Listening to shame | Brené Brown
Listening to shame | Brené Brown
Here we go again. Somebody’s accidentally let the infernal swamp of badness that exists inside of their soul bubble to the surface, where it’s eked noxious ooze out and into the slipstream of the internet. Oops! They’ve done a racist tweet, a homophobic Facebook rant, an ableist Snapchat story, and now everybody knows what a bad person they are. People who previously had no idea they existed are now flooding their mentions with four-letter words and death threats. This is an internet shaming – an online pants-down – and it is only going to get worse.
Yesterday, it was the turn of south London artist Hetty Douglas. Before last night she was only known to a small circle of art students for work which basically amounts to blobs of paint with phrases like “ur fit do u wanna finger my m8” written over them. Now, since a tweet featuring a problematic comment Douglas made on Instagram went viral, every bored student and Sun-reader in the UK wants her blood.
So what can she expect from the coming days? What have we learnt from the internet shamings of old? With every passing scandal the internet has become a leaner, more efficient ignominy engine, obliterating careers in record times. But how? Pray silence, and mute your notifications, as we consider the five stages of an internet shaming.
STEP 1: The Call Out
STEP 2: The Storm
STEP 3: The Disappearance
STEP 4: The Statement
STEP 5: The Legacy
Lunchtime lecture for you guys, with Aaron Balick on the Psychodynamics of Social Media – just watch out for the opening music if you’re wearing headphones. Learn from my pain… meep.
The bottom line is that humans come equipped with the potential to experience shame for good reason. Tempered, situationally-based shame and self-blame can functionally guide us toward humility, foster learning, and be socially sensitive. However, when shame and self-blame are characterological, there is a cancer at one’s core sense of self, perhaps hidden, but eating away in a destructive manner.
A few weeks ago, I was on a Tube train eating an M&S pasta salad. It was a fairly inoffensive snack but even so, I’d purposefully moved somewhere quiet so that I could do it without disturbing anyone.
Halfway through munching it, I noticed a man get up out of his seat to move opposite me and take my photo. I knew that he’d done it – he’d pointed the phone at me and adjusted it for an angle. I moved away and didn’t think too much more about it. But then a friend noticed me on the Facebook group “Women Who Eat On Tubes” (20,000 members and counting) and texted me to let me know.
When I saw my photo, I felt vindicated and almost relieved that I hadn’t just been paranoid about what he was doing. But I also felt hurt and humiliated – especially by the comments mentioning my “gaping orifice” or sarcastically pondering, “I’d like to know the name of her finishing school.” I was the butt of a joke without my knowledge, in front of thousands of strangers. I’d been “stranger-shamed”.
And unlike other women who have since got in touch with me to say that they’ve been featured on similar sites and felt “helpless” to do anything, I wasn’t going to let it slide. Not only am I a journalist with time on my hands to sort this out, but with a few internet searches, I found the email address of the man who had uploaded the photo of me. I asked him to remove my picture, and although it’s now been taken down (by Facebook, not by him) hundreds of other women’s photos are still up there.
The thing is, I’m also of a generation whose default setting is “broadcast”. I tweet prolifically. I Instagram a new picture each day. I’ve perused blogs such as “Look At My F**king Red Trousers” and properly laughed at “Jeans and Sheuxs” (anonymous photos of the fashion crime of wide-legged denim with smart pointy shoes). I admit that I’ve taken photos of people without their permission and uploaded them to social networks or texted them to friends – although it’s never been broadcast to thousands of people and it’s never for something so basic as eating food on public transport.
It’s not illegal, but it is a bit odd when you think about it. When we’re in environments such as the Tube or on the web, we feel anonymised, and looking through the periscope of our cameras, we’re disconnected from the situation. Obviously, since my experience, I’ve decided that I’m never going to stranger-shame again.
Since I appeared on the Facebook group, dozens of people have been in touch, including creators of a women-eating-on-the-Tube flashmob set up with the intention of getting lots of women to eat on the Underground to overwhelm and defy any would-be photographer. There is also now a group setting out to shame men taking photos of women eating on the Tube.
But I do question whether e-vigilantism is the way of getting things done. Instead, I hope that by identifying the phenomenon of stranger- shaming, people will think twice before doing it. I don’t want anyone – female, male, old, young, wearing a diamante belt buckle reading “porn star” – to be shamed like this. Sure, it’d be lovely if Facebook closed down stranger-shaming groups or if the British Transport Police could ban people taking photos of strangers on public transport. And I have every faith that Project Guardian, a scheme from BTP which sets out to deal with harassment, will tackle stranger-shaming.
But to really stop this from happening, we need to police ourselves. Next time you see someone wearing or doing something weird, don’t get a phone out. Do your friends really want to see that picture of the guy in socks and sandals? Are you really going to be the equivalent of that old family friend who would come round to show you a slideshow of their holidays? Shame on you if so.
“For me, guilt is about an internal conversation you have with yourself, about your own moral standards and how you hold yourself to those. Whereas shame, the way I define it, means thinking about what others think about you, or concerning yourself with the way that others think about you.”
“The fundamental way in which guilt has risen in our society is through a very subtle but profound shift in focusing our attention from supply, and the way industries operate, to focusing on the demand side. That puts a lot of so-called decisions in the hands of consumers, individuals. So pesticide use or battery-raised hens or animal cruelty more broadly [or] unfair trade — this is now something that each and every one of us is asked to feel guilty about, because what we buy is contributing.”
“You can arguably shame people who are shameless, in a strange way, as long as you expose them to public opprobrium. Even if they don’t feel shame — and it’s very likely they may not — do they change their behavior in response to the stimuli, even if they don’t feel a certain way?”