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How the Internet Became a Shame-Storm

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Leadership gurus often talk about blame-storming, which is just like brainstorming, except that the purpose of the meeting is to find a scapegoat for something that has 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 has attracted quite a bit of pushback from the mostly online world that it covers.

"So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed reads very much like a defense of unfairly victimized white men and privileged white women," Jacqui Shine wrote at BuzzFeed. Ronson himself has already been the target of one shame-storm since the book came out, concerning a badly phrased sentence that was deleted from the final edit but made it into the unedited galleys.

Like most of the Amazon reviewers, I liked the book a great deal, though I also found the stories it tells excruciating. Ronson is a lovely, fluid writer, and he has a keen eye for painful, telling details. If I have one complaint about the book, it's that he doesn't dive deep enough into what shaming is good for and why we like it so much. Though his critics have focused on the details of this or that particular episode -- his case studies of Jonah Lehrer and Adria Richards 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 is, after all, a force for good as well as evil. 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.

Start with a simple question: Why do we have shame? It's a pretty deeply wired emotion, after all; almost everyone gossips, and almost everyone hates to feel ashamed. Take a minute and recall some humiliating episode from your youth. (It's OK, it's just us here. No one else will ever know, I promise. I mean, except for the people who already do.) Try to remember exactly what was said and who was there. I bet you can already feel the blush crackling along the back of your neck as it races upward from your quickened heart.

You can see how powerful this is by looking at my favorite of the less famous Milgram experiments, where he sent students out into New York with a simple task: Ask strangers to give you their subway seat. The response of the strangers was interesting (they were more likely to give up their seats if they were given no reason at all for wanting it), but the most fascinating part is the effect on the researchers themselves. They reported extreme, even physical, aversion to simply asking the question: panic, nausea, feeling faint. Milgram himself tried it and told an interviewer that "The words seemed lodged in my trachea and would simply not emerge." After he finally managed to make the request, he said, "Taking the man's seat, I was overwhelmed by the need to behave in a way that would justify my request. ... My head sank between my knees, and I could feel my face blanching. I was not role-playing. I actually felt as if I were going to perish."

Shame is 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.

In "Hired Girl," Rose Wilder Lane's short story on the horrors of small-town gossip, one of the characters sums up the benefits of this pathological aversion to breaching social norms:

You know I don't go around talking about anybody behind their back, like that meddling, snooping Mrs. Miniver does. But I must say I don't know what the world would come to if there wasn't any gossiping. You know yourself this town is full of folks that are leading good steady honest moral lives, just because they're scared of being talked about if they did what they wanted to.

Ronson does explore a bit of this aspect, in his discussion of legal punishments that use shaming, such as forcing thieves to apologize and make restitution or drunken drivers to stand by the side of the 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.

But as Lane suggests, shame doesn't just punish wrongdoers; it also turns us into our own moral enforcers. Once we've been shamed, we are strongly motivated to avoid doing the things that brought it on. Or at least, most of us are -- one of the hallmarks of sociopaths is that they don't feel shame or remorse. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, shame is good. Shame is right. Shame works.

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 by the side of the road with a sign detailing his crimes got more compassion and support than bitter catcalls from the people who drove by him. 

On the Internet, when all the social context is stripped away and you don't even 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. And 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. In part, that's because Twitter gives us none of the social cues that a face-to-face encounter would deliver; we can't hear their tone of voice or see the look in their eyes that gives you clues about their state of mind. But it's also because it's a lot easier to imagine the worst of some faceless stranger -- and to say rather incivil things yourself.

That is not the whole of Twitter outrages, of course; many things that are castigated eminently deserve to be condemned. But because shame-storms easily blow up around things that were unlikely to be meant the way people often take them, we often demand that 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.

Moreover, because the reaction is so quick and so essentially impersonal, punishment also is often out of proportion to the crime. 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 an endless stream of abuse from strangers, followed by the perpetrator getting fired from her job helping kids with disabilities, struggling to find any sort of gainful employment and being afraid to leave her house lest people recognize her. This seems a little 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?

To be sure, a lot of folks certainly seem terrified by the possibility of being attacked by roving bands of verbal vigilantes. Yet I notice two things about these fears that raise some 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 shame someone. You barely have to take 30 seconds out of your day to make an outraged comment that will please your friends and hurt the person you've targeted. This means it is also absurdly easy to attack someone unfairly, without pausing to think about context -- or the effect you are having on another human being much like yourself. 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. But that is 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 who are joined in collective hate. With the exception of Lehrer -- who clearly realized he'd done something wrong without needing to be told -- the people whom Ronson interviews do not think that they were the victims of perhaps excessively harsh justice; they think they were victims of abuse. They often recognize that 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 people who had never even met them. 

And 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 are afraid of 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, or at least anything more interesting than "Woo, puppies!" 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, such that Memories Pizza ended up not by closing up shop and issuing a tearful apology, but trying to figure out what to do with the donations that poured in. The public shaming didn't change anyone's mind on gay marriage, or even make it extra-costly to operate an establishment that won't cater gay weddings; it just hardened each side in their respective positions.

If we want shaming to be restorative -- to help us create and enforce better norms in a broad community -- then it needs to come paired with charity and forgiveness. Shame-storms rarely offer either; the shame is administered, then the storm drizzles away, leaving only a terrified victim and Google's memory of our momentary collective outrage. Without the mercy and restraint of the small community, it can too easily become nothing more than a particularly destructive way to pass an idle moment.

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.

  1. Like many people who have been writing on the Internet for a long time, I find that the minute you make human contact with someone, they often get rather sheepish and apologetic about the terrible things they've said. A polite note written back to an intemperate diatribe, or an in-person encounter, often elicits sheepish apologies that all run along the same lines: They weren't really thinking of you as a person much like them, whose back aches in the evening and who worries about the price of breakfast cereal, but as a sort of cartoon figure of great and malevolent influence.

    I've had a version of this experience myself, meeting people whose books I gave rather nasty reviews. In my head at the time, they were Big Important People who got to write books, while I was just a nobody freelancer; when I met them, it turned out that they, like me, had feelings that were easily hurt, and I felt properly ashamed for the enjoyment I'd taken in insulting their work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net