While listening to Monica Lewinsky’s moving presentation on shame and cyber-bullying on a recent TED Talk, I wondered if our culture will ever transcend being so shame-based. Can we turn the corner on this situation that has plagued and sometimes ruined thousands if not millions of lives?
I am actually more hopeful than not. While the Internet gives anonymous attackers the freedom to do their dirty work, it also opens up a delivery system for the spread of healthy consciousness. The carrier for cyber-bullying can also be used to create solutions!
With more attention paid to helping people, the Internet could provide a major tool for lending emotional support to victims of cyber-bullying.
The forces of shame have been in control. Shaming is very popular. As Lewinsky suggested, shaming is the backbone of an industry. People make money off it. Media shame people and attract viewers or clicks, which in turn generates cash from advertisers. Media manipulators have learned that controversy and humiliation into a winning formula for luring the masses to view things, so they artificially inject shaming into gobs of content.
THE POPULARITY OF SHAMING
Many news stories and documentaries are designed around the agenda of shaming someone. It is often promoted that this storytelling is for the common good. Exposing scandalous behavior, corruption, fraud, and so on is intended to shed light on a situation that needs fixing. It’s supposed to rile people up enough to cause some positive solutions.
At some level, this is a good thing. Exposing evil as a means to improve the situation probably helps. However, sometimes evil is exposed only because it is show business.—shaming as a spectator sport or freak show. That is not such a good thing, especially when the real purpose is to entertain for profit.
People are often shamed and ridiculed for simply being different. This depends on the context of the shaming, but every minority group experiences it. Common ones are being obese, gay, transgendered, the “wrong” race, the “wrong” religion, the “wrong” political affiliation, deformed, non-conformist, non-monogamous, mentally challenged, mentally advantaged, emotionally vulnerable, and so on.
SHAME IN ACTION
I became more interested in the impact of public shaming after watching a few poignant documentaries about a few high-profile cases of people being humiliated.
In Lady Valor: The Kristen Beck Story, we meet a guy who was a Navy SEAL for 20 years, regarded as one of the bravest of the brave in combat situations. Shortly after retiring from the Navy, he revealed to the world that he was transgender. He proceeded to become Kristin Beck, living 24/7 as a woman. The shaming she endured was relentless. (We also now have former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner coming out transgender.)
Jay Reinke was a pastor featured in the documentary The Overnighters about Williston, North Dakota, currently a boom town in the fracking oil industry. The film showed how Reinke opened up his church to homeless job-seekers to provide them with shelter overnight in a town with a huge shortage of vacant rooms. His Christian-based generosity came under fire from congregants and townspeople who felt threatened by this practice. Shaming ramped up when he allowed a sex offender to stay at his home, and later when the pastor made a startling revelation about his own personal life.
Fall to Grace was for me a fascinating look at former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey who resigned from office in disgrace. He admitted to having had an extramarital affair with a man, an admission that led to a bitter divorce and massive shaming and ridicule. He ended up following his passion, which led him to becoming a teacher for female prison inmates. At the same time be began studying to become an Episcopal priest
Ted Haggard was a popular fundamentalist evangelical preacher who kept it a secret that he was gay (bisexual is probably a closer term) while also being married to a woman. The Trials of Ted Haggard showed him in crisis mode dealing with having been banished from his church and the state of Colorado.
All of these documentaries gave intimate portrayals of how these people were forced to deal with massive humiliation. One could argue that some of them brought shame upon themselves by their actions. Maybe so. However, documentaries like this take the viewer behind the headlines and show the struggle of pursuing redemption or social acceptance. How people recover from shame is usually is not part of the public narrative.
I believe that the recovery process is a much more worthwhile story to tell, and I wish it was told much more. The vast majority of us have skeletons in the closet that could be converted into humiliating stories, especially given how shame-driven stories are designed, written, and edited.
SHAMING AND CREATIVITY
I would like to add something else to the story about shaming—how it affects creativity. Being creative means looking at the same thing other people look at and seeing something different. Often it’s seeing where an improvement can be made. However, in our shame-based society, different ideas or different ways of doing things often meet ridicule and derision.
How many people are not exercising their creativity because they were once (or still are) too severely shamed for their non-conformity? How many great innovations large and small have been aborted when people gave up after suffering mental and emotional injuries through shaming?
This is not just about breakthrough inventions that never happen. It’s also about all those people so shamed that they drop out and tune in to deep despair. They feel no compulsion to help save the planet because they already feel excluded and unappreciated. How many conversations were not started, laughs not shared, and hugs not given as a ripple effect from attacks that knocked the joy out of these people?
As a society, meanwhile, I think we should ask how many acts of violence were sown from the seeds of someone being tormented with shame, especially during childhood? I am not talking about just violent murders and rapes. How often does shame lead to the creation of narcissistic selfishness and obsessive revenge? How often do people once ridiculed and unappreciated turn into shaming zealots and cruel neighbors? How many others become swallowed up in addictions and anti-social activities?
WHAT CAN WE DO?
In her speech, Lewinsky said, “The shift begins with something simple, but it’s not easy: We need to return to a long-held value of compassion.”
And how do we get to compassion? That usually requires empathy. And empathy often involves education.
Perhaps it would be useful to use an analogy that is currently being applied to porn, which some people (including Russel Brand) are calling “the new drug.” The idea is that modern porn affects brain chemistry as some psychoactive drugs do. Shaming or watching shaming as a blood sport might also fall into this category. We might be addicted to shame.
Watch someone in the heat of shaming, like on a cable TV show or YouTube video! That person is awash in excitement. It’s a rush, a big woo-hoo blast of adrenaline. As with much combat, the victim is often not seen as a multidimensional human being; the victim is seen as a punching bag.
Our media culture’s example often teaches us that shaming behavior is acceptable, all part of healthy debate and competition. It often gets into white hats versus black hats, the Patriots (fans) versus the Seahawks (fans), the Left versus the Right.
But our media culture now includes social media, and more people than ever before can weigh in on topics of their choice. Some people like Monica Lewinsky are weighing in on shaming and cyber-bullying.
In my vision of a better world, I see a place where it is easier for mentally and emotionally injured people to find help. There would be more readily available content for people to turn to when they needed it. Help is already available for those who seek it, but I would like to see much more of it, easier for victims of it to find.
The majority of shaming probably does not produce unrecoverable wounding. People can and do bounce back. However, I would like to see more helpful material easier to access for those who are slipping fast into the dark side.