Shaming Shame Culture

I’m sure you’ll all have seen the great internet flame war that was the melt-down of Ashley Madison earlier this year. If, however, you lived under a rock, here you go: Internet hook-up service specifically marketed at married people had their database hacked and details of customers released. Basically everyone was on it. It had the charming tagline: “Life is Short. Have an affair.”

But did you see what the founder, Noel Biderman, had to say about it?
“There’s nothing wrong with infidelity. Only discovered infidelity”.

In short, something is only bad if you get hounded on Twitter for it. Amongst all the heartbreak and privacy concerns, a number of articles made their way onto the web on the quiet. “If I’d have known about it, I’d have used Ashely Madison” a slew of “I was on Ashley Madison and here’s why/I Don’t Regret My Ashley Madison Affair” and most eyebrow-raising of all: “Increase in Ashley Madison users after the hack” It would appear any publicity is good publicity, after all.

I trawled Reddit, as one does in these kind of situations, and plenty of Internetites had snooped the hacked databases for email addresses. (Interestingly, lots of people searched for their own email, even though they said they had never used or even heard of AM until the hack hit the news. Something like when you walk down the road and see a bobbie and automatically assume you’re doing something wrong and get all shady and weird even though you know you’re being totally law-abiding. I hope that’s not just me) Many who had searched for their own email addresses, a partner’s, a work colleague’s, a family member’s or friend’s email were not concerned about the betrayed partner discovering but about everyone else finding out. Future employers, family and co-workers et al.

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There’s also been a wave of horrific blackmailers, claiming they hold information about an Ashley Madison account. These blackmailers claim to have tracked down a user on Facebook, but rather than ransom the information to the user’s spouse, they threaten to release the information to “all of your known friends and family (and perhaps even your employers too?)”

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This particular screen shot was from the Toronto Police press conference. Reddit are claiming a fourth wave of details are going to be released, so it looks like the shit storm is far from over. Another wave of articles surfaced online, all somewhere along the lines of “Do Ashley Madison users deserve to be publicly shamed?” and comment streams of adequate vitriol to accompany. Of course, the very hack itself suggests that some people think that public shaming is the best behavioural deterrent and punishment.

Whilst the AM event has sent shockwaves through the media, it’s not just public shamings for infidelity. In fact, ‘shaming’ as a term is massively on the rise. Just take a look at google ngram (a graph of the word usage over time):

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There are now myriads of discussions online on various shamings: body shaming, fat shaming, skinny shaming, slut shaming, dog shaming, (and yes, horse shaming, goat shaming and ferret shaming) child shaming, twitter shaming, salary shaming, privilege shaming. Even Jon fucking Ronson wrote a book about shaming (❤). Where has all this shame come from?

In 1946, Ruth Benedict, a cultural anthropologist, released her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. The book was, in short, lambasted. It was “arrogant” and “biased”, and yet, her popularization of the terms ‘guilt culture’ and ‘shame culture’ are now utterly integrated into the school of anthropology. In short, Benedict devised these categories in the way cultural anthropologists often do: neat and bite-sized intellectual chunks to categorise all human experience ever. It’s about societal control and community values often inter-spliced with heavy doses of religion.

A guilt culture is about inwardly projected negative feelings, and is traditionally associated with “The West”. This is mostly born from early Christianity, whereby God always knows if you’ve done something wrong, even if no one else in your community does. It also stems from the notion that a sin is a sin, regardless of trial. If you steal something, or beat up a child, or blaspheme or rotten you’re expected to feel bad even if no one else found out about it.

A shame culture is about received outer negative projections, and traditionally associated with “The East” or more ancient cultures, especially Ancient Greece. A shame culture does not say that a deity isn’t omnisciently aware that you’ve done something wrong, it’s more that the society places a higher value upon honour and reputation. In this sense, your pillage and massacre of a small outlying village and the human sacrifice you enforced there and that massive gold statue you built of yourself should only make you feel bad if other people are criticizing you for it. You rotter, you.

Now, obviously shame and guilt can/do co-exist, and if you’re a sociopath and feel neither shame nor guilt then this doesn’t work for you, and you should probably work on that. But humour me here. Here’s some helpful and very accurate diagrams I made, just for you.

guilt copyShame copy

As you can see, guilt is when you feel bad all on your own. Shame is when you feel bad because loads of fingers are jabbing up in your face. Another guy on the internet* made much better diagrams than me, so here they are in all their glory.

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There’s this funny idea floating around, mostly unreferenced and flaccid in the eyes of the academic community, that guilt culture is a ‘progression’ from shame culture. That guilt is a sort of level-up, Pokemon evolution of shame. I think that’s total crap. My personal, fully erect, hypothesis is that guilt and shame are cyclical. We’ve had our guilt time (Middle Ages, You-Will-Be-Punished-In-The-Afterlife) and now we’re diving straight back into shame culture. And it’s not only me that’s saying it. Some bloke in the London Evening Standard said it too, but I forgot who it was and lost the bit of paper I ripped out and it was only a tiny column but I thought of it first, honest.

The funny thing about shame culture is that once ‘shaming’ becomes active in the community it really works. If you hate an offensive advert (take a bow, Protein World), then a large community shaming often does get it recognised for the public eyesore it is and removed. But shaming is also pretty problematic, because the word is being used so widely, and sometimes so heavy-handedly, that it’s starting to lose all meaning.

There’s a great article called Stop Calling All Criticism “Shaming” and I’d love to steal all of it but I can’t because I’d probably be shamed online for plagiarism, but here’s a great whacking chunk of it:

“these broad uses of shaming are stretching a useful word to the point of meaninglessness. The more I hear about filter-shaming, the harder it is to really hear what a problem body-shaming can be. We really should restrain ourselves from mindlessly slapping this label on every single thing in the world that makes us feel bad….Unfortunately, once a buzzword is out of the barn, it’s not likely to go back in. Pretty soon, doctors may be known as sickness-shamers. [Nina says: this is kind of already happening.’Medical fat-shaming’ is when doctors tell people that their high weight is the cause of their health problems/losing weight is the cure-all answer,  have a look here and here] Dentists might be scolded for cavity-shaming. Teachers could catch flak for their relentless ignorance-shaming. Even police officers might be lambasted for their thoughtless and cruel crime-shaming. Shaming is probably already finished as a meaningful word. And, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, “That’s a shame.”

Social media and the true Age of the Internet has plunged us head-first at hyper-speed back into a shame culture. Social media, the freakish behemoth of our generation, can only operate within a culture that judges one other. It’s utterly reliant on it. Bandwagon culture is profligate, there’s only a few hundred characters to fully explain your opinion in a thorough context, and the whole purpose is to pass judgment on someone you don’t know. Plus, you don’t have to interact with them in person, so a twitter-storm or comment section of an article can escalate into a conversational cesspool in ways that would turn into fisticuffs ‘in real life.’ (And I say ‘in real life’ in ersatz quotes because you can’t just offhandedly say IRL these days and have it as a definitively different modus operandi. The phrase In Real Life totally defunct, because like it or not buddy, the internet is Real Life now.)

Public hacks or shamings are now pretty common, and a quick way to make large companies sit up, pay attention and poop their little pants. But how effective are they at changing the economic landscape? Does Trial-By-Media work? Is shaming passé already, lost to the Buzzword Abyss? Even after the Playstation hack, many of you probably still use a games console. Amazon and Starbucks have been tax-shamed, but business goes on as usual for them. And as said above, Ashley Madison have got more users than ever. The baying internet mobs with their torches/pitchforks/keyboards can only sustain interest for a short space of time before something different and new comes up. So if you’ve done something really really wrong, like collecting millions and millions of people’s private data for instance, don’t worry about people losing their shit; they’ll forget about it pretty soon.


*Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; Shame-Culture and Guilt-Culture [On-line: UK] retrieved 17 September 2015 from


About ncgf

Day-time drinker & runaway traveller. Terrible sense of humour, always scruffy.

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