Thursday, November 3, 2022

Review: The Shame Machine by Cathy O'Neil

 I loved O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction, and went into this one hoping for something more of the same, but maybe with a narrower focus. The Shame Machine veers a little more into the self-help realm than I anticipated: understanding shame so you can handle your own shames better, so you can be more empathetic. There's less about Silicon Valley and how it harnesses shame in its algorithms than I was hoping for. There's a lot more about the author's own journey coming to terms with being fat than I expected. A lot of the pop sociology and pop psychology described in the book was familiar to me, although it was clearly expressed and an easy read.

A concept O'Neil develops throughout the book is the concept of "good shame"; shame is a tool for encouraging behaviour that leads to a better society. She highlights the need for interperson-shaming to be within a community (and ideally in person, not online) for it to not be toxic. She also argues that "good shame" requires "punching up" and not "punching down".

In summary, good shame requires: (1) choice (the behavior being shamed must be elective), (2) change to be possible (does the shame target have the tools to make a different choice in response to shame), and (3) assessing if the shame is necessary (versus virtue signaling; is changing the behavior the goal of your shaming?).

I liked the chapter where she developed how "punching up" shame can also be used by people against institutions to elicit change. She used examples of how facebook was shamed into better handling misinformation and how Gandhi's movement shamed the British government into ceding rights to the people. I wish she'd gone a little more in depth in this topic.

A thought I had while reading this book is that there are essentially two "negative" tools at your disposal for enforcing a certain behavior: violence and shame. Violence requires an imbalance of power (some have defined the State as being the entity with a monopoly on violence; physical power or weaponry would be the analog in a person-to-person situation rather than state-to-person). Shame requires a voice. If you have a voice but no power, then shame is likely the only tool at your disposal.

I think shame is important to understand. Our culture, from our humour to our fashions, is strongly shaped by shame. To use "good shame" is itself a little shamed, but it's a powerful tool.

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