Or are we all complicit? Emily Hourican contemplates the toxic practice of everyday shaming
Shame is the Ninja shuriken of the social arsenal, a weapon of stealth that can be easily disowned. It is different to embarrassment – embarrassing is something that will make a funny, self-deprecating story for friends later; shame is the feeling you will find it hard to ever share.
It is saying something stupid in a room full of people we admire. It is the look from a well-groomed acquaintance that travels head to toe and back again, silently, when we know we are badly or inappropriately dressed. Shame is the hot blush when we have been left out of an invitation to a party or coffee. Shame is the mother who coos that her son did brilliantly in the Junior Cert when she knows damn well yours struggled and failed.
It is what kept Monica Lewinski silent and humiliated for 20 years, until the #MeToo movement turned her from slut to suffragette, something she described in a brilliant Vanity Fair essay, “Emerging From The House of Gaslight.” It is what had Rose McGowan mocked and branded as hysterical before history proved her heroic.
And for all the rehabilitation of Monica and Rose, and the arms-around-the-world that is the #MeToo movement, sexual shame is still a busy force – one largely directed at women, and still, too often, by women. Slane Girl, Magaluf Girl – even those of us who never watched those videos know about them. And anyone who has ever read or seen Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It, knows that there is a nasty continuum of these things in which we are all too often complicit – at the extreme end there is what happens to Emma, the protagonist. But at the near end, the shallow end, there are side-eyes, sniggers and comments that pretend to be funny or concerned but aren’t.
Shame is the most powerful limiting force we have, because shame is what happens when somewhere deep inside ourselves, we believe that the disapproving, mocking voices are right. Shame, at its most basic level, is consensual. It is the private store of petrol we all keep to add to society’s sparks, turning these from small fires to furnaces by our own sorry complicity.
Shame, mostly, needs an audience. Once upon a time, this audience was the schoolyard, a party or dinner party. There was a limit to the number of people there to witness humiliation. Then the internet came along, and amplified shame to nuclear levels so that the audience became “everyone”. This, for the shamers, was a perfect storm: a potent combination of anonymity, indirectness, reach and opportunity. They didn’t even need to do much. Shame can be doled out passively, without lifting a finger, in “likes” withheld as much as in comments. Shame can be shared and retweeted. It can follow you, from school or work or the pub back home again, into your bedroom. It can be held in the palm of your hand and checked first thing in the morning, last thing at night.
As a society, we go through cycles with shame; it is a mobile, mutable force. “Shaming” a couple of years ago, became a conscious act of evil-doing, something to be called out and rejected. Slut-shaming, body-shaming, mum-shaming – for a time these were highlighted as poisonous practices. Then we forgot all about it, and started again. Somewhere along the way, we even enshrined a special place at the heart of our media culture for shame –
the Sidebar of Shame – a sick but genius construct that comes with a double dose: “Shame on you, celebrity, for your fat arse or stretch marks. Shame on me for reading about them.”
Shame is powerful because it works, wriggling its way in to your psyche, spreading poison. The fact that we turn it so overwhelmingly on the young and vulnerable – teenage girls and young women – makes it all the worse. So isn’t it time to stop? To teach a very old saying again, one we might have learned from our grandmothers: ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing.’ Because honey doesn’t just catch more flies than vinegar, it sweetens the world around it.
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