How shame became cultural currency

Shame, Cathy O'Neil argues, is a fundamental unit via which tech profits, empires fall, and trauma is sewn

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published April 17, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

Sad woman sitting in the crowd (Getty Images/studiostockart)
Sad woman sitting in the crowd (Getty Images/studiostockart)

Once in a while, a thinker comes up with a singular lens through which to understand the world that makes disparate things make sense. For Douglas Hofstadter, it was the concept of a "strange loop," which unified incongruous intellectuals like Gödel and Escher; for Malcolm Gladwell, it was the statistical "tipping point" that intrudes in all kinds of unrelated social, biological and business schema. And for Cathy O'Neil, author of the just-released "The Shame Machine," it is the concept of shame itself. 

Though not something that we often articulate publicly, shame permeates all realms of the human experience. It can be motivating, as O'Neil writes: individuals in a society who are violating social norms can be pushed towards righting their behavior vis-a-vis shame. Yet shame also takes on the dimension of currency, particularly in the online world — where profit-minded social media giants quietly push us to obsessively shame strangers to the extent that it increases time spent on their sites, and therefore their profits. This manipulation of our emotional culture should alarm us, inasmuch as it sows division among the body politic and only aggravates our bitter culture war

Yet O'Neil's notion of a shame economy has resonance beyond the online world. Much of her book is about a type of shame that pre-dates the internet: body shame. Writing from her own experience, O'Neil digs into the ways in which shame conditions and traumatizes those whose bodies don't adhere to beauty industry norms. 

O'Neil, a mathematician, previously penned "Weapons of Math Destruction," an incisive look at the ways in which Big Data often exacerbates social and political inequality, despite claims to the contrary. Now, she turns her lens on the larger cultural idea of shame itself — a globe- and time-spanning tale that encompasses Native American tribal rituals, contemporary fat shaming, the decolonization of British India, and Facebook's propensity to push its users towards extreme positions. I interviewed O'Neil about how shame can be used as a weapon — for good, evil or profit.

This interview has been condensed and edited for print.  

In this book, I thought you really did an amazing job of reconstituting the way that we think about shame, as a unit that shapes the human world. What brought you to think about the world in terms of shame? 

Once I became obsessed with the notion of shame as a source of power, it made me really search for principles. When is shame appropriate? When does shame work?  I'm a trained mathematician, and that's my nature, is to try to understand what are the rules here from an outside perspective.

At the same time, once I came up with rules that I thought were pretty good, like rules of thumb really, because I don't want to say they're axioms at all. They're not mathematics of course, but once I came up with things, I though, "this is useful." At that point it became a kind of an explicit goal.

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How would you sum up the rules, or axioms, of shame? Would it be basically that, "shame is useful and good when you're punching up with it, rather than punching down?" Is that a good bite-size summary?

My bite size summary would be: it's inappropriate in bullying when you're punching down; and when you're punching up, shame might be useful, but it also may not work. So it's not enough just to be punching up, you also have to make sure it's set up to succeed — which requires more than simply punching up, and requires a longer term relationship.

If you're punching up in a way that you're sort of holding power to account, then that's a larger question. When do civil rights movements succeed? It's a big question. It's not at all, I can't really answer that question, but I can say what sort of observations that tend to make it work or fail.

But in interpersonal relationships, punching-up shame also doesn't always work. 

It has to be careful, it has to be like, I trust you, and I know you and I both care about our community and this is why our community needs you to stop doing this. It really tends almost to become more like a threat of shame than actual shame.

I think a great example of it is the way Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, shames other Western leaders. Sometimes he's just overt about it as a shaming tactic, but often he appeals to their notion of democratic and Western ideals. That's the really important element of it, like an ideal that he knows they care about and that they want to maintain.

So you have to do all those things in order for shame to actually succeed. So it's not enough to punch up.

Sorry, that's not really a sound bite anymore. I apologize. But this stuff is actually not that simple. The soundbite is this: punching down is bullying. That's the soundbite, and then punching up is more complicated.

RELATED: Shame by a thousand looks: The microaggressions of poverty

Speaking of bullying, I'm wondering now, are bullying and shame inextricable? Is there bullying without shame, or is all bullying shaming?

It's a good question, and I don't think I say it enough in the book. When it gets to the point of actual physical force — when it's like, abuse — that's not shame anymore, that's physical punishment and violence and assault. That's beyond shame. When I say shame, I really just mean making someone feel like they're like unworthy of love, like they're unworthy somehow. If you're actually, like, dunking their head in the toilet, that's not shame anymore, that's just plain physical violence.

Right. You do give examples in the book of how shame often comes later, after the bullying or the violence, for instance in the case of that women you describe who was sexually abused by a priest. Somebody could do violence to you and then, but shame is something you feel later, obviously — not while you're getting punched or whatever's happening to you.

Yeah. That's a great point. I mean, of course physical violence can lead to shame, and often does — and I certainly experienced that myself. So certainly we can...  after an act of physical violence against us, we can sort of internalize it as shame. But I think it's especially the case when you're being told by your abuser that it's your fault. That's the part of it that is so toxic.

"I'm not saying that people were never hostile before on social media, but it's just that it has become completely outrageous."


The book made me think about shame's effect on different professions. After the Occupy Wall Street protests and the recession, Wall Street had more trouble attracting talent. It became a more shameful profession. Likewise, in Portland, after the Black Lives Matter protests and a lot of negative press, the police department had trouble recruiting and getting people to stay. It made me think that there is the element of shame at play — that if a profession is doing what is perceived of as evil, people will become ashamed and not want to be associated with it. 

Yes. That's good, right? When I worked in finance in 2007, like early 2007, it was incredible how smug my colleagues were — just incredible. They really thought that they were making markets more efficient and that they deserved to be billionaires. Putting a little question mark around that is a good thing, and for that matter, I go to some length in the book to try to very carefully describe why I think, like, retweeting Karen videos is aiming too low, and we should be holding police accountable. If we make people stop blindly trusting police and make them more worried about their own accountability, that's a good thing.

It's not a good thing, of course, in the short term, if everybody who's actually feeling ashamed of that stuff leaves, and only people who have no shame remain. That's not good, but in a longer term way, it is a good sign.

So there's an idea here of systemic punching up happening — because like you wrote in the book, making fun of, say, Amy Cooper, the Central Park Karen, was perhaps aiming too low.

I mean, I don't want to dismiss [shaming] entirely, because I do think there's a kind of example-setting, positive lesson. I will say, though, if that is where we are, that's bar way too low. I think [Amy Cooper's target] Christian Cooper said it best — I think I quoted him saying it in the book.

So I didn't have to say that people who shame Amy Cooper online feel like they've passed the racism test. It's not enough. And I want to make it clear that videos of police brutality and police violence on social media are probably the best thing about social media — it draws attention to a problem. By the way, police usually aren't even identified by name in those situations. But what it does is it opens up the world to see what's actually happening, and that's really, really important when you're talking about people with power abusing power.

By the way, just to be clear, I'm not trying to say Amy Cooper didn't do something wrong — she did something wrong. I'm just saying that we need to think through how do we stop this? And the answer is, we make it so that the next Amy Cooper, in 10 years or 20 years, doesn't call the police because she's just as worried about being arrested for misidentifying an actual threat as she is about getting an innocent black man arrested. The asymmetry is in the response, the typical response, and that is the thing that we need to address.

"The editorializing that the Facebook newsfeed algorithm does, to send us the exact content that will outrage us and will get us into these shame spirals — that is exactly what they intend to do." 

I want to ask you about going in the other direction, and talk about when shame is used not for positive social outcomes but negative ones. As a journalist I think a lot about all the unearned shame that is directed towards us — random cruelty from trolls or conspiracy theorists or whatnot. It makes me feel less positive about the profession, even when I know the shame is disconnected from reality. 

Recently I was skeptical of some outrageous UFO conspiracy theory, and I got all this blowback after I tweeted about it. A big community of angry people who believe in UFOs came for me. Even though I knew that they were clearly out of their minds, I felt some shame — like, there's a community of random strangers who are angry at me and hate me, and I thought, why do I even bother doing this? Even though I don't care about that group's approval, it made me feel bad. You know what I mean? I thought about  what you wrote, about shame as a weapon for silencing people.

Absolutely. It is absolutely a way to manipulate people. It is a very unpleasant thing. I was on the Slate Money Podcast for three years, and I just couldn't believe the comments. I stopped reading them pretty quickly. Just totally misogynistic ... Some of them were violent, but many of them were attacking me as a person. It was an unbelievable look into a small part of what it is like to be a journalist. Of course, this [kind of hate] falls more heavily on women and especially women of color — but it is so unpleasant. And I would really suggest that this is an almost direct product from social media, like the Facebook news feed algorithm, sort of conditioning people to do that kind of thing.

They've trained us. They've changed the norm. They've changed the norm of what you do when you disagree: now, you attack the person whom you disagree with in a performative way, so that your friends will retweet and repost and whatever it is, your overtly hostile reaction. I'm not saying that people were never hostile before on social media, but it's just that it has become completely outrageous.

That's a good takeaway from it. I guess essentially that's why this mechanism that the social media behemoth of unleashed can be used against people used against good people, quite easily like yourself, or the comment section or whatever. They're sort of ripening us, opening up new ways to shame these people, to make money for them. 

It's not just that there's new ways of doing it. I really want I emphasize that I think that it is a training system for doing so, because number one, we are surrounded by our friends who every time we retweet, we get like endorphins, we get our pleasure center activated. 

Number two, we just naturally — as humans get our pleasure center lit up when we are outraged and when we punch back, that is just something we love doing.

I interviewed Molly Crockett, the psychologist who does lab experiments on this. She found that we just love that feeling.

So those two things alone, which are already just putting us in little tiny in-groups, are bad; but then on top of that, the editorializing that the Facebook newsfeed algorithm does to send us the exact content that will outrage us and will get us into these shame spirals will keep us on Facebook longer to click more ads — that is exactly what they intend to do. I mean, that's how they've optimized their algorithm. 

So overall, [social media] is designed for this behavior. I'm not saying that people shouldn't take personal responsibility for the way they interact [online] —  but I'm just saying at a systemic level, Facebook is getting us to do this. It is creating these new norms and these new norms are shame-driven blood baths.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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Body-shaming Books Cathy O'neil Psychology Social Media The Shame Machine Trauma