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The Industrial Revolution of Shame (nytimes.com)
92 points by merrier 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments





This is getting pretty bad. The thing that really bugs me is when people are shamed for things they did 20 or 30 years ago. 20 years ago I was prank calling people and saying some pretty awful stuff to them. Would I do it now? No, of course not. I've changed. Should I be shamed for something that long ago? I don't personally think it's productive.

I guess there's a balance, though. If I had questionable character now perhaps it would be relevant to include past information. And also, what's the cutoff? Five years? Ten? At what point do we say "that's recent enough to be a reflection on you?" I don't know.

I do know we seem to be reaching back ever-further to find ways to smear people we don't like. It's a constant drive to feel outraged about something. As if there isn't enough bad stuff going on already...


I sometimes think about part of Fredric Jameson's remarks on one of the distinctions between modernity and postmodernity being an atemporality, that under postmodernity there is only the ever-present now. And I wonder if things like this are part of that, that we technically still recognize time, in the sense that we know we get off at five o'clock, but at the same time inherently don't recognize that in a sort of broader context, so people are forever what they were, are, always was, will be. So under such strictures, such makes a certain sense, in descriptive terms, that there is no what someone was but only what they are.

Thank you, apocalypstyx - your comment is insightful and useful in analyzing certain present-day trends.

Bit of a tangent, I remember reading a comment regarding old art's propensity towards showing past as nearly the same as present. Take medieval christian paintings - while depicting scenes from era way past and cultures far removed, they were typically depicted with then-current clothing, equipment, housing, etc. It's only during renaissance (hopefully not mixing that one up?) that people commonly understood past & other societies were significantly different from the present, with different customs, culture, technology, etc. Accompanying the awareness was ongoing research into how the past actually was; what were the possibilities and limitations; what was the culture and what drove people to certain choices, however misguided they may seem in the hindsight.

Through your comment I realize we are in process of losing the ability to clearly delineate the past, and to hold it as imperfect, but necessary, stepping stones to the present day. And perhaps also to run effective, objective research into the past, without feeling the urge to nudge it into direction of a preferred narrative.


True post-modernism should also dissolve a staunch moral evaluation framework thus dampening outrage. What we have is some mix of modernism (rejection of classical thought) and fundamentalism (harsh judgement with black and white morality).

The way I see it, post-modernism has enabled the outrage machine in the first place, by dissolving the borders between fact and fiction and dismissing context in any form. When everything is interpretable in any possible framework truth, reason and nuance become just another straw in the haystack and not something individuals should strife for.

You suggest we don't have true post-modernism, because it is not critical enough of the own operating moral framework. I counter that with: post-modernism is essentially only 'tried and tested' anti-modernism, but it doesn't come along as religious outrage like in the old times, but dressed in the form of moral outrage machines, that can be triggered by any form of non-conformist behaviour in any possible framework -- the frameworks have become interchangable, the operational mechanisms work like they always have.


If I understand correctly, one of the things that postmodernism says is that all speech is about power, not truth - that all claims of truth are really assertions of power.

It's not just that the border of fact and fiction has been dissolved. The question is not even considered relevant, because the statement isn't considered to be about truth in the first place.

"Everything can be interpreted in any possible framework" only in the sense that they will interpret your statement in the framework that makes it look the worst. Why will they do so? Because their interpretation of your statement is not about finding truth, but about their assertion of power. That is, these people are operating consistent with their philosophy.


I'm not sure that dissolving a staunch moral evaluation framework necessarily results in a dampening of outrage. Absent an objective moral framework what is left is a subjective moral framework that is not debatable and thus cannot be externally challenged as "correct" or "incorrect." If my own unassailable framework is the only vaguely truth-like metric by which to measure anything, it seems to me that outrage is the perfectly predictable response towards anything with which I disagree since anything that does not agree with my moral framework is not moral.

is should but society would dissolve if it actually happened. the moral backlash is a backlash to the beginning stages of the amoralism - atheism, freedom of thought and sexuality have ripple effects on traditional social structures that are built on concepts of restriction and standardisation.

where do you put your pent up hate without being hurtful? you attack the people who are perceived as hurtful first


This is especially interesting when it comes to comedians being fired for tweets/work they made in the past. I've heard it compared to being fired for ones current coding position because one has 10 year old code on their github that is trash / poor quality.

Of course, that seems absurd. But comedians are fired for jokes they made years ago when they come to light. Was the joke bad? Probably. By today's standards and the standards that we hold comedians to. But back then times were different and the joke may have been more culturally acceptable. Moreso they have refined their style and grown. As you said, they've changed.

It's incredibly frustrating because the shame culture only exists to eat itself alive. You could be a picture perfect person one day and the next be demonized by something you don't even remember doing from years ago.


I mean, I definitely don't think anybody should be fired for something they did 20 years ago no matter how egregious, but it's misrepresentation to say the problem is bad work. The problem is the work is needlessly and unapologetically aggressive/hurtful to certain people. The equivalent would be losing your coding job today because your github has a 20 year old rootkit on it that cost a few people their credit scores. Which, still unacceptable, but a bunch of your coworkers would still hate you for having stolen people's information and benefitted from it.

> But comedians are fired for jokes they made years ago when they come to light.

Could you give an example of this?


Not sure what the parent meant, but the example of Kevin Hart losing the Oscar hosting gig this year because of tweets from 2010-11 that used anti-gay slurs comes to mind.

I gotta wonder if that's why he was fired by the Academy. It doesn't make sense that they are afraid of controversy in light of some of the recent people who they honored, like Casey Affleck & Mel Gibson.

Kevin Hart and James Gunn are two big examples from the last year or two.

If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.

Awsome. Here's all of them. Sincerely, Internet


I don't think these questions have legible answers.

Before social media, someone might smear, criticize or judge you for prank calls you made 20 years ago. Some wouldn't. It's not court.

The difference between then and now is implications. The world we're in now can take those criticisms and amplify them, making them the central theme if your public persona. It can becone thing people know about you first.

In an important sense prank calls aren't a good example. Most things that get the amplified shame treatment are not individual example of wrongdoing. They're individual examples that can (rightly or wrongly) be used as examples or symbols of a political injustice of some sort, as they see it.

I really don't think we can sort the rights and wrongs of this stuff, make it fair or consistent. What we need to do is lower the stakes, if we can.


> Before social media, someone might smear, criticize or judge you for prank calls you made 20 years ago

This sort of thing used to be a staple of small-town life; everyone knew everything that you ever did and you could be defined by a childhood incident. The only way out of it was to leave. Now we have made the world smaller.


"The closer you get together, the more you like each other? There is no evidence of that in any situation that we have ever heard of. When people get close together, they get more and more savage and impatient with each other. [Man’s] tolerance is tested in those narrow circumstances very much. Village people are not that much in love with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations." McLuhan

That's a good analogy. There's something to it.

> I don't think these questions have legible answers.

A lot of things today are intensely emotional (angry, indignant, scandalized) events over non legible answers. The only conclusion I have so far is: this decade is akin to a mass scale depression where anything is a source of madness.


>Should I be shamed for something that long ago? I don't personally think it's productive.

I see your point, but surely you see how this is a bit self-serving, that you'd give yourself a pass.

I'm not saying I necessarily agree with holding people to long-ago behavior, but the argument is that your actions had consequences on other people, often people who didn't have a voice at that time. It's easy for the white person who said/did racist things in their past to say it was a long time ago and they've changed so what's the big deal (note: not accusing you of this, just an example) whereas the black people on the receiving end might see it differently.

When I was growing up it was very common and acceptable to use f*g/other gay slurs as a normal part of conversation. I could say that it didn't mean anything and was just how we talked, but then again I'm not gay and didn't have to live with it.


To play devils advocate, the public idolizes celebrities. This boosts celebrities to new stratas of popularity. When their public image gets tarnished it becomes much harder to idolize them thus magnifying the damage. The boom bust cycles are inevitable.

Shame serves an important social function. It is how society enforces norms without having to create a punitive consequence for every bit of undesirable behavior. It's not just about you--by shaming you for something you did in the past, society reinforces what behaviors are undesirable and encourages people to feel shame for engaging in those same behaviors in the present.

Shaming people for things they did in the past is particularly important for reinforcing changes in norms. There are a lot of behaviors that were accepted 30 years ago that are not okay now. We shame people for engaging in that conduct not because it makes sense to hold people to behavioral norms that didn't exist at the time they engaged in the conduct, but to reinforce those norms in the present.


It isn't just the older generation (and actions done 20-30 years ago) doing dumb things and getting shamed for it. The newer generation grows up without learning the implications of mass surveillance, mass long-term storage, mass searching and indexing, and encountering driven people looking to shame others just for fun.

(example: one of the kids of the parents accused in the college admission scandal tweeted about "studying is hard" or something to that effect and it came into my twitter feed and everyone was having a laugh)

If you decide that people NOW shouldn't be shamed for behavior 20-30 years ago, why even bother shaming? I know I'll be different in 20-30 years in the future, so maybe don't shame me (as much) in the present, as long as the actions aren't too heinous. Maybe I don't end up changing, in which case, more shaming would seem 'normal', but the advantage there is that someone has to remember to come check on me. I could gamble that there's a bigger outrage and the internet mob moves onto something else.

The upside of this is that the internet is learning how many people are really bad people. Part of the outrage culture comes from that. Most of these details were hidden in an information-deprived world, and importantly, lack of searching and indexing to actually find all of it.

Maybe it will get so bad that new identities become a much bigger industry and that becomes a social norm. A new identity and probably a new home country is probably the best short-term solution today for this if anyone feels unjustly shamed by society.


You have observed something that points at a much deeper problem. The problem lies in our use of language. Language is the key.

> I know I'll be different in 20-30 years in the future,

Psychologist Wendell Johnson, pointed out that we create many problems for ourselves by using Static Language to express or capture a reality that is ever changing -

“Our language is an imperfect instrument created by ancient and ignorant men. It is an animistic language that invites us to talk about stability and constants, good and bad, right and wrong, about similarities and normals and kinds, about simple problems, and final solutions. Yet the world we try to symbolize with this language is a world of process, change, differences, dimensions, functions, relationships, growths, interactions, developing, learning, coping, complexity. And the mismatch of our ever-changing world and our relatively static language forms is part of our problem.”

"really bad people" is an example of that static constraint on language. People are not static but ever changing (which all our marketers are very conscious off which is why we get an iphone 4,5,6,7 etc not just an iphone).

To get people to accept that reality is dynamic, social media and news media have to reflect on their signaling. Signals like clicks/views/likes/retweets/upvotes all reinforce static world views.


> It's a constant drive to feel outraged about something.

Are people actually outraged or do they pretend to be outraged because it gets other's attention to their issue? And doesn't that take attention away from issues that are less... click-baity?

Essentially, isn't this another negative outgrowth of the attention economy?


I think the true answer is that we need to apply nuance and context to things instead of emotional knee-jerking. At the same time we should judge for past in both positive and negative ways.

If they supported apartheid for fear of communism then you certainly are right to question their moral and practical judgment (even accepting the fear the action is counterproductively shoving the oppressed to the arms of the enemy). If they made racist jokes but moved on and supported civil rights for all let it lie.

It brought to mind one thing from a parent referring to someone as being a radical liberal for supporting gay marriage in the 1980s. Now their view is throughly vindicated - visionary not radical is the appropriate term.


Need some sort of exponential weighted moving average function: weight most recent the most.

It's not just time-based though. Most of us can probably recall recent examples where someone did or said something stupid or in poor taste. But they didn't deserve to lose their job or even had their career badly damaged because that was the easiest way for some company to placate the Internet mob.

We've ended up with a stochastic system for dealing with these social conflicts. The response seems disproportionate because most of the time there is no response.

It's as if rather than fining people for littering, there's no fine and no enforcement, but every now and again someone gets attacked by anti-littering terrorists.


Depends what their job is, no? As an example, anonymous blue collar workers shouldn't lose their jobs (and they rarely do). Politicians should maybe have to face more consequences (and they rarely do). Entertainment stars are somewhere in the middle, but for some reason seem to get the most attention.

Now, "placate the Internet mob" is a bit disingenuous here. What's the Internet mob going to do if not placated? Tweet more? Oh no. They don't have any real power. Let's take Roseanne as an example. An Internet mob didn't take her show off the air. ABC execs did. You can blame tweets all you want, but it was ultimately up to ABC. Did they do it because of the tweets? Were they looking for one last straw? They have to answer to that. Did this badly damage Roseanne's career? Listen to Joe Rogan talk to Roseanne about this. He's trying his hardest to lead her into blaming that "Internet mob" for badly damaging her career, but all she says is, "I've got a new tour already lined up for 2019 and I've been spending more time in Hawaii with my son". Does that sound so bad?

Kevin Hart has 3 movies coming out this year. Louis CK has been performing at clubs. Aziz Ansari is on tour. It's hard to find someone who was badly damaged by an Internet mob...


The word "censure" doesn't appear once in The Fine Article, which, I think, undermines its point a little. He writes with nuance about witnessing without judgement, but then assumes all this behavior is categorically "shaming". There is a legitimate social value to censure, and some of this stuff is absolutely censure, not shaming.

To clarify my terms, "censure" talks about behaviors: "That is not an okay thing to do," versus shame's, "You are 'bad' for having done the thing."

Shame is just toxic. Telling people they're defective in an effort to make them improve is stupidly counterproductive.

It gets tricky when we have some kind of identity invested in the thing we're doing. It becomes hard to experience censure and not feel shamed.


Your distinctions between shame and censure are arbitrary and meaningless. e.g.:

Censure: "You shouldn't have done that."

Shaming: "You shouldn't have done that. Shame on you."

The point is the same. If an action is deservedly shameful, then so be it.

Shame that brings positive change is not a bad thing; it is a natural social consequence. The problem is lack of forgiveness even after repentance. How can one's debt to society be paid when convicted by the court of public opinion, prosecuted by the NYT? The exile is indefinite.

One of the problems in our society now is shamelessness, i.e. the lack of social consequences for some actions encourages people to take them. Compounding that is the media, which now acts as self-appointed arbiters of who should be ashamed, when, and why, depending on a person's current favor with the politically powerful. Displease the wrong people, and words uttered a dozen years ago without complaint are suddenly cause for outrage, according to them. Meanwhile, others who said much worse things yesterday are lauded. It's all a big farce.

Democracy dies in darkness, all right--the darkness of the evil of the contemporary press.


> The point is the same. If an action is deservedly shameful, then so be it.

The point is different because censure (as we're using it here) judges the action but shaming judges the person.

Censure: "That thing that you did was bad."

Shaming: "You are a bad person for doing that thing."


No, you are arbitrarily deciding that "shaming judges the person," and that shaming means, "You are a bad person." That's what you think it means. You do not get to decide what "shaming" means to everyone, and it's not right for you to tell others what "shaming" means to them.

Besides that, even if one thinks that shaming does "judge the person," that's not necessarily bad, either, because rightful shame can lead to changed behaviors, which is good for the person and for society as a whole. However, this only works as long as forgiveness is available to those who change.

The problem our society currently has is that forgiveness is often denied, even after repentance. The judgments of the court of public opinion are essentially permanent, which is not healthy. And it's doubly bad when relatively old words and actions can be cited as a reason for judgment and outrage today.


>The problem is lack of forgiveness even after repentance

If anything, repentance leads to more and longer lasting stigma. The repentant person will most likely get excluded from the polite society - which usually means from any high-profile business and social setting.

Meanwhile standing staunchly by one's actions (or strong denial) - even better if coupled with some pushback - tends to create a counter-narrative, with its own team of supporters.

Not saying this is right or wrong, merely that showing weakness in the face of metaphorically bloodthirsty crowd tends to lead to worse results than standing up for oneself.


Yes, that's exactly my point: forgiveness is withheld, even after repentance. Admitting guilt is double-punished, and doubling-down is comparatively rewarded.

Outrage culture exists, in part, because it is very profitable. News outlets have an incentive (for clicks/ad revenue/social engagement) to find something to be outraged about 24/7...even if it is completely absurd. The problem is this really is eroding the trust in media. Even if something is so absurd that most people disagree with it, the hate clicks/engagement from that is well worth publishing it.

The only real way to solve this, imo is to start punishing these publications by simply no longer engaging with them or supporting them. Even good publications (I'm thinking Wired, which generally is good, but lately has published some absurd things.) Until then, or until the ad business model changes...this will continue.

We should be looking at alternative business strategies for media, so they aren't dependent on the absurd. That extends to cable news as well. Fox, CNN, MSNBC have all turned into clown shows...and what anyone that has been on these programs or done media training will tell you...the producers often book people simply for being absurd. Merit it no longer what matters, it's all about engagement to drive ad revenues.


We're on the cusp of, or sliding down into, a long and intense reckoning for our public figures and elected officials vis a vis Harm.

Think of all the things that were done to women, minorities, etc throughout history, and how difficult it's been for them to have a voice before the internet. Imagine if the black community in the 1950s-60s had smartphones and Twitter. Would the newspapers of the time be decrying the "shame" mobs as truth was inevitably spoken to power?

Yes, categorizing someone as 'bad' or 'defective' in an effort to induce change is counterproductive, as another commenter said. So too, actions from 10-20+ years may not be relevant.

But when historically oppressed people get a national platform, if you aren't one of the oppressed, you may not like what they have to say.


> Would the newspapers of the time be decrying the "shame" mobs as truth was inevitably spoken to power?

They absolutely did. This was what MLK's famous complaint about the "white moderate" was about in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.


now you're equating WILDLY different things, a minority being oppressed is different from say - donglegate. remember that? two dudes fired for making a joke about dongles and penises because some "woke" woman overheard and tweeted about it? now imagine one of those guys changed and became a true feminist champion. the internet mob of today wouldn't let him do anything related to feminism because of his past

Afaik, all involved people were fired.

Outrage culture is not about social function imo, it's that words and thoughts provoking the feeling of outrage transmit more easily, that people willingly click into stories about outrage regardless of their relevance. If ideas are like DNA in that they propagate across human minds and there is a type of Darwinian survival of the fittest, outrage inducing memes are simply more fit.

Man, it really feels like at this point the reactionary response to “outrage” is orders of magnitude larger than the initial outrage ever was. I never, ever even hear of any of these supposed outrages until I hear folks going on and on and on about how opposed to the “outrage” they are

I'm guessing you haven't been using the Internet for the past few years then? This stuff is rife, and often well planned and organised with the apparent collaboration of the MSM.

The original outrage is really concentrated in some places. Mainly social media (especially Twitter). I’ve seen a lot of outrage in the workplace as well, mostly demands placed to execs and hr.

Yeah, I don't know why people get upset over what a bunch of nobodies are tweeting. I don't think it's newsworthy either, but that's way out of my control.

Witch hunts are nothing new; people have been doing this for as long as there have been people. I'd even go so far as to say the mass media have been doing this for at least 150 years now.

What's new is its weaponization as a tool for political control in the West.


What's new is the explosion of scale the internet has enabled.

Not really, I think the literal Inquisition still has us beat.

You should read an older history of this series of events; past views of the inquisition were vastly different than the present view. For a long time, it was seen as a humane thing due to their use of an actual legal process rather than people and local strong men burning heretics (who were probably mostly "heretics") at random. In other words, the inquisition was a Church reform designed to mitigate "private sector" witch hunters who were causing political upheaval. The use of standards of evidence by people like Bernard Gui (who wrote a manual on the subject) was a big innovation, as silly as it might seem today.

My historical point of comparison is the events leading up to the various religious wars. The protestant reformation unleashed historical and cultural forces in the same way the present slow motion destruction of the last 100 years of political consensus.


No, it’s not silly, just a testament to how screwed up the time period in question was. Just to add to what you’re saying, did you know that the inquisition was only allowed a single torture session? Of course they got around that by “pausing” the session and resuming endlessly. Still the ideas in the Inquisition, putting aside its aims and practices, were interestint for the time. So “big innovation” isn’t silly, although I admit it’s an interesting perspective not usually taken.

Still not close to the same scale. The internet has democratized witch-hunting.

I think it's too simple to just blame the media for this phenomenon. What is needed is not less media, but more nuance in the discourse; an ability to weigh the importance and relevance of some prior digression against the present person. It is possible, although perhaps uncommon, for people to change, even in major ways. But as one commenter noted, many people today seem to believe in a constancy of time and personality; that the core self is always the same and never changes, and therefore some action taken 20 years ago should carry the same weight as if it were done today. That belief is what is really underlying the current culture of outrage.

Shame has always been a part of human nature, doing shameful acts -- like eating up all the reserve food that the tribe worked so hard to store is appropriately responded to with shame from peers.

Social pressure has it's place in society, as with all things the internet takes everything about the human social experience and turns the dial to 11. I think we are only just coming to grips with what actually should be shamed on the internet. As with all things, we will reach an equilibrium. You don't kick someone out of the tribe for a simple mistake that has a slim chance of happening again if the proper amount of social pressure is applied.


the media produces a lot of manufactured outrage as well.



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