Why YOU Should Know The Shocking Dangers Of Public Shaming

public shaming

Jon Ronson admits that he has been part of the groundswell of public shaming and that he used to see it as a way of using the power of social media to bring down the powerful.

But his new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, addresses the fact that anonymous and viral shaming of individuals can go tragically wrong.

Shame is a powerful emotion, one that once served an important survival value when an individual was up against a competitor they could not defeat.

Shame simultaneously signals surrender (so that the other can accept victory and allow you to live) and weakens you so that you cannot pull a fake surrender to catch your enemy off guard. The emotional perception of the effect of shame is deeply painful to your self-esteem, and we do not want to remain in a shamed state for long.

Most of us will do anything to avoid shame, including sometimes siding with bullies or winners rather than standing up for victims. Shame is contagious, and we fear that if we are associated with the victim, we will be tarred with the same brush and subjected to the same humiliation.

The problem with shaming through the internet, or by talk show hosts who control their interaction with guests they want to humiliate, is that the victim has no way of effectively confronting the abusive shamers. 

It is not a fair fight, and yet it results in painful humiliation and real damage to a person's reputation and image. Some victims have committed suicide, seeing no future for themselves in a world where devastating images can be published on the internet forever by people they don't even know. 

There is little hope that this trend can be controlled by any rational authority. No one can effectively act to stop public shaming.  

But as individuals, we can choose to act in ways that both protect us emotionally from the feeling of helplessness as witnesses to public shaming and can mediate the harm to the target of public shaming. We can choose to stand up with the victim rather than pile on with the abusers.

This takes some courage, because we are always justified in the fear that the bullies will turn on us. In fact, bullies can be shamed, too, and often retaliate with greater rage when they are. 

A small survey of dialogues between commenters who disagree about a particular person or event is enough to confirm this. When one person takes a highly critical position and another pushes back, the first person frequently becomes defensive and more aggressive.

But if you actually know the victim personally, you are in a good position to say that the abusers are not telling the whole truth about their target. The more friends and defenders participate in the conversation the less lopsided the public shaming is.  

Having the courage to question public shaming is something we should feel good about, even if it does not stop the phenomenon.

So the next time you see a tweet that smacks of public shaming, think twice about retweeting it and joining the bullies. If you are in a position to challenge the shaming, and have the courage to push back against the tide, consider being a hero in defense of a lonely victim.

Brock Hansen, LCSW is the Author of Shame and Anger: The Criticism Connection, and a practicing psychotherapist in Washington, DC.