November 13, 2009

Shaming on an industrial scale

One worry that some have about large and impersonal societies is that the potential to whip a misbehaver into line through shaming becomes much harder when there are simply a lot more people to police, most of whom are total strangers. Most people find it hard to approach a total stranger just to shame them. And even if they did, would the target pay any attention -- who cares what some stranger thinks? Your relatives, your friends, sure, but not some weirdo who accosts you on the street.

But maybe we've managed to mostly solve this problem in industrial societies with an industry that gets a lot of flak -- the paparazzi and the celebrity media generally. Here's a great title from the WSJ:

Ridicule Keeps Fans of Harem Pants From Getting Too Big for Their Britches

Slaves to Anti-Fashion Suffer Taunts of 'Hammer Time,' Bike Accidents

Now the particular women profiled may decide to stop wearing these ridiculous pants because they're so over-the-top that perfect strangers are willing -- probably eager -- to run up to them to let them know how retarded they look. But articles like this -- and it could just as well have been a TV news soundbite -- also let all other women know that they'll incur shame if they wear harem pants. By tarring and feathering all sorts of behaviors, from wearing too-revealing clothes to picking up a drug habit, the celebrity-focused media make it possible to shame an entire nation of women -- you don't want people to associate you with Lindsay Lohan, do you?

With the celebrity media, we have a national standard of what's worth mocking. If you are weighing whether or not to do something on that list, you're going to think twice because everyone else is going to look at you funny -- "omigod, i mean is she trying to give britney spears a run for her money in the skank department? because it's sure working." If we left shaming to more local processes, this wouldn't work so well because we live in pretty impersonal communities. It's striking how little the masses cared about "famous people" before we traded our face-to-face lives for impersonal ones, but maybe we didn't need to expose their falls in order to teach people what's good and bad.

There's a separate problem of whether the celebrity media will police what was policed in personal communities. Maybe, maybe not. The 19th C. in Britain, France, and the U.S. saw an unimaginable change toward impersonal exchange, soaring population sizes, and so on -- unprecedented in human history -- and yet we think of these Victorian people as being hyper-vigilant about policing traditional morality. So what they shame and what they give a pass on seems independent of whether the police are a national media culture or not.

And even today, the celebrity media focuses on most of the concerns of traditional morality -- they flip out if a famous woman is going to get divorced, and you can imagine how much we'd hear if she were going to get an abortion. Parading herself around like a slut likewise draws vitriol across the board; ditto packing on excess fattage. She couldn't quit a big project that she'd committed herself to. On the other side, they're ecstatic when she's going to get married, have kids of her own or adopt, and when she sees a project through and it's all set for delivery. And of course we hear every update in her effort to lose weight.

We may not have tightly knit communities whose members can efficiently shame one another when they harm others, but the national celebrity media accomplish roughly the same thing -- you don't want to steal a page from Anna Nicole Smith's book, do you?


  1. Shaming only works if that person cares what the shamer thinks. The perfect shamers for women then are guys they find attractive.

  2. That's true, but it's also true in face-to-face communities. Still, I wonder if desirable guys today are less likely to shame than before. Certainly seems like it, back to a point anyway.

  3. Shaming doesn't seem to have worked on you.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."