Monica Lewinsky has re-emerged, and I say good for her! Please take the 20-something minutes out of your life to watch the video. It’s well worth it.
I agree completely that “Internet shaming as a blood sport has got to stop,” and I applaud her call for a more compassionate culture, both off and online. Nothing good comes from public shaming of private indiviuduals, usually women, usually over sexual misconduct. Innocent lives have been ruined — even lost — by the vicious words of anonymous haters spewed for no legitimate reasons.
There is another consequence of this cultural coarsening, in which the whole concept of “shame” has been so perverted that its true purpose — yes, shame has a purpose — has been lost.
Shame is the feeling of distress or humiliation caused by the awareness of having done something wrong or foolish. Note that it requires two separate components: both the action, and the awareness that the action is wrong or foolish. In verb form, it means inflicting the emotion on someone else by making them aware that their actions are shameful. This presumes that the individual is not already aware of it him or herself.
So how can shame be good? Simple. Fear of shame, and therefore its avoidance, is a powerful motivation to refrain from wrong or foolish behavior, be it words or actions.
Remember when the expression, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself” actually had an effect on behavior? One of the darkest episodes in twentieth century American history, the reign of reputational terror known as McCarthyism, was finally brought to an end by a courageous lawyer name Joseph Welch who basically told Joseph McCarthy that he ought to be ashamed of himself. (His actual words were, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”)
There was a time when shame, specifically public shaming of public figures, served to hold those public figures in check. Nowadays, I can’t help but think that the relative explosion of shaming has served to dull the responses to it of those who really should be ashamed. The O’Reillys, Limbaughs, Palins, Cruz’s, Tea Party folk and their predominantly Republican Congressional ilk who lie, slander, and hypocritize (is that a verb? If not, it should be) their way into our lives trumpeting the evils of “big government” all the while pure and simply ought to be ashamed of themselves. “Ought to” being the operative words.
Perhaps when the poor choices of young people, troubled gay and questioning teens, and of course women of any age who dare to buck so-called societal “norms” of occupation, appearance, or sexuality cease to be fodder for relentless Internet shaming — what Lewinsky calls the “culture of humiliation” — then those who ought to be ashamed will no longer be able to hide behind the ho-hum numbness of “everyone does it.”
If nothing else, it can’t help but improve our civic discourse.