Written by Fiona Davern, www.destinyconnect.com
We all have shameful stories. But when shaming happens in the “fever swamps of
the Internet”, with millions of people watching, the public humiliation is akin to being locked in stocks and pelted with rotten eggs. The consequences can also be dire
It was unbearable watching the Game of Thrones episode in which Cersei Lannister
was forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing. I thought I’d enjoy her downfall, but instead I felt her excruciating shame keenly. George RR Martin said in an interview that the scene was based on an actual case in medieval England. “Jane Shore, mistress of King Edward IV, was punished that way after Edward died,” he explained. “It wasn’t a punishment ever inflicted on men. It was directed at women to break their pride.”
Today this level of public shaming doesn’t discriminate. And when shame plays out in the digital sphere, it’s amplified by the knowledge that it’s permanent, out of your control – and anyone can fall victim to it. Shame makes us feel vulnerable, exposed, dirty, cheap and a host of other ugly words. Dr Brené Brown, American shame researcher, says: “Shame is the intensely powerful feeling or experience of believing we’re flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Carl Jung referred to shame as “the swampland of the soul” – and, unfortunately, most of us have to wade through its murky waters at one time or another.
Kirsten Long from Coach4Life adds that shame often leads to self-hatred and a fear of abandonment. However, she adds that shame in moderation can be useful. “It tells us there’s something wrong in our relationship with the world and it motivates us to fix it. But excessive shame is damaging and can result in a person becoming dysfunctional.”
It was a TED Talk – Monica Lewinsky’s The Price of Shame – that first got me thinking about public shame and my own prejudiced complicity. It was more than 15 years ago, but we all still remember the 22-year-old White House intern, her infamous blue dress and Bill Clinton’s denial: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Monicagate happened in 1998, when the Internet was accessible worldwide. The result was epic global shaming. Lewinsky’s stayed largely out of sight and mind, barring the odd cigar joke, for the past decade, but now I was watching her speaking eloquently, a real, living human being. It was my turn to feel intense shame.
I’d casually dismissed her as “that woman”, who I’d assumed had been stupid enough to try to use sex to drive her ambitions. At the time, I neglected to ask myself what it felt like to be a naïve young girl, fresh out of university, getting attention from one of the most powerful men in the world.
“If you feel better when reading about someone else’s failures and humiliations, this could point to your own low self-esteem.”
In her talk, Lewinsky said: “I know I’m not alone when it comes to public humiliation. No-one, it seems, can escape the unforgiving gaze of the Internet, where gossip, half-truths and lies take root and fester. To borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, we’ve created a ‘culture of humiliation’ that not only
encourages and revels in schadenfreude [delighting in others’ misfortunes], but also
rewards those who humiliate others, from the ranks of the paparazzi to the gossip
bloggers, the late-night comedians and the Web ‘entrepreneurs’ who profit from
And let’s not forget the hungry audience who consumes this content: us. It’s up to us to be more selective and aware that our decisions online have repercussions. It’s time to becom responsible digital citizens.
Our behaviour online can have devastating effects on people’s lives and leave them psychologically scarred, says Joanna Kleovoulou, clinical psychologist and Director of the PsychMatters Centre “The Latin word for ‘humiliation’ is ‘humus’, which denotes ‘dirt’. Humiliation is an external experience brought upon us by others and it denigrates our dignity, causes us loss of status in our community and results in feelings of rejection, abandonment, abuse and betrayal. It’s a traumatic experience, cutting deep into our psyche and leaving us voiceless and stigmatised,”
says Kleovoulou. “The important thing is not to strike back – don’t ever enter into revenge mode. Revenge will exacerbate the problem and possibly cause further humiliation.”
Look out for these warning signs:
I know plenty of people in media themselves who won’t sign up for Twitter, such is their fear of its lynch mob. One stupid comment and your world can change overnight.
Who can forget Justine Sacco’s trial by Twitter? When she boarded her flight to SA, she had 170 followers. She tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!” Granted, the quip was far from wise. She said afterwards that she thought “there was no way anyone could think it was literal”. But they did. Nuance is lost on social media. When Sacco landed, she’d been fired and “#HasJustineLandedYet” was the top trending hashtag. She’d also received death threats.
Locally, “revenge” or non-consensual porn is posted on social media with alarming frequency. Earlier this year, an ex-boyfriend of law student Pulane Lenkoe (31) posted nude images of her and many tweets denounced her as a “whore”. Shortly afterwards, in an interview with Times Live, she said: “I don’t want all of this attention. Good Friday [is approaching] – my goodness! I’m going to church. I don’t want people looking at me as if I’m some whore.” The repeated advice offered by both male and female victims of revenge porn is: stop taking naked pictures.
“When we point out how others should behave, we name, shame and blame,” says life coach Carmen Jones (www.carmenjoneslifecoaching.co.za). “We lack compassion for others. We lack understanding. We hurriedly shine the light on another’s shortcomings or behaviour in order to deflect our own faults. The standard is how we think things ‘should be’. Anything outside of this ‘norm’ is deemed shameful and we wield it like a samurai sword.”
Why the gleeful piling on when someone’s being shamed publicly? Empathy has left the conversation online and real lives are being ruined. It’s time to fundamentally change the way we think about our digital selves and ask how to become better people online.
Here are three ways Long says we can work towards being more empathetic:
If you’re naming and shaming online, you’re contributing to the problem. Consider carefully before you post anything online. Ask: “Can this cause me humiliation? Can this cause others humiliation?” If you name and shame online, there’s a strong possibility that it will backfire on you one day.
Encourage your friends to avoid them too. If you’re really into gossipy magazines, do some self-exploration. If you feel better when reading about someone else’s failures and humiliations, this could point to your own low self-esteem.
Show support for people who’ve been shamed – you don’t have to condone their behaviour, but you can be compassionate about what they’re going through.
Carmen Jones offers five top tips for overcoming public disgrace