The Politics of Public Shaming

“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

I just finished Jon Ronson’s fascinating new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. For one who came of age in the era of social media (Facebook launched my first year of college), the book was an intriguing if not painful look into how public shaming has stealthily re-entered the American psyche via Twitter and other social sharing platforms.

The book opens with the harrowing story of pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer, who was caught red-handed “embellishing” a Bob Dylan quote. During his apology speech, a live Twitter feed of reactions to his apology streamed on a giant screen behind him. It was not pretty.

Ronson interviewed the gamut of publicly shamed individuals, all with stories that read a little like a train wreck — tragic, but you just can’t look away.

The Politics of Shame

Public shaming fuels American politics. There may be no other industry — including celebrity pop culture — where shaming exists on such a pervasive level. In fact, it is the top strategy for a winning campaign in the 21st century. We pick apart every word, every gaffe our elected officials (who are 100% human, lest we forget) make and shame them far and wide to undermine their ability to win.

Is this effective? Yes. Is this productive? Sadly, as one who engages in such shaming on a regular basis, I would argue that it is not. As I've learned from experience, we can rarely if ever know the full context surrounding a person’s words or actions. 140-character sound bites have essentially stripped context from every quote, every speech a politician makes.

I recently engaged in publicly shaming a State Senator who made a dumb, though far from racist and evil, remark regarding the Supreme Court and slavery. He was flustered, tried to explain himself, and fell into the trap of every politician’s nightmare: a well-intentioned but stupid comment that his opponents (OK, myself and my colleagues) used to shame him into a public apology on the floor of the Senate. He could barely get through his floor speech without choking up. There was no excuse for the comment — elected officials often allow hubris to back them into a corner from which they cannot claw their way out— but he didn't mean what we accused him of. That’s the truth, and there’s no way around it.

Now what?

For me, the most painful story in Ronson’s book was the story of Lindsey Stone, whose photo mocking a sign asking for respect and silence at Arlington Cemetery went viral. Lindsey was just plain dumb. But she had something going for her that many public shaming victims don’t: she’s still young, on the cusp of a career, and with time can overcome the branding of shame she received over her tasteless joke.

In his book, Ronson dipped his toe into exploring the psychology of shame. He asked (though did not fully answer) the question, What characteristics allow someone to overcome shame, or simply not cave to it in the first place? And what emotional, psychological or environmental traits cause someone who has been publicly shamed to never recover? Maybe it’s true that some individuals are somehow immune, but I’d wager nearly every human struggles to learn and grow from shame. Of course, I don’t have an answer to this (in my opinion) most important question, but I’d like to find it.

The idea of public shaming also seems antithetical to what I’ll call the “vulnerability movement” pioneered by the likes of Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly. If things like emotional health and professional success are tied to the ability to be vulnerable, and yet those in the public eye are always one gaffe away from being publicly shamed and quote possibly ruined, how should I advise my clients (let alone myself) — be vulnerable, because people will respond positively in such ways as increased trust (essential for those in elected positions), or always be on guard lest you slip up and face the gauntlet of public shame on Twitter and the 24/7 news cycle?

I still don’t know. Personally, I strive for vulnerability, authenticity, and ongoing emotional development that I hope would protect me should I make a mistake and face the shame of fessing up. But if my shame was broadcast across America, I’m sure I would feel differently.

I do know that since reading Ronson’s book and spearheading my own campaign of public shame I now think twice about the effect my words and actions have on others, especially on a platform like Twitter where my screen acts as a shield between myself and my target. Call me a hypocrite — I’m sure it’s fair — but as long as I can refrain from joining the mele of public shaming in my personal life, I feel just a little better about employing shame tactics professionally.

I’m curious — what do you think about public shaming? Is it a problem? If so, what can we do about it?

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