The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shame was brutal for Monica Lewinsky. But it can also be a force for good.

Three new books explore the history, consequences and possibilities of public shaming.

Monica Lewinsky speaks at the TED 2015 conference in Vancouver on March 19, 2015. (James Duncan Davidson/TED via Reuters)

IS SHAME NECESSARY? New Uses for an Old Tool

By Jennifer Jacquet. Pantheon. 209 pp. $24

SHAME: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country

By Shelby Steele. Basic. 198 pp. $25.99


By Jon Ronson. Riverhead. 290 pp. $27.95

“Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop,” Monica Lewinsky warned in her TED talk this month. “And it’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture. . . . We need to return to a long-held value of compassion — compassion and empathy.”

Lewinsky speaks with the authority of one who’s been there. Slut-shamed and body-shamed before such terms were even in circulation, her story and reputation ricocheted through the Internet echo chamber’s earliest days. Seventeen years later, Lewinsky’s talk, “The Price of Shame,” and her 2014 Vanity Fair essay, “Shame and Survival,” feel almost therapeutic as America grapples with cyberbullying, sexist trolling, online harassment — with shaming as an all-purpose suffix and all-too-common experience. Today, anyone can become “that woman.”

Yet it would be too narrow to regard public shaming as mainly a scourge of a digital era, or as an unambiguous evil that can or should be eradicated by reasserting more heartwarming values. Shaming is a long-held American tradition. And it does not just target hapless individuals. It also takes aim at rapacious businesses, spent ideologies and corrupt institutions.

Speaking at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky discusses how she went viral before social media existed, and why it was so damaging to her reputation. (Video: Forbes Under 30 Summit)

Shaming can be brutal and destructive. Its history in America as a tool of social control has dark chapters in which stocks, whipping posts and public hangings feature prominently. But as new books on the evolution, consequences and possibilities of shame suggest, there are times when it can also renew, uplift and fight back.

“Shame is not only a feeling,” writes Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental studies at New York University. “It’s also a tool — a delicate and sometimes dangerous one — that we can put to use to help solve serious problems.” In her book “Is Shame Necessary?,” she contrasts the limits of guilt (a personal emotion by which individuals hold themselves to their own standards) with the power of shame (a public process driven by collective norms enforced by a vigilant audience).

For example, Jacquet explains that so much of what citizens do for the environment — recycle, switch on compact fluorescent light bulbs, drive hybrids — accomplishes so little because these are the actions of consumers seeking to assuage personal misgivings. “Only the portion of the industry that wants to cater to consumers with guilt-prone consciences needs to change,” Jacquet writes. “The rest of the industry can continue to use pesticides, or unfair trade, or destructive fishing gear — and can sell those products at lower prices. The next steps — rules to change an entire industry — are missing.”

Shame seeks to impose and enforce a broader standard, and that is what makes it so daunting and effective. Shame, not guilt, compels tax delinquents to pay up when threatened by public exposure on a Web site run by the state of California. Shame pushed America to ban juvenile executions, after activists highlighted that the practice put the United States in the company of countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Shame, Jacquet posits, is what nudged Bill Gates to build the largest charitable organization on the planet, scrubbing a legacy tarnished by Microsoft’s high-profile antitrust trial of the mid-1990s. A few years later, Gates would join with Warren Buffett to launch the Giving Pledge, essentially shaming billionaires into promising to devote chunks of their cash to philanthropy.

With problems that threaten everyone — think climate change or the spread of infectious diseases — individual guilt will never be enough, Jacquet says. To create new global norms and rules that shape behavior, “we are going to need a lot of help from shame.” Jacquet does not see this as a particularly novel idea but one that draws inspiration from America’s history of civil activism. She cites Martin Luther King Jr.’s rationale for nonviolent resistance: “Noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent.”

Similarly, in his new book, “Shame,” Shelby Steele notes how the social movements that gained voice and power in mid-20th-century America — not just civil rights but also feminism and anti-militarism — did so by exposing contradictions in the nation’s self-image, essentially shaming America for its racism, its sexism, the Vietnam War and environmental degradation. “All these 1960s movements sought to move America beyond its habit of hypocrisy and self-congratulation,” he writes, “. . . to bring America to account for its hubris.”

Steele, once “infatuated” with radicalism and black nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, now believes that this shaming, though initially healthy, went too far and for too long. Although the country has redeemed itself, he argues, the left remains “invested in an overstatement of America’s present sinfulness based on the nation’s past sins,” thus justifying continued policies and programs aimed at redressing discrimination. “In claiming to uplift blacks — and thus to redeem America’s shame — liberalism could claim a moral authority that translated into real political power,” he writes. And when conservatives challenge that authority, he concludes, liberals stigmatize them with those same charges against the American character. That is why shame over the country’s past, Steele writes, is behind our enduring political and cultural divides.

However cynical his argument, you don’t have to accept it all to grasp the power of shame to battle America’s legacies of racism, sexism and, more recently, homophobia.

That power has been magnified in the age of social media, journalist Jon Ronson argues in “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” a greatest-hits collection of Twitter humiliations. At first, Ronson believed that social media would democratize the public square, outing hypocrites, calling out bigots and uncovering liars. But then he interviewed prominent victims of social-media shaming. People such as public relations executive Justine Sacco, who tweeted a knowing, racist joke just before boarding a long flight, only to find when she landed that she was trending worldwide on Twitter. (She would lose her job, her reputation and the respect of people she loved.) People like Lindsey Stone, a caregiver for adults with learning difficulties, who spent a year hiding in her home after the brutal backlash against a Facebook photo of her raising her middle finger at Arlington National Cemetery. “Literally, overnight everything I knew and loved was gone,” she tells Ronson.

He also spoke with Jonah Lehrer, the fabulously successful pop-science writer disgraced for inventing Bob Dylan quotes in a best-selling book. Lehrer later apologized in a public speech, trying to explain himself as a screen behind him showed a live Twitter feed of the world mocking and judging him. “I’m just drenched in shame and regret,” Lehrer tells Ronson. “The shaming process is f—ing brutal.”

Ronson acknowledges the nefarious history of public shaming in American life but seems especially troubled by today’s Twitter hordes, whose judgment he sees as not just wildly disproportionate but often pointless. “A life has been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama?” he asks. “What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?”

The “we” is deliberate. Ronson counts himself among the shamers and recalls cases in which he joined or led the online charge. “It felt like we were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws,” he writes, “and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.”

Even Jacquet, an advocate for positive and proactive shaming, worries about the relentless viciousness online. She knows that shame is scary, and that’s the point. “The fear of it can make individuals or institutions conform to what the group thinks is acceptable behavior,” Jacquet concludes. “Shame’s service is to the group, and when it is used well and at the right time, it can make society better off.”

What the group thinks. When it is used well. At the right time. There are times, of course, when the group is mindless, when shame is used not sparingly but indiscriminately, with no norm in mind other than to hurt. Lewinsky made that plain in her talk: “Online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained and permanently accessible,” she says. “The echo of embarrassment used to extend only as far as your family, village, school or community. But now it’s the online community, too. Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words. And that’s a lot of pain.”

Anonymity and distance loosen inhibitions and unleash rage, no doubt, but I suspect they end up revealing disagreements over underlying norms more than creating them. And the shaming wars — with their attacks, counterattacks, alliances and exposures — are a messy, modern way to slowly develop new norms. Those suffering online abuse certainly deserve the compassion and empathy Lewinsky calls for. But its perpetrators deserve shame.

With her public reappearance, Lewinsky proves that point. Her TED talk, for all its focus on compassion, is an assault on the culture of humiliation, on those who revel in it and profit from it. Lewinsky isn’t just reaching out to the victims. She’s shaming the shamers.

And there’s no shame in that.

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