Instead of building fairness and justice to re-engage people in their communities, shame “has been weaponized by corporations to make profit and by institutions to maintain power.” Usually, she says, “it’s done in a kind of intimidation, repression of shame.”
Recognizing and confronting the “shame machine” wherever it operates, O’Neil said she hopes we can come together to “attack” the real sources of the problem.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What is shame?
Cathy O’Neil: Shame is a police tool used to reinforce rules and taboos to promote the survival of a society. When an individual’s desires conflict with the expectations of the group, shame can curb their behavior.
But it can be painful and the damage can be profound, making us feel worthless and robbing us of our humanity. Shame packs a vicious punch.
CNN: Does shame have a positive function in societies?
O’Neil: Shame is a social mechanism. When it works, it feels a bit like persuasion with a slight hint of the potential for rejection if you don’t follow the rules. The idea is to discourage selfish action in favor of what the community needs.
But no one is arrested, physically punished or banned forever. Instead, the festival aims to help individuals become “more Hopi” by convincing them to stop making choices that are bad for the community. A distinguishing feature here is that the target of shame has the choice to comply.
NC: You write this giant sectGolds in today’s economy are organized and optimized to foster the shame that is bullying. How?
O’Neil: The industrial complex of shame has a traditional old-fashioned part and a new “big data” part. There’s a long tradition of companies trying to make you feel ashamed of something in order to sell you a product to try and make you feel better. Often the product fails or even makes the problem worse.
A horrific example is a company’s recent campaign to make teenage girls smell their vaginas so they can sell them deodorant. First of all, there is nothing wrong with the way our body naturally smells. Second, these types of products can actually cause problems like yeast infections.
Particularly insidious is the use of “trolling” by a for-profit company that claims no one should be body-shamed while manufacturing the shame it claims to condemn.
The new incarnations of the shame industrial complex are the big tech companies and social media platforms that have created the perfect environment for us to shame each other.
CNN: What do you mean by “crushing” shame?
O’Neil: Shaming someone for something beyond their control is punching or bullying. This often involves strangers exaggerating the power of the shamed individual to “correct” a condition or behavior, acting as if making an easy choice will solve the problem even when the choice is not at all easy – such as shaming someone for their opioid addiction, for example.
A take-home message I want to convey is this: don’t shame people for what they can’t choose. And remember, it’s easy to overestimate someone else’s choice.
Instead, let’s turn downstrokes into upstrokes.
CNN: What does “punch” look like?
O’Neil: Hitting involves shaming those in power—those who have a voice and a platform to defend and/or redeem themselves—for making choices that harm others. This can encourage aberrant people to refocus on the greater good.
A war on shame machines would involve scrutiny of public services such as welfare offices, work requirements and all those grueling bureaucratic nightmares the poor have to go through to access basic services.
People often complain about civility in response to punches. We should all agree that no one looks “civil” when expressing shame, because they are challenging the status quo.
CNN: How can our awareness of shame help?
O’Neil: I have a fantasy for people who carry the unreasonable burden of student debt. Instead of being ashamed, which is a typical reaction that we as a society expect and provoke, what if they worked in solidarity to cancel the debt? Recognizing the shame machine would allow us to move towards eradicating policies that shame the poor.
NC: You recommend noticing shame and labeling it wherever you see it. What specific actions are you calling for?
O’Neil: When you look at the world through a shame lens, you can see when it’s weaponized, whether it’s body shaming to sell a product or shaming victims of abuse to shut them up. Then, if he knocks, you can disrupt him.
To create healthier relationships, we need to speak out against shameful interactions. Maybe it’s an immigration officer humiliating a refugee or a mother shaming her 12-year-old child. A disturbance might require you to step between two people to say, “What’s going on here?” Why are you embarrassing this person?
I also ask people to move beyond denial or self-shame to a point of recognition of when society offers a raw deal.
Very often, our systems blame the victims. Unwilling to change, the status quo reinforces the idea that individuals are at fault. If people could see this and act collectively, the punch would be beautiful to watch.
CNN: If shame isn’t a habit we can “kick in a day or even a decade,” as you put it, how can we overcome its painful effects?
O’Neil: Shame is like a bruise that never fully heals. I wrote about a time when I stopped dieting and thought I was way beyond identifying myself by just my fat. I had three children, a successful marriage, a successful career and a doctorate. But a rude comment from an employee reminded me of all my shame of being fat. At that time, I was completely subjected to humiliation.
I don’t think chronic shame is going away. There are no 10 easy tricks to get rid of shame. There simply isn’t. But it’s still worth thinking about, if only to help us avoid passing it on to our children or other people.
CNN: Does shame provide benefits?
O’Neil: Shame reminds people of the rules and the ultimate risks of ignoring them. Being expelled from the community could possibly mean dying of exposure. So it makes sense that we feel shame as an existential threat.
Think about how people react in a crisis. Storing food in times of scarcity is a natural impulse, but it’s also not good for the community as a whole. In Ukraine right now, people are sharing what little food and water they have with each other.
I saw the same after Hurricane Sandy in New York. People are so generous in times of crisis. And when someone is not behaving with a generous spirit, shame can be very helpful.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist, book contributor, writing coach, and author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories From the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work That Built America.”