the dance floor, but I do remember picking up the mug of Irish coffee that sat next to her and tipping it over her lap. We left the reception immediately, my mother in her ruined dress and me with her handprint emblazoned across my face. An old man stopped us as we neared the exit. “That was a bad thing you just did,” he said to me, “but I still think you’re a good girl.” I wished that the earth would crack open and swallow up the both of us.
Over the ensuing years, I have developed an intimate relationship with shame. I think about what it means to feel it, what it means to inflict it and what role it plays in a culture that alternately lauds or castigates those who deviate from the mean. The primary social function of shame — often a tool of oppression and always one that aims to police those who bear witness — is to neutralize transgression via humiliation, to force consensus by threat of moral exile. In her new book, “The Shame Machine,” the writer and data scientist Cathy O’Neil, writing with Stephen Baker, examines how shame has been both commodified and weaponized by a society that is increasingly estranged from real life. Who stands to profit from our ubiquitous shame-driven culture wars? she wonders. And is there anything to be gained from them?
What O’Neil adroitly illustrates is that shame is often a lonely experience, which is perhaps why it is so easy to exploit it for profit. Nowhere is this monetization more evident than in the weight loss and wellness industries. Propped up by social media influencers and celebrity endorsements, companies that make products promising to shrink our bodies or re-elasticize our saggy faces have realized astronomical growth over the past decade. “The Shame Machine” suggests that there is much profit to be made from our low self-esteem, mostly because there is not a diet in the world that will fix it. In what O’Neil terms “the shame industrial complex,” corporations and social infrastructures insist that we are endowed with the power to contour our own lives, and then blame us when their tools inevitably fail. I think of the supermodel Linda Evangelista, who recently filed a lawsuit related to a cosmetic procedure that she claims left her permanently disfigured. Evangelista’s is a double shame; first she aged, and then she got caught trying to hide it from the rest of us.
I am struck by how very American shame seems when examined in relief, invoking as it does notions of agency, willpower and sacrifice. O’Neil carefully dismantles how we abdicate our social responsibility for caring for the vulnerable when we indulge in the notion that poverty and drug addiction result from a failure to self-actualize. It’s hard to argue with the author’s condemnation of what she calls “punching down,” a targeted brand of humiliation that allows structures of power to transfer blame onto exactly those who have been injured by them. In a 2001 internal email, Purdue Pharma’s then-president, Richard Sackler, referred to the people who had become addicted to OxyContin as “criminals” and “abusers.” In such ways, shame is employed to maintain the status quo; the opioid crisis has been framed as evidence of personal frailty rather than proof of the devastating consequences of corporate greed.
When she details the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, O’Neil reminds us that there is great power to be had when we appropriate and repurpose the tools of our own oppression. Emboldened by a particularly misogynistic code of sexual shame that kept his victims silent, the film producer likely did not anticipate that the women he had assaulted and threatened would eventually lead him to a prison cell. Weinstein’s incarceration followed 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 think about what kind of society we wanted to live in. This type of social pressure is one that O’Neil classifies as productive, one that “punches up” in the service of justice. Larry Kramer and Rosa Parks punched up; Gandhi too. A brief reminder that none of them did their work on the internet.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are particularly invested in sowing the seeds of discord, mostly because political and social disagreements inevitably escalate engagement. O’Neil’s characterization of these forums as “networked shame engines” accurately describes the conveyor belt-like swiftness with which the internet targets and punishes America’s self-replenishing army of “Kens” and “Karens.” The violence wrought by politicians, says O’Neil, has helped spur our collective lust for putting strangers who don’t agree with us into internet stockades, where we can make fun of their avatars and bombard them with digital tomatoes. O’Neil suggests that we enter treacherous waters when we start Hester Prynne-ing people online; it is a fantasy to believe that it does anything other than enrich Mark Zuckerberg.
Where “The Shame Machine” seems to rattle off its tracks is in O’Neil’s discussion of what she refers to as “healthy shaming” — let’s call it a lateral punch. The lateral punch is the blow that we strike against 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 his mask on; it’s the thrill of watching someone be reprimanded when they violate our understanding of how things should be. Though O’Neil outlines how the lateral punch often successfully influences behaviors that result in a genuine collective benefit (she provides Covid-19 vaccinations as an example), she neglects to fully excavate what role sheer pleasure plays in our impulse to shame in those situations that have neither obvious victim nor victimizer. It seems disingenuous to ignore what is quietly at play in even the “healthiest” of shaming: a request for compliance that is hinged to a threat of ostracization. The basic “us” versus “you” dichotomy that foregrounds even the most benign of shaming always stands in the shadow of the hierarchical tower. It’s a lonely world. We should all admit that sometimes it secretly feels good to disappear into a heckling crowd.
I sometimes remember how it felt to skulk toward the car with my mother after leaving my aunt’s wedding, the mark on my face evidence of my transgression. I think about the old man who tried to throw me a lifeline, but really only succeeded in reinforcing that we are always being appraised. Does shame work as a tool of correction? Perhaps, but we should be judicious when we deploy it. Dignity is easily eroded and hard to regain.