When some ancient Greek said “shame lives on the eyelids”, a truer or weirder proposition was never uttered. Because Greeks knew about shame — and, indeed, prolonged denial — in the most sincere ‘I’ve shagged my mum/step-son/brother and killed my dad/brother/wife’ sort of way, they knew that shame is really about exposure: the eyes you can’t escape from, the external critic and the inner witness boring down upon you with nasty judgey deathstares — of which I must confess a lifetime of accidental collusion and unfortunate outcomes for all parties (to the woman in the Malaga club with the mullet and the death threats in the Adidas onesie — let’s agree it got out of hand).
Because of this, as their great playwrights eloquently demonstrated through a range of the most imaginatively grotesque encounters with shame known to man, they also understood its devastating impact (traditionally, gouging and/or suicide). In the world of the ancient Greeks, shame was lofty and dramatic and tragic. But as we all know, shame isn’t just the preserve of kings, and it definitely isn’t consigned to antiquity. As Jon Ronson argues in his new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, our modern taste for shame is alive and well; and though it generally involves less falling on our swords and more agoraphobia, our public shamings — now enjoying an enthusiastic Twitter-based revival, where millions can share in your shame and be your shamers with completely unprecedented scale and convenience — are no less brutal in their own way, and the effects no less enduring or damaging.
So shame, and shamings live on. What’s changed is not the emotion itself, or the public impulse to weigh in and throw stones. What’s different is the global scale of the infamy, the banality of the transgression (a bad-taste joke vs. patricide), and the duration of the experience (prolonged way past your average personal experience by the fresh testimony of Google algorithms).
For Ronson, the ultimate outcome of these modern day shamings isn’t greater justice, but a fearful conformity — defined by group think, an irony-free zone and depressingly beige online personas terrified to step outside of their box. It was a fascinating read, but as an unenthusiastic Twitter user myself, I finished the book feeing pretty free from the trappings of this particular incarnation of public humiliation — received or inflicted — and more certain than ever of my deeply held suspicion that Twitter is not so much a mark of our progress as evidence of our stasis; an infinite amplification of our most consistent human traits captured in digital space for all eternity; a place where a desire for connection, a need to communicate, a quest for progress, a deep intelligence and a profound, thrumming empathy sit neatly along side the unbridled narcissism, shameless voyeurism, jaw-slacking banality, careless prejudice, surprising cruelty and dangerous solipsism we are all capable of — and, as such, we should proceed with caution.
But shame doesn’t just live on Twitter. And neither does the pressure to conform. Shame researchers like Brene Brown believe that we are in a shame epidemic in all aspects of our society. And the book left me wondering: for those of us not avidly on Twitter but definitely online, in a relatively taboo free culture, what role does shame play in our daily lives? And when shame is no longer just an individual experience but a murky, global presence best tackled by toeing the line and following the crowd, can it be understood as a set of particular behaviours, shaping the way we live our online — and, ultimately, offline — lives?
Until I read Ronson’s book, I never considered my approach to Twitter a shame avoidance tactic; more like natural deference to a volatile and occasionally poisonous animal. Now I wonder if shame actually plays a bigger role in the lives of the digitally cautious than I thought; if shame-management has actually become an unconscious reflex; so intuitive and so engrained that we are now — like the increasingly frequent moments I realise I’m jabbing pointlessly at the screen of my laptop thinking it’s a touchscreen — no longer even aware of acting on it as we reshape and blanche and second-guess our digital selves.
Before we can answer these questions, we need to understand what we use our digital selves for and the role they play in our offline lives. And the answer, in the context of shame, is an interesting one. Because through the lens of behavioural science, it turns out that we use our online selves to avoid the very worst and most damaging sort of shame in Western culture. In her TED talk on shame, Brene Brown tells us this:
“There’s a huge difference between shame and guilt. Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.The ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.”
We use our online identities for different things — communication, validation, escapism, expression — but, most centrally and unavoidably, in true Maslovian style, we use it to feed and shelter ourselves through finding work and building careers. Our digital selves are the opening gambit; offensive and defensive in equal measure. Behavioural studies show us that the pursuit of employment is about more than just the pursuit of means; it’s also about the avoidance of shame — because unemployment is the one condition, above devastating personal injury and bereavement, we just cannot adapt to. It eats away at our happiness and our wellbeing — as seen in Ronson’s book, where loss of employment as a result of these online shamings was the primary, and most enduring, pain-point in all of his case studies.
Guilt is about what we do; shame is about what we are. Unemployment is not just something we’ve failed to ‘do’. Unemployment speaks to shame because it becomes what we are, a lack or a flaw within ourselves, in a culture where success is defined by career paths, material wealth and personal ambition. Seen in this light then, digital shame management quickly becomes something far closer to home for all of us, Twitterers or not.
So what online strategies do we have available to us in this quest for a shame free identity and a decent pay cheque? Some individuals — including but not limited to recruiters, ex-porn actors or criminals — have a creative litany of identities for multiple purposes. Others, terrifyingly expert in personal brand management, clinically sculpt and coax themselves into one frighteningly impressive and consistent multi-channel megabrand that sashays through a world of big approving thumbs and professional adoration. Some — possibly, somewhere — don’t do any of it.
The rest, myself included, languish uncertainly in the middle ground; resentful of having to do it at all, fearful of looking too contrived; occasionally seduced into fits of inconsistent, frenzied enthusiasm. As a result we hover, digitally schizophrenic — multiple people smeared carelessly across social media, leaving sticky prints in the wrong places; party person, sober professional, commentator, zany wit. We are The Bridgers: late twenties, old enough to remember a time before digital (cast, naturally, in a nostalgic Instagram filter) but young enough to be beyond the point of no return.
We are the digital botox junkies, desperate to keep our edge without surrendering ourselves to the digital knife. We do Facebook, but with increasing boredom, resentment and short-lived breakups. We do LinkedIn, but with the muted belligerence and confusion elicited by any networking event that demands attendance without free wine. We occasionally do Twitter, but mostly under duress; an already-rancid faustian pact with a feed that looks like the bones of an elephant graveyard strewn with the retweeted carcasses of much more adept Twitterati. We mutter darkly about the next generation who we envisage to be born swiping an iPad and we’re increasingly frightened of children who can code.
In the process of hunting down employment however, these fringe activities suddenly become our oxygen. To avoid the shame — and, obviously, the poverty — we conform unthinkingly to an unlikely set of standards and ‘enhance’ [falsify], demonstrate [invent], SEO [manipulate] a whole bunch of stuff that bears no real resemblance to ourselves. We begin to scrutinise ourselves in the digital mirror, picking over those pores, sucking in those boozy jowels, and trying to figure out from what angle our digital skirt could be tucked into our digital pants or showing our digital asscrack. We swallow up alien corporate values and regurgitate them perfectly; convincing ourselves that we can be the person they need in order to get the validation we seek. And pretence, as we all know, is never a great way to begin any relationship.
And this is a problem; because as with everything in life, the standards we unthinkingly mould ourselves to become the standard by default. As George Bernard Shaw said — probably about something much grander than your average job hunt — “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”; which is depressing — because for reasons like needing to eat and pay bills, being unreasonable, in the context of seeking work, is a wildly inconvenient and often downright selfish thing to be. (And, lest we forget, the unreasonable wo/man is often broke and therefore not always the one with big time clout).
But Shaw does, however, say something true about the cyclical nature of this shame-ful conformity and the problems of breaking it — especially when it comes to the Big Business that remains a powerful aspiration and stable employer for so many young people. This is a dilemma that was neatly captured for me during [one of] my last bout[s] of mistaken professional aspiration and a brief flirtation with management consultancy a few years ago.
As applications rolled around, I selected my target consultancy, and enlisted the help of two former college alumni — now current employees — to give me the low down.
They started by reassuring me that, as the consultancy was 95% Oxbridge grads, I’d passed the first hurdle. They smiled encouragingly.
“Really?” I said, uneasy. “Aren’t there diversity laws against that sort of thing?”
They looked at me with blank curiosity.
I said never mind and asked them to continue.
“This is how it works”, he said, helpfully drawing a neat red line up the side of my CV to indicate where I came on the rungs of employability. “There are three basic boxes. Academic. Work Experience. Extra curricular. You’ve got a decent degree — not exceptional, but fine — so you get a tick.”
“Right.” I said. That flimsy Cambridge degree had rather been my baseline for success, so that was a bit of a dampener.
“Work experience — no one really gives a crap what you did, just that you have some, you’ll be at the bottom anyway — so tick. Ok.”
He draw a careful line through my last two years of miserably accrued — and apparently redundant — experience.
I began to frown.
He ploughed on.
“And then there’s extra curricular. This is you” (pointing to the bottom of the ladder) “and this is basically all other applicants.” (pointing to the top of the ladder). “So that’s a big problem. They take this stuff very seriously. They want interesting people. Culture. Diversity. You know?”
“Mmm” I nodded, privately querying this definition of diversity. I paused. “There is some stuff…There…?”
I jabbed hopefully at the bottom of the page detailing my actual — though not particularly feted or leadership-based — interests, before tailing off in shame co-mingled with mutinous disbelief and the dawning realisation that — in this Oxbridge petri-dish pretending to be the Real World — certain rarefied strata of life would always come down to gold stars and after school clubs and damn my bleeding heart liberal parents for letting me quit Brownies when I was seven.
Fixing me with grimly determined looks.
“What about ball committee? Did you ever do ball committee? They LOVE ball committee.”
I shook my head vaguely, visualising the manic headsets and masochist-meglamaniacs attached to them.
“Student Council?” — with an edge, now.
“Right.” They began to confer.
“Do you think she could just shove it down anyway? It won’t matter. And what else. …?” He trailed off with a withering hand.
“No.” said the other, frowning. “They were all on the ball committee. For all we know they probably planned hers. They’ll know”.
“True.” He agreed, terse. Paused. Frowned some more. Suddenly he fixed on a glimmer of hope in the line below.
“What about this! They would LOVE this”.
“What?” I asked, squinting at my bleeding credentials in the half light.
He was pointing, with genuine or very exceptionally feigned enthusiasm, to a footnote at the bottom of my embarrassingly lacklustre achievements.
“That’s so ZANY. They LOVE zany.”
“But it’s nothing,” I protested. “A really embarrassing pro bono PR piece on saving the Gibbons. I didn’t even do anything. I didn’t even know what Gibbons were. I meant to delete it.”
“It doesn’t matter!” he cried with the redemptive zeal of a born again Christian. “It’s so NICHE. They’ll think you’re fascinating.”
A doubtful silence.
“No, honestly! On my CV I made a really big deal about my passion for post-modern vinyls, and I think it was a really big part of what made me stand out.”
Polite, tight smiles.
I arranged my face into a what I hoped was a thoughtful expression.
“So… Gibbons.” I said.
“Very niche” he nodded encouragingly.
“Gibbons.” I said.
Having found an appropriately individual and entirely fraudulent post-script to spruce up my now pleasingly homogenised self, there were relived nods of assent all round, and a promise on my part to work harder at remembering some great extracurricular activities I probably did but just forgot about.
I thanked them for their time — and really, they had been very helpful — before stepping back into the sunlight and deciding I would not be entertaining any more thoughts about Big Business or management consultancy.
This was a small and harmless encounter that came to nothing and taught me a thing or two. But in an economy where billions of pounds trickle away every year through the cracks of our widespread disengagement, depression and anxiety, it’s one that neatly captures the problems about the way we seek work, the demands put upon us to secure work, and the unhappiness that such a necessarily conformist approach breeds in people who are not, inevitably, boxes to be ticked. For the people who can work this system — I salute you.
For the rest of us, Faking It Until We Make It is a finite activity. Sooner or later, we will feel the need to get out of our boxes. And for me, this story is a microcosm of the way we are taught to gradually genericise and slowly falsify ourselves in huge swathes of today’s Big Business; to seek sameness that masquerades as paper-thin ‘diversity’; and to make quiet, barely perceptible compromises, every day, on the people that we thought we were or imagined we would be. These are small concessions, perhaps, for security and lifestyle, and one many of us are — and sometimes should be — willing to make. But it’s a simple, devastating trade; and one where ultimately, perhaps, we’re no better off than those online doppelgängers — splinched, messily, leaving chunks of ourselves in different places. And the long-term cost — to ourselves, to our relationships, to our economy — is simply too great.
Reading Ronson’s book reminded me to think about the role that shame and conformity plays in my life, and the lives of my friends, and the assumptions we make about the ways we think we need to live. The good news is, for those seeking an out, there are more ways than ever before to live and earn. I’m trying a new way myself. There are no ladders, and definitely no security — but there is definitely less shame, less splinching, and lot more possibility.
And not a Gibbon in sight.
(Originally published on 23.04.15 at Medium: https://medium.com/@bexfelton/shame-conformity-gibbons-d3893f4e8cc)