9 April 2015
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself! What you did was shameful! I am ashamed of you. You have shamed the entire family!"
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" - never has a more false proverb been more convincingly uttered. The power of words has been underestimated; severely, grossly, terribly, massively underestimated. If you don't believe me, ask James Gilligan, described as "about the world's best chronicler of what a shaming can do to our inner lives." In the 1970s, he was a "young psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School", and was "invited to lead" a group of a "team of investigative psychiatrists" ordered by a US District Court judge to "make sense of the chaos" that were Massachusetts prisons and mental hospitals. What was the scene like?
"Inmates were swallowing razor blades and blinding and castrating themselves and each other. ... Prisoners were getting killed, officers were getting killed, visitors were getting killed."
Such were the inmates that James Gilligan worked with and interviewed. What did he observe and what were his findings?
"Gilligan filled notepads with observations from his interviews with the men.
He wrote, ‘Some have told me that they feel like robots or zombies, that their bodies are empty or filled with straw, not flesh and blood, that instead of having veins and nerves they have ropes or cords. One inmate told me he feels like “food that is decomposing”. These men’s souls did not just die. They have dead souls because their souls were murdered. How did it happen? How were they murdered?’ This was, he felt, the mystery he’d been invited inside Massachusetts’ prisons and mental hospitals to solve. And one day it hit him. ‘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. As children these men were shot, axed, scalded, beaten, strangled, tortured, drugged, starved, suffocated, set on fire, thrown out of the window, raped, or prostituted by mothers who were their pimps. For others words alone shamed and rejected, insulted and humiliated, dishonoured and disgraced, tore down their self-esteem, and murdered their soul.’ For each of them the shaming ‘occurred on a scale so extreme, so bizarre, and so frequent that one cannot fail to see that the men who occupy the extreme end of the continuum of violent behaviour in adulthood occupied an equally extreme end of the continuum of violent child abuse earlier in life.’" [pg 235, paperback]
Is it any wonder that shaming is such a powerful weapon in the hands of the individual and the mob alike? Is it any wonder also that shaming has become so endemic in the world of the tubes - the Internet? Shaming is, in a lot of was, an act of assault and robbery. It robs the victim of something he had held private, and makes it public. This loss of a private memory, experience, can be dehumanizing at times. This is what makes it so attractive and irresistible as a weapon in the hands of the individual or the mob, and what arouses the most violent of passions and feelings of retribution in the victim. Jon Ronson's book, "So You've Been Publicly Shamed", is in his inimitable style, a quick, breezy look at some recent public shamings and an attempt to understand the why.
Remember Jonah Lehrer, the once-bestselling author of pop-science books and a Malcolm Gladwell in the making (in whatever way you choose to see Gladwell notwithstanding)? He was exposed as a serial plagiarizer and then saw his attempt at a public apology go up in smoke in front of his eyes, in real-time - you see, the organizers, Knight Frank, had helpfully arranged for one "giant-screen live Twitter feed behind his head" and a "second screen .. positioned within his eyeline" even as he read his prepared speech-apology.
Lehrer's case is at least understandable. Justine Sacco's case was less of a public shaming - though that it certainly also was - as much as a cyber-lynching. In case you are looking for a tale to complete the circle here, then the case of "Hank" and Adria Richards is the one for you. A public shaming via Twitter was followed by an even more vicious retributive cyber-lynching orchestrated by and on 4chan. The author's conversation with "twenty-one-year-old 4chan denizen, Mercedes Haefer" sheds light, though not a whole lot though, on the psychology of shaming. Throw in your prejudices, pre-conceived notions, stereotypes, then add in a dash of the spice of technology, and you get the perfect recipe for shamings in the modern era:
"She paused. ‘But 4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is r*pe. We don’t talk about r*pe of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed."
Shaming is a form of control, an assertion of power over the victim, a no-hods barred degradation of the victim - where physical violence is not possible or not practical.
Reading through the book, I felt it hit a high somewhere around the chapter on 4chan and the lynching-counter-lynching episodes. But it seemed to drift for a chapter or two after that. Reading chapter 9 I started to think, "Is this going someplace?" Perhaps there was a glimmer of light I could see, but where would it lead to? Perhaps it is the inevitable moment of reader-fatigue that one experiences when reading a book where the urge to abandon a book seems to exert an inexorable pull. "But this is a short book. I can finish this. Onward!" I said to myself. And turned the page. The book did pick up. The chapters got shorter, or at least it seemed that way. This however is not a book on cyber-bullying. Emily Bazelon wrote a book on that topic. This is not even a book on how the Internet enables cyber-bullying. Nor is it about hate crimes in cyberwar- there is an eponymous book on that by Danielle Keats Citron.
What "So You've Been Publicly Shamed" is, at the end of the day, a short, breezy look at a few aspects of shaming, with a little bit of history, a dash of personal anecdotes, some curative as well as palliative ruminations, and the trademark (surely by now) Jon Ronson wry humour. Does this book provide any hope, any solution to the malaise of this relentless form of mob frenzy of shaming? Yes, and no.
The weirdest line I can recall reading in a book - actually "incongruous" is a better phrase than "weirdest" - would be this: "Porn professionals were being so nice and considerate towards me it was almost as if I was the person about to have their g**itals electrocuted." I suppose one could call this one of the occasional perks of being a writer, eh Mr Ronson?