The complex relationship of shame and society

In the book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson notes that our new age of social media has let a deadly disease slither its way into our lives — shaming. You may recall someone, anyone, made infamous for a silly picture, or a strange tweet, or perhaps an unwise remark. People like these are common on Twitter, until they're forgotten, to be replaced by another clown of a similar trait. Jon Ronson stumbled upon the lives of one of those people. Jonah Lehrer. A man made into an image to look upon and sigh at a sample of just how low humanity can get. Appalled at what one unfortunate mistake had done to him, Ronson decided to research what really became of all those who'd faced similar circumstances to Jonah Lehrer. What he found was astounding.

With social media, people are capable of communicating to many millions at once, by choice, or by luck. Some of the communications made, unfortunately, are not written as though they will be read by the whole world. And when such a remark circulates around the web, the person who made it is shamed. This can be a dangerous business. Seldom do people realize the harm they are bringing upon someone by making them known around the world for one bad choice in their life. One small bad joke could cause someone to lose their jobs, go through rejection and be infamous for one stupid mistake. To those who go through these experiences, the list included above is the least of concerns, for research has shown being publicly shamed can have horrific consequences on one’s mental health (extreme examples shown in the book include murderous rages and suicidal tendencies).

Ronson calls shame “our most underappreciated force”, and that claim could not be more true. It can denature a person’s life in minutes, and has proven to be, in many cases, more painful than pain itself could ever be. The scariest part still, is the fact that everyone wields this weapon, and there is no shield against it.

Ronson tells many stories of real events to guide us through the reasons he came to his conclusions. One of those stories is that of Mercedes, a girl who is a frequent user of 4chan. She explains that some people - like her - use the internet (candid webpages such as the aforementioned 4chan among others) in order to have a say in what goes on, to have a voice, some level of power. They are usually young, or in some other way powerless, so they use the internet to fill that void. It is apparent from the stories of “Hank” and Adria Richards– one of the cases Jon Ronson includes, about the story of two people who quarreled over a certain matter on Twitter and managed to get thousands of people to die with them, shaming the other person to the extent that both were fired from their jobs – that allowing people like Mercedes (untrained, incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions) gain the power they seek is harmful. They want to bring justice to the world, and now with the power of the internet and the ability to humiliate in the most painful degree, they can. There's only one problem - they don't have the responsibility and reasoning powers to be fair.

Judge Ted Poe, a man who was known for his tendency to humiliate criminals he deemed guilty, proved that an individual out to do good can accomplish a lot with the power of shame. But an individual out to bring balance to the universe the way they see fit can do harm in equal measure. They can cause destruction instead of construction, and end up harming their environment, and destroying the lives of good, but imperfect people. In the case of Hank and Adria, this is seen when both of them were fired, and only harm was brought about.

The information contained in this book is priceless. Of all the things that can be revealed by a book, what is more precious than the faults of a civilization’s social order? What is more enlightening than knowing where the pitfalls in everyday interactions lie? This book allows the reader, whomever they may be, to understand how they affect the world around them on a deeper scale. It gives insight on quite possibly the most important part of life -- social interactions. It sheds light on what shame can do and what we must start doing as a society to make our environments more breathable. If we all understand the basics of human nature that have been presented to us in this book, we understand where our virtues lie, we will create a world with much less pain.

Do you believe that shame can truly have such profound effects on our culture? How big a part does it play in the everyday lives of our people. And what does it say about our civilization and fairness?

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