Michael Fassbender, from director Steve McQueen’s Shame.

Social Shaming:
The Right to Be a Giant, Self-Righteous Asshole

By Marc V. Calderaro

I cannot stand social shaming, specifically against private individuals. There are many situations where shaming an institution is the best way to cut through bureaucracy, but there are very few situations where socially shaming a private individual has such potential positive repercussions.

You are free to shame — people seem so apt to call this ostracizing their “right.” I just want to make sure you know what right you’re exercising when you do it — your right to be a complete asshole who no one likes. And I’m not talking about the cool kind of asshole, who defies authority to get the job done, like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. I’m saying you’re the guy at the concert who keeps chanting “Freebird.” Yeah, you’re that asshole.

Usually when writing, I remain diplomatic; but this is such a personal preference, it’s useless to feign impartiality. I think socially shaming private individuals is gross, and the more the internet lets us embrace shaming on such an immediate mass scale — providing instantaneous circle-jerk gratification — the more grossed out I become.


Social shaming, as distinguished from legal punishment, is doled out when the community feels legal remedies to stop a given behavior are inadequate. There is no trier of fact; there is no requirement for context, clarity, non-bias; there is only pure gut reaction. “I read in the news that you hit a woman — you are the devil. I’m going to make sure everyone knows it.”

“Daggy Dad” Selfie. His admitted “first selfie.”

Without context, it’s easy for shamed activities to have been misconstrued — and you could end up shaming someone for being a “creep” when you’re just a dad taking a selfie with a Darth Vader cutout. Or worse, you’ve already served time for a crime, and are now labelled by a community that feels you should still be punished. That classic Scarlet Letter stuff.

I understand the appeal. There’s utility and gratification in shame. Someone does something you deem deplorable and deserving of shame — be it ripping up an American flag while pissing on a veteran, getting indicted for dealing drugs and don’t receive “enough” punishment, or not giving someone a Mother’s Day card. So you do something social-media-y—tweet a picture, post a Facebook video, write a crappy “think piece” — then the inevitable “shame spiral” commences. And you rake in the sweet, sweet karmic justice as everyone looks on in disgust, calling you “brave” for saying the things that others don’t.

Justice! [kappa]

We see this glorious shame spiral all the time. Here’s just one example: Before a woman’s plane departs, she makes a bad travel joke on Twitter to her 170 followers, continuing her tradition of such jokes. By the time her plane lands, she is infamous, fired, and struggles to find meaning in life for years.

If you didn’t like her joke, or thought that someone who makes that kind of joke doesn’t deserve something she had (in this case, her current job in PR), you had the ability to help get her fired. And people across the world salivated with schadenfreude, waiting for this woman to get axed — the hashtag “#HasJustineLandedYet” was trending worldwide while the woman was in the air. Congratulations, you brave, brave souls.

I Already Know You’re An Asshole; We All Are.

I understand that social shaming can be the most effective and efficient way to achieve your given objectives against someone, but so often those objectives are misguided and ego-driven. And by the time the shamer has time to realize that, it’s way too late. Taking the personal context out of judgment is what gives me the heebie-jeebies, and so many people seem immune to empathizing with the accused while summarily stroking their ego in self-congratulations.

What did we win when Justine Sacco was fired? How did the world become a better place because this random corporate firm will have a new employee? It didn’t. The only change was that you — the crusading moralist — felt better about yourself having smote one of “the bad guys.”

But here’s the problem: We’re all the bad guys. I know that if everyone was aware of the worst thing I’ve ever done, it would be hard for me to find a job. We’ve all done stupid, bad, immoral things before. We’ve all done something that someone would consider unintelligent, racist, sexist, evil, whatever. For many people, the only reason they can live with themselves is the knowledge that they can grow and become better than the person that made that mistake. Making mistakes is the most important part of growth.

“Just like the rest, you care most about you. And think that the world should act like you do.”

But in the minds of those who shame, there is no growth for the shamed. You are always who you were; You are your worst mistake. I don’t believe that’s true, and I don’t believe it’s OK to treat someone that way in a public forum. It’s borderline hypocritical.

The Asshole Totem Pole

Remember, though we have our own personal hierarchy of badness, there is no universal hierarchy; and I guarantee you someone out there ranks the worst thing you’ve done higher on the asshole totem pole than you do.

These people are all assholes. (From NBC’s Hannibal — the best show on television.)

So if everyone’s “asshole totem poles” have different orders, how do we determine who’s worthy of public reprobate?

Let’s look at how the legal system treats this situation. When someone is put on trial, there is a reason why prior bad acts, prior convictions, and community reputation are usually excluded from the court room — no matter what type of bad act it might be. It’s because we’re all petty, indignant snobs who love being prejudicial against people, especially “bad people” to whom we feel superior. So, basically, no one’s worthy of such admonishment.

The law makes a point to say that you are not your worst mistake. To make for a fair and just judicial process, we clean the slate. That’s a great thing, because looking back at the awful, stupid things I’ve done, if those moments are what define me, I might throw myself in jail.

I have been friends with people who’ve been convicted of armed robbery, who’ve hit their spouse, who’ve had sexual assault charges brought against them, who’ve said things deemed racist by the internet (seemingly the pinnacle of badness mountain for many). But in my mind, they are not worthy of public reprobate, because I am too.

We all suck, and I can’t justify why my suck is better than others’. And I firmly believe we shouldn’t have a list posted outside the local courthouse with the worst thing everyone in the town’s ever done written on it.

Exceptions & Minutia

Usually, if you don’t like how someone has behaved, don’t hang out with them. Your life is now unaffected. And if you think that person’s behavior is truly socially reprehensible on a broader level, take action to have that changed institutionally, don’t go after the person personally.

If you think hate speech should be banned, try to get it banned. There are a lot of people who agree with you. If you don’t think someone who says racist things in public should be allowed to own a basketball team, then write a letter to the commissioner.

Look, there are tons of minutia on this issue, and tons of avenues to explore.

I’m imagining that Obama’s pointing at Newt Gingrich or something.

For example, shaming politicians can be viewed differently because they are acting in an institutional capacity. Shaming a congressperson on how they voted is a way to affect institutional change. But even that has limits. Shaming a politician for their personal life choices isn’t usually germane to their behavior as an institution (though someone like Newt Gingrich might be an exception).

Perhaps, if there’s interest, I will write more on these nooks and crannies.


The weird thing about writing this piece is that in the best-case scenario, a lot of people read it. And if someone disagrees with me, the best way to discredit me without nuanced contextual discussion, is to shame me for something I did that makes me a bad, stupid person. Or worse, if I have shamed someone in the past, I’m a hypocrite for saying people shouldn’t shame now. But that’s how it goes. (I hope people see the irony in this.)

I wrote an article to help people give and receive apologies, and an ex-girlfriend sent me a message saying that it was ironic that someone like me would write an article like that. In her mind, I am someone who needs to apologize for things and haven’t, or can’t. Therefore, I couldn’t possibly have insight into the issue. But I am not only my mistakes.

She is certainly in a position to publicly shame me — posting things that would turn people against me — but she hasn’t. I hope the reason is because she recognizes the nuance that’s lost by doing so, and that there’s more to me than the ways I’ve behaved shamefully. Honestly, I think it’s because she’s over it. And because she doesn’t like me for my shameful activity, she no longer lets me affect her life. Which makes her, and me, much happier.

We’ve both moved on.

Wrapping it Up: Shame as War

Look, I get it — social shaming can serve an important utility, so you should still use it from time to time. I agree, but in the same way that war also serves an important utility. A good war every now and then can efficiently and effectively solves problems where every other solution is a piece-meal compromise. But unlike shaming, society understands the gravity that comes with war. I don’t think people often look at the gravity of shaming before they post that video on Facebook, or tweet out hurtful information.

It is your right to shame whomever you desire, just as it’s a country’s right to go to war. But when you exercise that right, be sure exactly what muscle it is you’re flexing, and what muscle you’re looking to gratify by doing it.


Update (May 14, 10:50 PDT): As some people have been asking me about the connection between this story and a current event in the Magic: The Gathering subculture, I have posted a clarification here.

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