THE INFINITE REGRESSION OF SHAMING

Infinite regression

“Shaming” has become a thing.  I don’t mean the use of social ridicule to induce guilt in individuals or groups for some specified conduct or characteristic.  That kind of shaming has been around since the invention of society, and has always been a thing.  The more recent development, though, involves use of the word “shaming” to express criticism for an offensive instance of ridicule.

That use of “shaming” is typically preceded by a hyphenated subject reference, like “fat-shaming” or “slut-shaming.”  The context is regularly in the nature of a scolding, calling out someone for insensitive or hateful words that inappropriately target, say, someone else’s appearance.  In defense of the person being unjustly persecuted, the speaker is accused of “shaming” and by that label is identified as cruel, vicious or otherwise wrong-headed.

Call it shame-shaming.  The practitioners often do not appear to be conscious they are themselves engaging in second-degree shaming.  That is, they are saying “shame on you” to others for the act of shaming.  They are calling on the audience to scorn the shamer.  Like the offender, they seek to invoke social pressure to induce a sense of guilt and to elicit a consensus that the conduct in question (the instance of shaming) is unacceptable.

For those who speak in terms of the dictates of Society, as in Society forces women to adhere to a narrow definition of beauty, shame-shaming stands as a counterweight.  Outside of some extremes like child pornography or torturing kittens, Society rarely endorses a singular position or articulates a unified view.  More often, there are conflicting voices with a chaotic array of opinions, competing to attain ascendancy in the public consciousness.  Shaming is a tool of social conditioning, and shame-shaming equally serves that function in shaping the judgment of Society.

“Shaming,” furthermore, seems to be trending into a pejorative epithet, in the vein of “bashing,” which is rarely used in an approving sense.  But not all shaming is nasty and unjustified.  Ask the dentist who killed Cecil the lion.  Or Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund guy whose company bought the rights to a cancer/AIDS drug and jacked up the price from $13.50 to $750 a pop.  For a more nuanced example, suppose someone chews out a cousin who shows up intoxicated to a family reunion.  Is that drunk-shaming?  Does the propriety of the shaming depend on the status of alcoholism as a disease?

That’s not to say, of course, that shaming is always justified or shame-shaming is never the correct reaction.  Nicole Arbour stirred up a controversy with her infamous rant against fat people.  The manner of presentation was as a comedy piece, which certainly can be a vehicle for biting social commentary, and it’s not necessarily wrong for a comedian to be offensive.  The problem is the diatribe wasn’t funny.  Funny doesn’t justify everything, but without funny it’s clearly not out of line to call her out of line.

As a practice, shaming is neither inherently abusive nor invariably legitimate.  It typically denotes a split in perspective, because someone occasioned the reaction in the first place and the shamer is expressing a contrary pronouncement in the form of a community determination.  That in itself is apt to provoke retaliation where the public is divided.  Shame-shaming, then, reflects competing visions for what “we” really think.  And it’s a debate at a remove, a reaction to a reaction, mirror on mirror.

To the extent I’m challenging the push to turn “shaming” into a dirty word, this is an exercise in shame-shame-shaming.  Anyone care to shame me?

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