Leadership gurus often talk about blame-storming, which is just like brainstorming except that the purpose is to find a scapegoat for something that’s gone wrong. Social media is now producing what you might call “shame-storming,” where some offense (real or imagined) is uncovered, and a horde of indignant tweeters quickly assembles to publicize the transgression and heap imprecations on its author.
This is the topic of Jon Ronson’s new book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” which seems to have gotten generally good reviews on Amazon and in traditional news media but a lot of pushback from the mostly online world it covers.
“ ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed' reads like a defense of unfairly victimized white men and privileged white women,” Jacqui Shine wrote at BuzzFeed. Since publication, Ronson himself has already been the target of one shame-storm concerning a badly phrased sentence in unedited galleys that was deleted from the final edit.
Ronson is a lovely, fluid writer, and he has a keen eye for painful, telling details. But he doesn’t dive deep enough into what shaming is good for and why we like it so much. Critics have focused on the details of this or that particular episode – his case studies of the New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer, who fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for his book, and Adria Richards, a female developer who tweeted about men’s comments at a computer programming conference – are the target of most of the complaints. I think the cause of much disagreement is how lightly he dwells on the reasons we shame in the first place. Shame can be, after all, a force for good. A proper accounting of the problems with shame-storming has to convey that reality, as well as articulate how we might better balance the need to enforce some sort of social norms against the terrible harms, economic as well as emotional, that shame-storming can inflict.
Shame is a pretty deeply wired emotion; almost everyone gossips, and almost everyone hates to feel ashamed. It’s one way we enforced good behavior in small groups before there were laws or trading networks. It is a very powerful motivator, and it helps us to come together in large cooperative groups with high degrees of trust and sharing. A hatred of being shamed ourselves and a love of shaming others who have transgressed both literally helped to make us human.
Ronson discusses legal punishments that use shaming, such as forcing thieves to apologize and make restitution, or drunken drivers to stand beside a highway with a sign proclaiming that they killed someone. To his surprise, even the shamed people reported that these punishments were life-changing: Unlike a prison term, they made the punished feel remorse and gave them an opportunity to make some sort of amends.
Once shamed, we are strongly motivated to avoid doing the things that brought it on. So we need shame. The problem is, maybe we don’t always need so much of it.
In the small groups we evolved to live in, shame is tempered by love and forgiveness. People are shamed for some transgression, then they are restored to the group. Ultimately, the shamed person is not an enemy; he or she is someone you need and want to get along with. This is how you make up with your spouse after one or both of you has done or said something terrible.
In a large group, shame is punishment, but it still has a restorative aspect. One of the most surprising passages of Ronson’s book reveals that the drunken driver who had to stand beside the road got more compassion than catcalls from passing drivers.
On the Internet, when the social context is stripped away and you don’t have to look at the face of the person you’re being mean to, shame loses its social, restorative function. Shame-storming isn’t punishment. It’s a weapon. And weapons aren’t supposed to be used against people in your community; they’re for strangers, people in some other group that you don’t like very much.
Ronson’s critics are appealing to the small-group uses of shame: moral enforcement, shaping communities, taking power from the offender and giving it to those who have been wronged. Yet shame isn’t being administered the way a small community would do it. Outrages are identified using the least charitable, most literal possible reading of what someone wrote or did, rather than trying (as a small group would) to think of what they could have meant by it, giving them the benefit of the doubt where two readings are possible. Things that were stupid and thoughtless are turned into deliberate outrages that could only be the work of hardened psychopaths. True, Twitter gives us none of the social cues that a face-to- face encounter would deliver - but it’s also a lot easier to imagine the worst of some faceless stranger, and to say incivil things yourself.
Many things that are castigated deserve condemnation. But because shame-storms easily blow up around things that were unlikely to be meant the way people often take them, we often demand the putative offenders feel remorse for crimes they don’t feel they committed. And in the heat of the shame-storm, there is no way for them to explain themselves, or for others to explain exactly what it is they did wrong.
Because the reaction is so quick and impersonal, punishment also is often disproportionate. Taking a tasteless photo at Arlington National Cemetery, as one woman did, is juvenile and dumb. But the sentence that Twitter imposed for her offense was endless abuse from strangers, followed by her firing from her job helping children with disabilities, struggling to find any sort of gainful employment and fearful of leaving her house lest people recognize her. This seems excessive for an offense that undoubtedly merited a good talking-to.
If Ronson seems excessively empathetic toward the shamed, even those like Lehrer who genuinely did something very wrong, it is because he spent most of his book interviewing people whose lives were (at least briefly) destroyed by what was usually a transient, stupid impulse, the kind that in person would elicit a five-minute lecture on propriety.
But forget whether the shaming is excessive. Does it even work?
Many folks certainly seem terrified by the possibility of being attacked by roving bands of verbal vigilantes. Yet I notice two things that raise questions about the tactic’s usefulness. First of all, the fears are strongest among people who are politically allied with the shame-stormers. And second, the people who are afraid don’t fear being found out for their dark transgressions; they fear being unjustly attacked.
Twitter makes it absurdly easy to attack someone without pausing to think about context or your effect on another human being. No matter what that person did, short of war crimes, you probably would not join a circle of thousands of people heaping abuse upon a lone target cowering in the center – the real-world equivalent of what online shame-stormers do.
This sort of tactic may buy silence, though it is likely to be the most effective on people who already agree with you and simply said something infelicitous. What it cannot buy is community, beyond the bonds that build between people joined in collective hate. With the exception of Lehrer, the people Ronson interviews think they were victims of abuse, not excessively harsh justice. They often recognize they did something stupid, but they don’t think they deserved to be fired after having their lives dissected and their character impugned by thousands of strangers.
Perhaps this satisfies the shame-stormers; they may want to change hearts and minds but be willing to settle for silence. This sort of shaming has costs, however. If you haven’t changed someone’s mind, you haven’t changed their behavior, only what they say. If they do harbor the bad beliefs you accused them of, those beliefs are now festering in private rather than being open to persuasion. And you haven’t even necessarily changed what they say in a good direction, because people who fear unjust attacks aren’t afraid of being punished for saying things they know they ought to be ashamed of, but of being punished for saying something they didn’t know would attract this kind of ire. So they’re afraid to say anything at all. That’s not norm enforcement; it’s blanket terror.
An even greater cost is that shame itself starts to lose its power. When outrage of the week becomes outrage of the hour, the audience starts to check out. Few people can sustain the emotional intensity needed to see cosmic injustice behind every badly phrased sentence or juvenile photo. Meanwhile, people in communities closer to the target start to respond with an outpouring of support. Public shaming can simply harden each side in their respective positions.
If we want shaming to be restorative, then it must be paired with charity and forgiveness. Shame-storms rarely offer either.
Ronson’s book evokes the terror and the harm of shaming well, and that in itself is valuable. It would have been more valuable still – and, I think, less vulnerable to some of its critics – if he had offered us a way to define the stopping point between education and destruction, between social justice and torture. But what shines through is his empathy for the people he interviews and the suffering that public shaming inflicts, an empathy that makes it hard for him to brightly discuss the positive aspects of shame. And I find it hard to argue that empathy is something we need less of on social media.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.