When Your Shame Becomes My Self-Expression

I’ve been reading a lot of articles of late on the subject of shaming. A new book is out by Jon Ronson called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  Ronson spent the past three years traveling around the country and meeting with the targets of high profile shamings. As the description says, “The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.”

Today I read an article on the TED blog about Monica Lewinsky’s re-emergence as a spokesperson for those who are shamed online. Nadia Goodman wrote:

As TED’s social media editor, I have seen a lot of nasty comments. I’ve seen grown men and women deride a 14-year-old girl for her choice of dress. I’ve seen them say they’re revolted by a beautiful transgender woman. On every talk about race, I’ve seen a slew of racist comments. But none have ever been as bad as the comments we got when we published Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk, The Price of Shame. At least at first.

I learned through my Facebook feed that somehow I had missed an uproar over Trevor Noah’s old tweets.

Most of the articles I read about trolling, media shaming and viral online shaming campaigns make the same assumption, an assumption I believe is mistaken. People generally assume that we shame people who transgress in order to bring them back into line and to compel them to behave in socially agreeable ways, in much like the Puritans did when they put people in the stocks.

I don’t think this is actually what is happening. I came to this realization today while reading an old article I’d stored in my “to read” program. (I have about 180 pages of articles there and I thought it might be time to clear some out.)

The article was published in Insights by Stanford Business with the headline Why Seeking Common Ground Can Backfire.

Research shows that conversations between people seeking common ground can influence which ideas and people gain cultural prominence. The best baseball players don’t always get elected All-Stars. And the Nobel Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving member of the scientific community. This, according to a pair of recent studies, is because such recognition can depend upon how well known an individual is rather than on merit alone. Moreover, because it’s human nature for people to try to find common ground when talking to others, simple everyday conversations could have the unfortunate side effect of blocking many of the best and most innovative ideas from the collective social consciousness…the more people are talked about, the larger a role they play in society — and the more they will subsequently get talked about. This creates a self-reinforcing ramping up of social prominence that is not necessarily deserved.

The researchers in the study referenced in this article found that when people were given the choice to speak with people they had not met before about baseball players who were well known, but were having mediocre seasons, or those who were not as well known but were having very good seasons, they invariably talked about the more famous players because they served as a common point of reference.

Well known people and their scandals serve as common conversational currency. We no longer read the same books. We do not share the same religious beliefs and the stories that are handed down through those traditions. We do not have a common store of mythological characters that we can use as common frames of reference for our ethical discussions. In fact, it often seems that all discussions of ethics and values only take place in a context of political polarization and a left/right team sport. So the fraternity brothers with their racist song become fictional characters that we can all use to discuss what we will stand for, what we want to be associated with, and what behavior is appropriate.

We are using these episodes, not to control the behavior of the perpetrators, but to define who we are either in support or opposition to the figure being shamed. Their “fat chick” tweets or extramarital affairs or offensive videos give us an opportunity to blog, to present ourselves on Facebook, to tweet our reactions and to generally exclaim what type of people we are. (In much the same way that a woman felt compelled to tell me at a book signing that she did not approve of the subject matter of my book. She didn’t say this to persuade me of anything but to define herself as the type of moral person who would not read such a book.) We care very little about the people we shame. They are not people we know, but stories we are told. We aren’t going to live with them, and their behavior will generally not affect us directly at all.

If you need proof of this hypothesis, watch this clip of Jon Ronson being interviewed on The Daily Show. In it, Ronson notes that most people give little thought to the people who have been shamed once the firestorm has passed.  If you do not want to watch the entire interview, go forward to about the 6:50 mark. Ronson says that when he asks people how the victim of a public shaming is now, years later they say “Oh, I’m sure she’s fine.” Often that is not true.

In this clip Monica Lewinsky makes a call for a cultural shift. I think a lot of people share her concern that our media culture seems to thrive on these types of vicarious morality tales with little regard for the consequences to the individuals involved. If your particular brand of bad behavior seems to strike a chord with the passions of the moment, you may become good copy.

Lewinsky talks about changing the narrative– her personal narrative. But perhaps we need more fictional narratives, more characters, folk tales, modern myths that we can hold in common and discuss and debate. We need common stories.

Fame, Free Fall and the Size of the Frame

April is national poetry month. Last year I posted a poem each day. They were the least viewed posts I ever put up! So this time around I am going to do something a bit different and use various poems as a jumping off point for further reflection. Today’s poem is Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


We have an amazing capacity to remain blissfully unaware of other people’s struggles and suffering. Hardships we have not personally experienced are unreal to us– invisible famines. We have stuff to do. We are focused and busy. In a famous experiment back in the 1970s, a team of researchers had seminary students plan a talk and then go to another building to deliver it. En route they passed a man in distress. Half of the students were told they would be speaking about seminary jobs, the other half were told they would be speaking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The researchers wanted to know if concentrating on the parable of the Good Samaritan would make people more likely to offer aid. It didn’t. What did impact the likeliness the students would offer to help was how much time the students thought they had to get to the other building and give their presentation. When the students thought they had lots of time 63% of them offered to help, regardless of the topic of their talk. When they thought they were in a hurry only 10% offered to help.

Researchers have also found that the more people there are who witness an event, the less likely anyone is to offer help as everyone assumes someone else will do it. Scientists have tested this, but artists already sensed it. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold everyone in town knows that a member of their community is about to be murdered. No one wants it to happen, including the killers, and yet no one manages to stop it. The very fact that everyone knows seems to persuade each individual that it won’t actually happen.

And the old masters understood it. About suffering, they were never wrong.

A few days ago, I wrote about our oft thwarted desire to be seen and noticed. “We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.”

149120_10150089505605948_5921817_nAnd yet our life and death battles take place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

We live in a culture that places a high value on fame, on known-ness. This value is in direct proportion to the anonymity most of us feel confronted with among so many neighbors who do not know us at all.

I propose that our desire for fame is not really a desire to be observed. It is, rather, a desire to be the central figure in the painting on the wall of the Musee des Beaux Arts and not the guy who happens to be steering his boat completely unaware that a moment of mythic significance is happening right beside him. We want to believe that we will be the central character in the novel and not the friend who appears in one scene on page 285.

We want to have the sense that he dramas of our lives matter. We do not want to accept what Shakespeare’s assessment in MacBeth that:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

People seek fame in order to feel that their lives matter.

“I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention… And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine.”-Adam Ant, “Stand and Deliver”

The quest for fame often leads to disillusion. In the immortal words of the philosopher David Bowie, “Fame puts you there where things are hollow.” (Yeah, actually, I have never understood what that song was talking about.)

Even though he may fool his soul, the rock star looks flash and grabs your attention for only a moment. Even in the brief moment that the star has attracted your gaze, you only see a shadow of the man behind the mask. The public goes on with its day to day tasks unconcerned with the life of the artist who creates the image.

The star trades some of his or her privacy for a species of known-ness that fails to live up to its promise. As the ploughman labors on, Icarus falls from the sky after flying too close to the sun.

Is there an answer then to this crisis of meaning?

In my first novel Angel, I wrote the following epigram: “Where does a mountain end? Mountains draw our focus to their snowcapped peaks and present us with the illusion that they are isolated, individual objects. We send postcards and take pictures and try to put a frame around them. But whatever border we create for the natural object we fine beautiful is our own projection. The mountain spills out in all directions. It dips into the valley, which rises to the next peak There is no place where you can stop and say, ‘The mountain ends here.'”

In other words, what appears in the center of the painting depends entirely on where you place the frame.

Around you at this moment are a few people who do take an interest in your victories and struggles. Your immediate family: your parents, spouse, children, lovers, intimate friends. It is a small world, to be sure, but a loving and compassionate one. It is here that you find the people who will stop plowing if you are plunging from the sky.

When you start to feel unnoticed and invisible, try a smaller frame.

The Principle of Joint Attention

“… it would seem that children apply the principle of joint attention to the self and assume that for somebody to be perceived, experience must be shared and mutually known to be shared, as it is when two pairs of eyes meet…”-BPS Research Digest, Why Do Children Hide by Covering Their Eyes?

When I read this quote, I found it to be unintentionally poetic. If the eyes do not meet, if two people are not aware of each other, do both of them fully exist?

The baby is wrong, of course, I do not disappear when her eyes are covered. On the other hand, there are parts of me that do not exist except in relation to others. When an experience is not mutually known to be shared, there is something less real about it.

In my first novel, Angel, the character Paul, a former minister working as a tour guide, observes: “People take photographs so they will not feel lonely. They take them for the absent friends they wish were there to share the view. There are few things more melancholy than looking out on a truly sublime landscape and realizing you are experiencing it all alone.”

We live in an interesting age. It has been estimated that in the medieval world the average person saw one hundred other people in the course of a lifetime. Even letter writing was a rarity reserved for the elite until the Victorian era.

So until quite recently nearly all interactions were personal, involving joint attention. Now the average American watches five hours of TV per day. When we’re not doing that (and sometimes when we are) we spend about 23 hours a week online and texting. Psychological studies show that we have a terrible time discerning reality from what we see on TV. Our brains interpret what we see and hear as actually being in the world because for most of human history this was true. Where else could an image be generated except in the real world?  We are all hanging out with celebrities on a daily basis, at least somewhere in the uncritical emotional part of our minds. And they don’t know us, or care about us, at all. That can become quite isolating.

If I see the rock star but he doesn’t see me, do I really exist?

In my new novel, Identity Theft, the main character Candi has an online flirtation with a person she believes to be her favorite rock star. Initially this makes her uneasy. Wanting to meet a famous person is generally considered to be immature. Women are supposed to grow out of their fan-girl stage when they leave high school. But wanting to know the people who intrigue us, and wanting to be respected by those we admire, is a natural impulse. Candi’s co-worker, Lydia, reassures her by saying, “Just because something makes you feel vulnerable doesn’t mean it’s a character flaw. When you appreciate someone you want them to appreciate you, too. I mean what if you didn’t? I think you’d be a psychopath.”

It is an inevitable part of growing up, a bittersweet one (or perhaps just bitter), to realize and eventually accept that the people who hold your interest will not generally be the same ones who are interested in you.

Yet we retain a bit of our infant selves, expecting and longing for joint attention. We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.

In lieu of that we buy autographed photos on ebay.

Quote of the Day: With No Audience I was Just There…

“I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”-Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods for 27 years, quoted in The Strange Tale of the Last True Hermit.

In Praise of the Boring

“Few have cared to think or talk about the uninteresting.”-Lord Alfred Douglas

This was the premise of an article Lord Alfred Douglas wrote when he was an undergraduate at Oxford University.  An essay in praise of the boring has comic potential. Potential, it must be said, the young man failed to realize in his Spirit Lamp article. He chose, instead, to complain about the tediousness of Oxford dons, as students are wont to do.

But I think he was on to something. He lived at the beginning of the era of the media celebrity. Oscar Wilde, himself, might have been the prototype of today’s stars. He sought attention and headlines for his personal traits– his bon mots, his manner of dress– before he had achieved much of anything. He used being known as path to a career rather than becoming known for having done something notable. That is the modern way.

Alfred Douglas, however, represented the old world. It was a world in which honor and dishonor were the main measures of a man.  Oscar Wilde always tailored his speech to his audience. Alfred Douglas said whatever he thought without much regard for how it would come across. “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” Wilde famously said. Douglas had no mask. He was, as Bernard Shaw would say “unpoliced.”

Oscar Wilde would have done well on Kickstarter. Lord Alfred Douglas, probably not. And perhaps one of the tragedies of his life was that he was so ill-equipped to navigate a world of fame.

I have noticed that people instinctively give money on Kickstarter to the thing that entertains in the moment even if, in the case of Bunch O Balloons, it has already achieved 800% funding.

A case in point is Nothing in a Bottle, in which a guy from Michigan named Dave, promises to send you a bottle of nothing.

nothingIt is a clever little post, he’s not asking for a lot of money, and he has nice lettering on the tag of his bottle of nothing. So he reached his goal.

The reason the famous “I’m going to make potato salad” Kickstarter went viral is that it made people laugh. People said, “Yeah, that’s funny, I’ll kick in a few bucks for the smile it gave me.”

Why not? But note the past tense. “It made me smile.”

Kickstarter was conceived to take potential energy of ideas and turn them into kinetic energy through financial backing. It is about supporting unrealized potential.

All of the entertainment value of the potato salad project was already realized in the Kickstarter post itself. It aimed to entertain, and it did. The people who support it are not actually paying because they hope the guy can pull off a potato salad.

This brings us back to the Alfred Douglas question. How do we support the uninteresting? That is to say, how do people and projects with an entertainment challenge make a go of it in a hype centered world?

Some projects are uninteresting because they cannot promise specific results and do not lend themselves naturally to clever premiums. Investigative journalism falls into this category. People generally recognize that investigative journalism is vital and in the public interest. It has also come into hard times as news organizations prune their budgets and 24 hour cable news channels compete against America’s Got Talent for eyeballs. Big news is a bottom line business, driven by ratings, and so the most sensational (and easy to cover) stories will lead.

Many people have suggested crowd funding as a means to support this important journalistic work, but it tends to fail and for the same reasons that big news organizations cut funding for long-term, high risk, no-guarantee investigations. There are no immediate results to show. Much of the research cannot be announced before the work is done. It is hard to hype and hard to make entertaining– even if the end result has the potential to be explosive down the line.

I looked up “investigative journalism” on Kickstarter and the first project that came up in the list has no backers.  (Admittedly in this case it could be because there is so little biographical information about the reporters. Potential backers can’t judge whether this team can carry it off or not.)

Research is another area that lacks entertainment value. Research is all potential energy. It should be, in theory, exactly the type of thing that Kickstarter would do best. It is not. When I looked up “research” four featured projects came up. All of them are 0% funded right now.

(The projects are for the creation of a platform for crowd sourcing cancer research— a kickstarter for cancer research if you will, research on humpback whales, a tiny house research project, and a guy doing genealogical research.)

Fixing a theater’s roof will always be less entertaining than videos about a new theatrical production even though the roof is necessary to allow those productions to take place.

So perhaps we should start to talk more about the uninteresting.

Witnesses to Creation

“There is always a host of us exploding with joy at the first moment of creation, which has never ceased happening.”

This line from Stephen Mitchell’s Meetings with the Archangel is spoken by the angel Gabriel to the novel’s protagonist. Gabriel is trying to explain, in human terms, what heaven is like.

Stong’s Concordance defined a host as “a mass of persons or things especially organized for war, an army.”

Creation has many witnesses. We project our human limitations onto our angels. They are individuals who must come together to share in the joy of creation rather than having one’s experience of joy become the experience of all.

Experiences on this earth do not seem entirely real, they lack real emotion, unless they are shared.

Have you ever seen a mother pushing a baby in a stroller when the child is at just that age, she can engage with the people around her, but she does not yet have words. She rides in her buggy with her finger constantly in the air. She points to the dog, to the dandelions, to the boy on his bike, to the mailbox. Everything catches her interest. Everything in amazing. She wants mom to see it too.

It never really changes. When we see funny videos on Youtube we click send and share, we post them on Facebook, because it is no fun to experience it on your own. When we come back from vacation we want our friends and family to look at the photographs.

Maybe it is a cry for reassurance. I need to know that what I have seen in the world exists, that you see it too and it is not my imagination.