At a pivotal point in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson describes a study conducted by psychologist James Gilligan, who worked with inmates at a Massachusetts prison in the 1970s. “Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they were keeping a secret, […] and that secret was that they felt ashamed.” Here, Gilligan links the experience of intense, “chronic” shame—often the result of trauma—to the desire to enact violence against others. But being violent towards others also begets more shame and suffering. As Ronson reflects on this research, he connects it to the proliferation of social media shamings, which are a kind of emotional violence towards those being shamed. In light of this, Ronson suggests that public shamings are part of a cycle whereby a person’s private shame leads them to lash out against strangers, intensifying those people’s own shame, which leads to more lashing out.
Throughout the book, Ronson examines several anecdotes that show how shame leads to violent fantasies—and sometimes even violent actions. David Buss, a Texas-based psychology professor, conducted a unique study in 2000. After witnessing a fight at a party during which a man became so upset that he expressed fantasies about killing his wife, Buss surveyed 5,000 people to ask if they’d ever fantasized about murder. 91% of men and 84% of women said that they had. And when Buss asked participants what inspired their violent thoughts, most of them admitted to seeking revenge on someone who’d humiliated them. None of the fantasies were a response to danger—they were all rooted in “the horror of humiliation.” From this, Ronson realizes that “shame internalized can lead to agony,” and if people don’t find a healthy way to process their sense of shame, they might act on their darkest impulses in order to regain a sense of control and confidence.
When people do act on their violent fantasies, of course, they feel even more ashamed of themselves—and this can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of shame and violence. In one memorable section of the book, Ronson shares the story of Raquel, a mother of two who was herself sexually, verbally, and physically abused as a child. Raquel was not the best mother she could have been to her children—during a fight with her teenaged son, she threw a knife at him—but a court later accepted Raquel’s defense team’s claim that Raquel’s actions only happened because she was a victim of an “abuse cycle.” Raquel suffered throughout her life as a result of the shame she was made to feel as a child. And as an adult, she repeated the abuse cycle she’d endured as a child—likely creating even more shame, humiliation, and pain in the lives of her children. Gilligan also observed that many of the prisoners he studied in Massachusetts were motivated by shame. Many people had been abused as children and had gone on to lives of crime, while others acted violently toward their fellow inmates because of small humiliations that took place within the walls of the penitentiary. In general, Gilligan’s work with prisoners made it clear to him that shame makes people feel “dead inside.” This feeling of numbness enables people to do terrible things to others. Ronson even connects this phenomenon to the story of Jonah Lehrer, a journalist who was called a “sociopath” in the midst of his public apology for plagiarism, because he didn’t appear to have any emotions as he spoke. But perhaps Lehrer was so ashamed of himself in that moment that he wasn’t able to feel his own feelings. Unfortunately, this led many observers to find him insincere, which only intensified his public shaming, leading him to even more numbness and shame.
While shame creates a vicious cycle, there are ways out. One of the methods of shame reduction that Ronson explores is the practice of Radical Honesty. Pioneered by a man named Brad Blanton, Radical Honesty is devoted to eradicating shame by helping participants be honest and transparent about their feelings, their resentments, and their past shame. While Ronson’s visit to Blanton’s Radical Honesty workshop didn’t help him eradicate his sense of shame, many other participants found solace in the freedom to say what they felt, to act without fear of being judged, and to incorporate productive shamelessness into their lifestyles. Another method of shame reduction is rooted purely in human will. Max Mosley is a British man who was already dealing with a lifetime of shame (his parents were Nazi sympathizers) when he was caught on-camera at a kinky German-themed orgy in 2008. Mosley described feeling a “whoosh” of anger as he read the article about his participation in the orgy, but he refused to give into his humiliation. Instead of retreating into shame and silence, Mosley gave interviews about the pettiness of shaming a person for their sexual preferences—and he sued the paper that printed the story. By refusing to give into shame and by standing strong in one’s beliefs, victims of unfair attempts at public shamings can head off the dangerous cycle of shame, trauma, and, potentially, violence. Only in breaking the cycle can the world become a place where public shamings are no longer conducted with frenzied, gleeful vitriol—and instead a place where public shamings are used to call attention to political and social inequity and major issues of justice.
Cycles of Shame, Trauma, and Violence ThemeTracker
Cycles of Shame, Trauma, and Violence Quotes in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
I won. Within days, the academics took down @Jon_Ronson. They had been shamed into acquiescence. Their public shaming had been like the button that restores factory settings. Something was out of kilter. The community rallied. The balance was redressed.
It seemed to me that all the people involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But they only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow that the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is to punish her with a shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame, and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.
I received an interesting e-mail from Max Mosley. Like me, he’d been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed.
“As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”
Almost none of the murderous fantasies were dreamed up in response to actual danger—stalker ex-boyfriends, etc. They were all about the horror of humiliation. Brad Blanton was right. Shame internalized can lead to agony. It can lead to Jonah Lehrer. Whereas shame let out can lead to freedom, or at least to a funny story, which is a sort of freedom too.
Inside Court One of the Biddeford District Courthouse half a dozen of the men from the Zumba list sat on the benches, staring grimly ahead while news crews pointed their cameras at them. We in the press area were allowed to stare at them and they weren’t able to look away. It reminded me of how Nathaniel Hawthorne had described the pillory in The Scarlet Letter: “[An] instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks . . . more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame.”
As it happens, Max’s and Andrew’s sins would in Puritan times have been judged graver than Jonah’s. Jonah, “guilty of lying or publishing false news,” would have been “fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes,” according to Delaware law. Whereas Max and Andrew, having “defiled the marriage bed,” would have been publicly whipped (no maximum number was specified), imprisoned with hard labor for at least a year, and on a second offense, imprisoned for life.
But the shifting sands of shameworthiness had shifted away from sex scandals—if you’re a man—to work improprieties and perceived white privilege, and I suddenly understood the real reason why Max had survived his shaming. Nobody cared.
The criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners—young, black—have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time—bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.
I thought about Justine Sacco. How many of the people piling on her had been emotionally damaged by what they had read? As far as I could tell, only one person was damaged in that pile-on.
“Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they were keeping a secret,” Gilligan wrote. “A central secret. And that secret was that they felt ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed.” It was shame, every time. “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”
“Normal prison is punishment in the worst sense,” Jim told me. “It’s like a soul-bleeding. Day in, day out, people find themselves doing virtually nothing in a very negative environment.”
I thought of Lindsey Stone, just sitting at her kitchen table for almost a year, staring at the online shamings of people just like her.
“People move away from themselves,” Jim said. “Inmates tell me time and again that they feel themselves shutting down, building a wall.”
Six months later. Three people sat together in the council chamber at Newark City Hall: Jim, Raquel, and I.
Jim had intervened. The prosecutors were persuaded that Raquel was a victim of an “abuse cycle.” And so instead of twenty years she served four more months and then they let her go.
We have always had some influence over the justice system, but for the first time in 180 years—since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed—we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments. And so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with. I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people unless they've committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should. I miss the fun a little. But it feels like when I became a vegetarian. I missed the steak, […] but I could no longer ignore the slaughterhouse.
Feedback loops. You exhibit some type of behavior (you drive at twenty-seven miles per hour in a twenty-five-mile-per-hour zone). You get instant real-time feedback for it (the sign tells you you're driving at twenty-seven miles per hour). You change your behavior as a result of the feedback (you lower your speed to twenty-five miles per hour). You get instant feedback for that decision, too (the sign tells you you're driving at twenty-five miles per hour now. Some signs flash up a smiley-face emoticon to congratulate you).
[Feedback loops are] turning social media into “a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing.”
We express our opinion that Justine Sacco is a monster. We are instantly congratulated for this […]. We make the on-the-spot decision to carry on believing it.
“The tech-utopians […] present this as a new kind of democracy,” [my friend wrote]. “It isn’t. It’s the opposite. It locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”
If anyone should change their behavior, I thought, it ought to be those doing the shaming. Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like “Don’t wear short skirts.” It felt like victim-blaming.
“The essay might be a turning-point,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “Twitter-shaming allows people who complacently think of themselves as basically nice to indulge in the dark thrill of bullying—in a righteous cause. Perhaps Ronson’s article will cause a questioning of Twitter’s instant-Salem culture of shame.”
People were realizing […] that what happened to Justine wasn’t social justice. It was a “cathartic alternative.”
Using social media to distribute […] videos [of police brutality] was a world away from calling a woman who’d just been in a train crash a privileged bitch because she wanted her violin to be okay. One act was powerful and important—using social media to create a new civil rights battlefield. The other was a pointless and nasty cathartic alternative. Given that we are the ones with the power, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the difference.