In her review of two new books*, Laura Kipnis discusses the distinction between guilt and shame. (“The Deep, Dark, Ugly Thing,” by Laura Kipnis, Harper’s, May 2015, pg. 93) Guilt is an internal standard of personal values. Shame results from a violation of group standards. In the past, getting a divorce was shameful and until recently so was being a homosexual. In the west today, neither status is a reason to hide in the closet. The greatest shaming charge in modern times is of being a racist. (Ibid, pg. 93)
Shame as a public reckoning is a specialty of the media, though it has become a tool of the internet, as well. The difference between the two — media or the internet user — is that the former have to be accountable for the facts made public. If those facts are wrong — as they were in the case of The Rolling Stones magazine’s exposé about a gang rape at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia — the reporter and the organization which printed the story are liable for the misinformation. Unfortunately, Individuals who use the internet to shame others can hide behind false identities.
In one of the books under review, So You’ve Been Publically Shamed* by Jon Ronson, the author speculates that many attackers have been publically shamed, themselves. Someone exposed for animal abuse, for example, is likely to spread that shame to other abusers. (Ibid pg. 92). Jennifer Jacquet, author of “Is Shame Necessary?*, takes a different view. She supports shaming as non-violent resistance available to those who feel their values are under attack. (Ibid pg. 92)
Of course, not everyone can be shamed. After the 2009 financial crisis, few bankers came forward with a mea culpa. Instead, they took their hefty salaries and stock options as if the money were a vote of confidence.
There a good reasons to consider the role of shaming in society, however. The most important is whether or not we want any individual with a computer to sit in judgment on others? As James Q. Whitman, a professor at the Yale law School has warned, “shaming transfers the power to punish from the state to the public where it risks becoming ‘fickle and uncontrolled.’” (Ibid 92-93.)
We’ve seen the consequences of trial by media and the frenzy of judgment it can produce. The power of the internet can make that rush to judgment worse, and as members of a civil society, we should be aware of that consequence. The Greek philosopher Seneca once said,” Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit.” That may be so. But it is a dangerous tool in the 21st century. Lives can be destroyed with an electronic whisper that leaves the victim with no place to hide for the rest of his or her life.