Practices of Shame

Shame is an intense and horrifying emotion and paradoxically too much exposure to shame can lead to a lack of feeling. The absence of emotions can transform into social deviance. I recently finished reading Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It was a book that I just couldn’t put down. I was superficially aware that the feeling of shame is not pleasant, but I never stopped to think about this combined with the power of social media.

Being ashamed and being shamed are different aspects. Shame can sometimes be justified, as a way for yourself to understand you made a mistake and improve. On the other hand, being shamed is something that happens from outside inwards and is targeting a particular individual (or an entity). This is, in my opinion, less acceptable, though can be used as a very effective social mechanism of behavioural change. Being part of society means signing a social contract that involves a specific sort of behaviour deemed acceptable by the majority. When someone acts unlawfully or socially unacceptable (from assault to hate speech and anything in between) they are being shamed as a way to be punished for violating that social contract. An idea that Jon Ronson brings forward in his book is that, especially on social media, people shame others not so much out of moral convictions but rather to prove to others that they disapprove of that behaviour. 

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Social media and especially platforms like Twitter, notorious for their public shaming cases, have changed in purpose. From a place where you would meet people or find comfort in others, it has become a place where you build your individual brand, being sure to keep up with trends and hot topics and have the same opinion as the majority. In her Ted Talk, Monica Lewinsky calls herself patient zero of online shaming, losing her status as a private individual and having her intimate life debated worldwide. Women used to be publicly shamed a lot about private aspects, especially when coming out after being assaulted, but in the absence of social media, they could get over it easier. In the global village of today, a sex scandal resonates internationally.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson presents a series of mostly decent people (e.g. Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone and many others) that made mistakes or have been misunderstood and were savagely destroyed online by angry mobs. Careers were destroyed, people were threatened, traumas were caused and all these by social media users, that, I am sure, are really good people in their day to day lives. It just happened that they were caught in their desire to prove they were different and therefore the same as others, in order not to be judged in return. It’s always harder to speak up against the majority when you are alone. 

This practice of bullying through online shaming is increasingly popular, even though frowned upon theoretically. This is not only a practice reserved for individuals. Brands of varying sizes have been dealing with shaming more and more and the gap between consumers and corporations in widening. The reputation of a brand is essential in the current climate and any mistake, rumour or bad review can turn into a complicated crisis management situation and a decrease in brand credibility. It’s true, some brands consistently repeat their mistakes (e.g. Dolce and Gabbana and the chopsticks ads) and deserve being told by people around the world that they are wrong.

Of course, it’s not fair to say that individuals and brands are equal in power nor that they deserve the same treatment. It’s just interesting to notice a pattern, especially if you work as a communication professional. Come to think of it, a brand can be perceived as a team of people. The issue is that sometimes the employees are personally affected because of the association with the brand they work at. Customers tend to sometime blur the distinction between the employee and the private person. Targeting values and ideas can be helpful for society, but targeting people can be more complex. It requires you to know the context of the person. It is so much easier to imagine that any person working for a brand with questionable values is evil and thus deserve to be shamed or even threatened. 

I consider myself more of a private person and don’t normally post articles, write blogs or express my thoughts online. But the fact that I will one day make a comment or a joke that will be misunderstood and I will be caught up in a storm of online anger make me even more reserved. The only conclusion I can draw from this is a fairly obvious one, that sometimes we can forget. It is never acceptable to be a bully. Even less so when you are doing it online, as part of a group and targeting a person you don’t know much about. It’s even more frightening to think that the bully can sometimes be a decent person like you and me, that has chosen the wrong way to avoid standing out.

A blog by Diana Boca, IABC UK&I Board Member 2020-2021

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