VSathy O’Neil is a writer, mathematician and best-selling author Weapons of mathematical destruction, which won the Euler Book Prize. His latest book is The Shame Machine: Who Benefits from the New Age of Humiliation?, which examines the ways in which shame is manufactured and exploited in a range of industries, including prisons, welfare systems and social media, for coercive and commercial ends. She argues that a common intention is to shift responsibility for social problems from institutions to individuals.
This is a very different book from the previous one. What made you decide to write about shame?
I first became interested in shame by researching Weapons of Mathematical destruction. I spoke to teachers who had been evaluated by a secret grading system. And they were sometimes fired or denied a job. When I asked if anyone had explained the formula to them, they said they had been told it was math and they wouldn’t understand. It silenced them. It was shame as a systematic mechanism.
What, in your own understanding, constitutes shame? Is it universal?
It’s universal. But shame always occurs in relation to a norm. And these standards are not necessarily universal. Shame is a social thing that occurs in the context of feeling that you are unworthy and that you will not be liked by your community. There are a few universal standards around shame; like sex – there’s always a way to be ashamed if you’re doing it wrong. So you can try to shame someone for behaving well by a standard. And then the question is, when does it work and when is it appropriate?
You talk about shame in terms of its commercial exploitation by “shame machines”. But is it different or superior than the exploitation of other emotions, such as sexual desire, vanity and insecurity?
I think they have a lot to do with shame. Admittedly, insecurity is a notion of a feeling of contingent acceptability. So it’s a kind of threat of shame. The first third of the book refers to traditional shame machines, like women’s cosmetics, because they are ashamed of looking old. The middle section refers to how big tech uses shame to profit from our interactions. I think this is a new development that relies quite directly on the ability to deflect our pre-rational triggered reactions and the existential threat that shame poses to our psyche.
Do algorithms target shame or just anything popular?
I think the algorithms are optimized to serve what will awaken us the most. It usually means to outrage us so that we are ashamed. In our filter bubble, our group, the algorithm serves us the most outrageous thing that another filter bubble has managed to come up with, so we have the opportunity to be fair and shame that other group, and to create this shameful spiral.
Are there such things as good shame and bad shame, beneficial shame and harmful shame? If applicable, who makes this distinction and how?
I think the answer is yes. And I’ve put forward some suggestions on how to think about that. I’m willing to be corrected, but the basics I’m suggesting are that if you’re shaming someone who can’t conform to the norm or has no voice, it’s inappropriate and intimidating. It’s shame. The converse of this statement is that if you shame someone for something they chose to do against the standard you share with that person, and they have the opportunity to defend themselves, then that’s is appropriate, or at least it is not. intimidation. But that doesn’t mean it will work.
You recognize that you could be accused of hitting hard by highlighting certain individuals in the book. As you write, “But I do it in the hope that we can all learn from it.” Isn’t that what everyone thinks when they shame people?
To the right. I changed quite a few people’s names in the book, just to keep some of that extra shame from falling on them. I agree with you. I think a lot of people think that’s exemplary rather than purely punitive. I just don’t think I’m jumping on a shame train from Karen’s latest video [film of white women supposedly behaving in an entitled manner] gives an example that we must see.
you quote JK Rowling as an example of someone you think is hitting because she is powerful, but she is a woman who has been threatened and called the most dreadful things. Who hits whom?
Yes, this is a prime example of a gray area. What I hate about social media is the attention we give to things that don’t really matter. Just knowing what JK Rowling thinks about this is a waste of my brain. What I want in writing this book is a better conversation about shame.
In the section on JK Rowling, you follow up on the example of George Wallace, the racist governor of Alabama, who was shot and crippled, then asked forgiveness for his past segregationist views. Does this seem like an appropriate context to discuss Rowling, who received numerous death threats?
First of all, I didn’t know that JK Rowling had received death threats. So I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that she would ever get shot, if that’s what you’re asking.
No, but I don’t know how an aggressive racist politician who was shot and recanted compares to Rowling.
I don’t see history that way. I think Wallace saw the error of his ways because Shirley Chisholm [the black Democratic congresswoman] visited him in the hospital. And he recognized his humanity. He was a great example of someone who really took the shame of his past actions into account and, not just on a personal level but on a social justice level, apologized in a truly honest way.
you discuss cancel culture in your book. Many people argue that it does not exist. What is your opinion?
I think it’s real. When you hear people complaining about it, they are probably the ones with the most fake examples, because the very fact that you hear them complaining means they have a voice and a chance to fight back. But I think the cancel culture is more prevalent and people are afraid to speak up and be wrong. I used to blog 10 years ago and really experimented with ideas. It would be harder to do this blog now because at the time I felt like my readers were giving me the benefit of the doubt. I think lesser known people can be crushed more easily.
If there was one change you could make that would affect the Shame Machine, what would it be?
I would like every institution, including social media companies but also in prisons, welfare systems and schools, to analyze the extent to which they have built shame into their policies and practices, and try to remove them.