How to Escape From the Vicious Cycle of Shaming in Our Digital World


Shaming can be a double-edged sword in our society.

One benefit of shaming is that it can be an effective way to regulate people’s behaviors in a relatively peaceful and nonviolent fashion.

When a corporation is found doing something misleading or fraudulent, public shaming can be an effective way to put pressure on them to change their ways and satisfy the public. Or when a celebrity engages in hate speech or domestic violence, public shaming can be used to steer away sponsors, commercial deals, and future work.

Our reputation is very important to us – it matters to us that we showcase a positive “image” to others. Shame is a very social emotion that is often coupled with this desire to be accepted and respected by others.

When used properly, shame can help society regulate itself and influence people to change undesirable behaviors. At the same time, shaming can also be used as a tool to manipulate and destroy others.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist Jon Ronson explores popular stories in public shaming – he dissects why it happened, how the person being shamed responded to it, and whether or not this shaming was justified or not.

There are no clear answers in this book on how we should properly use shaming, but Ronson does a good job asking the right questions and illustrating how shaming has become one of the most powerful forces in our society today for better and for worse.

This is especially true in our current digital world, where “shaming” can become a very spontaneous force that everyone has access to participate in on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

In a way, shame has become more democratized than ever before. What happens on social media is a force of its own and can often occur independently from what’s happening in the mainstream media or within our criminal justice system.

This can be a good thing because it allows people to fight for beliefs and issues that may be largely overlooked by our current system. But on the other hand, how “justice” unfolds on social media is also held to a lower standard and is often less accountable to facts, evidence, and serious scrutiny.

Social media has become its own judge and jury that follows its own laws. Many are willing to pass their judgments on others by participating in this culture of online shaming. And at its worse, this can lead to destroying other people’s lives, both emotionally and financially.

One popular example of this mentioned in the book is Justine Sacco, who one day tweeted a tongue-in-cheek joke: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she got off her flight, the tweet became viral and she was being shamed all over the internet. She was fired from her job instantly.

While some of her shamers were genuinely worried about her possible racism, most of her shamers took delight in ridiculing her and watching her life fall apart before their eyes. She became a public spectacle to laugh at, insult, and be entertained by. And all of the bullying has still left an effect on her to this day.

How social media feeds into shame and “artificial drama”

According to Jon Ronson, social media has become one big great stage for our entertainment – and it’s not uncommon for us to create “new heroes” and “new villains” on a daily basis (though I’m willing to bet the latter are created a lot more than the former):

    “A life has been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?”

I’ve always been very skeptical of the way people use shaming online. While I’m never afraid to speak my opinion, I rarely jump in on “opportunities” to shame individual people. I think that can become dangerous and traumatic for people, especially if it’s just over a silly tweet.

Certainly, there’s a difference between shaming a corporation (like BP after their disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) vs. shaming a person over a tasteless joke they tweeted to their friends.

Shame can be a powerful tool, but like all tools it can be abused. Social media unfortunately creates circumstances where it is far-too-easy to abuse shame (see: The Online Disinhibition Effect: 6 Ways the Internet Turns Us Into Assholes).

In our online world, it’s easy to experience a diffusion of responsibility and say things we’d never actually say in the real world. Plus we are able to share our thoughts instantly at the click of a button without even giving it a second thought.

What’s worse is that we often find ways to justify our shaming after it’s happened. We say to ourselves, “They deserved it.” or “If they didn’t want to be shamed, then they should’ve not done what they did. They were asking for it.”

It’s common for us to rationalize the ways we hurt others and even dehumanize the person we’ve hurt. According to Ronson:

    “I suppose it’s no surprise that we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt – before, during, or after the hurting occurs. But it always comes as a surprise. In psychology, it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone). And so to ease the pain we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior.”

Certainly, some people deserve to be shamed (and to pay consequences for their misdeeds). But when “shaming” becomes our default way of dealing with people we perceive as rude, offensive, or wrong, we have to ask ourselves whether shaming is the only tool we have and whether it’s always a net positive.

Shamers believe they are taking the moral high ground

When we shame someone, we are expressing that we don’t like or approve of what they are doing. So what it is we choose to shame can greatly depend on what our values are and what our vision of morality is.

Something that is shame-worthy to one person may not be shame-worthy to another person. This is also why we see different cultures often shame very different things.

However, one important thing to understand is that shamers are always people who genuinely believe they are taking the moral high ground. We may not agree with their shaming, but they feel they are fighting for something that is important.

When software developer Adria Richards overheard two men sitting behind her at a tech conference joking about “forking repos” and “big dongles,” she perceived this as extremely sexist and decided to take a picture of them and shame them on Twitter.

Like many cases of online shaming when it comes to sexism and racism, this was immediately followed by one of the men (Hank) losing his job, which hurt even more because he had a wife and two kids to take care of.

However, despite this hurt created by a joke made in private, Adria felt that deep-down she did the right thing:

    “If I had a spouse and two kids to support I certainly would not be telling ‘jokes’ like he was doing at a conference. Oh but wait, I have compassion, empathy, morals and ethics to guide my daily life choices. I often wonder how people like Hank make it through life seemingly of how ‘the other’ lives in the same world he does with countless less opportunities.”

As you can see very clearly in this quote, Adria genuinely believes that she is simply the “moral person” and the person being shamed is the “immoral person.”

Whether or not you find the joke offensive or tasteless, this attitude when it comes to shaming can often be destructive. The shamer believes they are right no matter what and whatever consequences come from their shaming is simply the result of the other person’s moral deficiency. “They deserved it.”

When a person believes they are taking the moral high ground – and everyone else is just some form of evil – it’s easy to shame people with no regard of the consequences it has on others (and whether or not these consequences really fit the “crime”).

Shaming is a vicious cycle

One interesting pattern Jon Ronson begins to discover in his research for So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is that shaming can often become a vicious cycle that feeds into itself.

Individuals who were once greatly shamed in the past can often fall into the trap of becoming shamers later in life. It’s almost as if “shaming” is a language they learned at an early age, and thus it’s the only way they know how to communicate their grievances about the world.

This happened to Adria, who was at first the shamer and then later became the shamed.

When word got out that her shaming of the male developers led to their firing, a backlash ensued that involved other male developers and Men’s Rights Activists hopping onto the shame train. Adria was now receiving swarms of hate mail, rape jokes, and even death threats. She had quickly become the victim.

Ronson describes more about this vicious cycle of shaming and tries to take a bigger picture perspective:

    “It seemed to me that all the people involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But they only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, that the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is to punish her with a shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame, and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy building covering cracks.”

When we believe we have the moral high ground and that we are genuinely fighting for what is right, it’s easy to respond to shame by just piling on more shame. We think to ourselves “No, I shouldn’t feel bad. You should feel bad!”

Of course this is why the cycle of shaming continues to feed into itself and has become so pervasive in our society (from all sides of politics, religion, and culture). In the rest of this article, I hope to explore some of the ways we can escape this vicious cycle of shaming.


So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an interesting book by journalist Jon Ronson where he illustrates popular examples of public shaming and how it forever changed the lives of those who were shamed. The book explores very important questions on the role of “shaming” in today’s world and how social media has fed into this desire to shame (and what we might be able to do about it).

How to Escape the Vicious Cycle of Shaming

While the cycle of shaming in our culture can be a difficult one to avoid, here are some useful suggestions on how to minimize it’s impact on your daily life.

  • Recognize the role you play in shaming – Reflecting on your past, you can probably think of various time you’ve played both the role of “shamer” and “shamed” depending on the situation. This is why it can become such a vicious cycle in the first place. It’s important to recognize the role you play in the shaming process. Be more mindful of when you are shaming or guilt-tripping others. Pay attention to the consequences, and whether or not it’s really worth it – or you’re just doing it for your sense of satisfaction and self-righteousness.
  • Know your values and what you care about – Shaming is a social emotion that often comes when we violate the expectations of others. In some cases, this could mean that you’ve genuinely hurt or disappointed someone and you regret it. However, you can’t meet people’s expectations all of the time. In some cases, being shamed is one of the “costs of being yourself,” but it’s often worth paying those costs because being true to yourself can be more important that meeting everyone’s approval (see: Why It’s Worth It To Pay The Costs of Being Yourself).
  • Learn from genuine shame and guilt – You are not a perfect person. It’s healthy to experience some amounts of shame and guilt, especially when you do something that ends up severely hurting someone or making their life worse. Those feelings are not only natural, but they can also be an important resource to learn from. When we experience shame over something we did, that can motivate us to change our behavior in the future so that we don’t repeat the mistake (see: How to Learn From Guilt and Improve Your Relationships).
  • Own your mistakes and apologize – When you do make a real mistake and you deeply regret it, it’s important that you come forward, admit your mistake, and make a genuine apology (without excuses or explanation). Apologize for real mistakes, but don’t apologize for being yourself. A “real mistake” is when you not only violated the expectations of others, but also violated the expectations of yourself. In this case, shame is justified and you should seek to reconcile it out in the open. Interestingly enough, when you are honest about your shortcomings and mistakes (without excuses) people sometimes end up liking you more – because it shows that you are human and imperfect like everyone else. Humility is key here (see: Humility: The Acceptance of Our Flawed Self).
  • Be mindful of “over-sharing” on social media – The internet is wonderful because it gives everyone an opportunity to broadcast their thoughts and opinions all over the world. At the same time, this can lead us to an “over-sharing” addiction where we are constantly seeking validation from others. In many ways we have lost a sense of privacy in our lives that we might need to re-discover. This begins with us first becoming more mindful of what we are broadcasting to the world on a daily basis and realizing that some things are better left private (see: The “Over-Sharing” Epidemic: How the Internet Makes Us Devalue Our Private Lives).
  • Take active measures to protect yourself online – Anything you share on the internet has the potential to “blow up” and become viral, all it takes is one person to share it with a huge audience. While you should be careful of anything you share online, there are some active measures you can take to avoid unnecessary bullying or harassment. This includes commonsense tips like: 1) Setting your profiles to be private, 2) Blocking/Reporting anyone who harasses you, and 3) Avoid getting into heated arguments and confrontations (especially where trolls may be lurking).
  • Understand everyone has vulnerabilities – Everyone has vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and secrets that they would rather keep hidden from the public eye. Social media can sometimes become a “war on people’s flaws,” but everyone has flaws and no one truly wins that war. Understand that everyone has certain things that trigger them and that they feel ashamed about, and try to respect people’s boundaries and limits as best as you can. If everyone approached the online world with this attitude, it could be a lot friendlier place.

I hope this article gave you some valuable food for thought on how “shaming” works in our society and why we should be careful not to abuse this incredibly powerful tool in shaping people’s thoughts and behaviors.

If you want to learn more about how the “shaming process” works in today’s world, I highly recommend you check out So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It covers a lot more stories, anecdotes, and gems of wisdom that I didn’t get a chance to share in this article.

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