Theater of Shame

The rise of online humiliation

Charlie Tyson

On the internet, people can be selected at random and held up for the instant scorn of thousands. Image via Creative Commons

Men punish with shame,” wrote the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt. It is the “greatest punishment on earth, yea! greater than death.” Other forms of punishment—torture, solitary confinement—may do more to break the body and spirit. But the primitive power of shaming, and the reliability with which shame punishments are administered informally by the community as well as formally by the state, make it an especially disturbing mode of discipline. The ubiquity of shame punishments across many cultures—from the penal tattooing of slaves and criminals in ancient Rome to the stocks, pillory, and cucking stool of early modern England to the practice in modern China, only recently outlawed, of roping together suspected sex workers and forcing them to march barefoot through the streets—alerts us to the likelihood that we are dealing with a human propensity that can never be banished, only contained.

Shame is a consequence of many punishments. Being branded as a criminal, a deviant, or an outcast, whether with a hot iron or an orange jumpsuit, inevitably entails a humiliating loss of status. But there is a class of punishments in which shaming is the primary objective. In Shakespeare’s England, for instance, the stocks and the pillory were only part of an elaborate roster of humiliations. Convicted persons, writes the historian Keith Thomas, might be branded, whipped, mutilated, carted through the streets to the sound of bells, stripped half-naked or dressed in embarrassing clothes, made to wear placards describing their offenses, or forced to ride backwards on a donkey while onlookers jeered.

The feature that unites these penalties is the exhibition of the offender to the public. Shame punishments are a kind of theater in which the suffering is real and the audience is encouraged to participate. At their core is the agony of coerced display. Humiliating costumes and props or various forms of disfigurement (a shaved head, a sliced-off ear, an insignia carved into the forehead) underscore the kinship between shaming rituals and the structure of drama. Public shaming is one of humanity’s most revealing categories of spectacle, a radical form of theater in which the community expresses its moral views by inflicting real injuries.

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault claimed that from the nineteenth century onward, punishment for crimes became more secret, less theatrical. In post-Revolutionary France, the open cart transporting convicts to the guillotines was replaced by a closed carriage. At last, the guillotine was moved inside prison walls. “Punishment,” he wrote, “had gradually ceased to be a spectacle.” The cruelest punishments in contemporary American society indeed occur away from public view, in prisons, detention camps, and border facilities. But the public’s hunger for disciplinary spectacles has not dwindled for lack of food. In the digital world that we are building together, we have given rituals of public correction a central place.

An ambient culture of shame saturates the online social environment. On such platforms as Twitter or TikTok or YouTube the risk of humiliation is ever present. Some online performers have neutralized the threat of cringe through stylized self-embarrassment: comedians riff on their own narcissism; dancers engage in cartoonish slapstick, reminiscent of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin (as if, on the internet, the history of cinema is replaying itself ), ensuring that they pie themselves in the face before anyone else can. The rest of us, fated to play “ourselves” before an unknown and fickle audience, must improvise other defenses.

What are the implications for democracy of a public culture grown so intensely theatrical?

Cancel culture, callouts, online harassment, mob justice, accountability: all of these terms refer to structurally similar phenomena (the targeting of the one by the many, in front of an audience), yet none offers a neutral description. What is decried as “cancel culture” is sometimes just spirited criticism; what is endorsed as “accountability” is sometimes gratuitous and cruel. Given the confusion and sophistry that mar discussion of online shaming, it is worth keeping two facts in mind. The first is that, regardless of one’s views about the merits of shaming in any one case, we have devised a social-technological structure in which persons can be selected virtually at random and held up for the scorn of thousands, as in the cases Jon Ronson recounted in his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The second is that these shame-storms occur not in a public square, as Twitter is sometimes misleadingly dubbed, but in spaces controlled by private capital. “Egged on by algorithms,” Cathy O’Neil writes in her book The Shame Machine, “millions of us participate in these dramas, providing the tech giants with free labor.” Pile-ons increase engagement. Our fury pads the purses of tech capitalists.

Antonin Artaud imagined a “Theatre of Cruelty” that would purify the spectator’s consciousness by assaulting the senses: a form of shock therapy that aims, through violent, all-engulfing spectacle, to wake up the audience and shatter its prior sense of reality. What we have today is a Theater of Shame: participatory spectacles in which members of the audience are (virtually) hauled onstage and made to answer for their sins. And whether you find these rituals psychologically satisfying or disturbing, their prevalence raises a fundamental question: what are the implications for democracy of a public culture grown so intensely theatrical?

skepticism about public shaming was once widely shared by leftists and liberals, on the grounds that shaming threatens dignity and tends to target stigmatized groups. Article 12 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that people deserve protection from attacks on their “honour and reputation.” Shame campaigns might be deployed effectively, and justly, in response to harms committed by corporations or governments. But shaming citizens was another matter. A good society was supposed to defend its members from humiliation.

These days, shaming is more in vogue. Many commentators on the left, while rejecting the shaming of vulnerable groups (queer people, poor people, people with disabilities), see the technique as a valuable way of shoring up social norms. Some argue that it’s an effective response to racist and sexist behavior. Tressie McMillan Cottom recently argued in The New York Times that shaming is a corrective to a white-dominated culture: against the backdrop of a more open and diverse public square, “shame is evidence of a democratic society operating democratically.”

Yet in its insistence on conformity, shaming, even when harnessed for ostensibly progressive ends, has a conservative flavor. Indeed, though the American right may complain about cancel culture, it has an undeniable taste for public shaming. The right-wing Twitter account Libs of TikTok, for instance, has gained more than a million followers by holding up queer and trans people as objects of disgust. The account’s method is to rip videos from TikTok (featuring, say, gender-fluid teenagers talking about their pronouns), a strategy that should remind us that our theater of shame is not a single toxic website but an entire networked architecture. Conservatives have also enlisted the force of law to shame transgender people, as with bills mandating genital exams for young athletes whose gender is disputed. The ascent of Donald Trump, whose principal qualifications seemed to be his immunity to shame and his gusto for shaming others (as when he mocked a reporter’s disability and taunted Michael Bloomberg for being short), confirms the political resonance of shame in our present moment.

Structural problems in how the online world is organized have also deformed our thinking about shame. The most popular social-media sites are commercial platforms flooded with advertising and propaganda and run by black-box algorithms that exploit shaming campaigns to boost user engagement. A neutral public square this is not. The wide reach of digital life means that one’s reputation can be muddied in a matter of minutes; the speed and scale at which this can take place make today’s online shaming dynamics different from past forms of shame punishment. Technology companies have handed us weapons of reputational damage that are invariably set to hair-trigger alert. The result is an atmosphere of surveillance in which the threat of humiliation has emerged as an effective tool of social control.

The configuration of social media resembles nothing so much as a theater in which any of us can, at any moment, be dragged onstage and cast as the day’s villain. These online pile-ons can swerve into tragedy, as when an adult film star killed herself two days after facing an enormous backlash for a tweet many deemed homophobic. More often they have elements of farce. An author of young adult books, soon to release a novel about two American boys falling in love during the Kosovo War, withdrew the book from publication after a torrent of criticism on Twitter about the story’s treatment of Muslims and its use of the war as a romantic backdrop; that same author had previously led online campaigns attacking other writers in his industry for breaches of racial sensitivity. In another case, the executive director of an academic press tweeted: “So apparently job candidates’ sending a thank you note isn’t a thing anymore? Candidates, pro tip: send a thank you note.” Thousands of indignant replies followed. One response, from an account with a profile photo of a middle-aged white man, declared the original poster a white supremacist. Another reply advised that job-seekers “might simply not be able to afford the cost of a thank you note and stamp.” The besieged publishing executive now works in the cryptocurrency industry.

Because shaming targets the whole person, rather than a specific act, it favors the flatness of stereotype over the complexity of the real.

These cases differ widely in severity, but they share certain attributes that help us understand the patterns of online discipline. All three took private citizens, rather than public figures or corporations, as their targets. Each transgression was a matter of etiquette, an alleged failure of sensitivity. In two of the cases there was an element of arbitrariness: the adult film star’s tweet was by no means the most homophobic tweet published that day or even that hour, yet she was targeted; the publishing director’s statement, though condescending in tone, resembled old-fashioned advice for job candidates, yet he was scolded by thousands. (The karmic comeuppance of the YA author is perhaps another matter.) Two of the cases were insular micro-dramas among the academic or literary classes who are seeing their professional opportunities narrow. The failure of online shaming to address people or institutions with real power, its arbitrariness, its tendency toward projection, its focus on semantic misdeeds, and its connection with precarious industries, from porn to publishing, are all standard features of this social practice.

It is sometimes claimed that online-shaming campaigns, while psychologically distressing for their targets, do not result in material harm. But as these examples suggest, that’s often untrue. Although some celebrities and media figures, recognizing that a monomaniacal focus on the ills of left-wing censoriousness draws money and attention, have turned cancellation to their advantage, for private citizens a digital black mark is not as easily rubbed off. The misdeed of a moment can be attached to one’s online presence for all time. In some cases, as in the oft-cited pile-on of Justine Sacco, shunned people have lost jobs (and therefore health insurance); in other cases, reputational damage brings material losses that are difficult to calculate—jobs not offered, social connections severed.

Beyond this, the dramas we stage on social media, frivolous though they may be, herald a shift in our political culture. More and more of us, now, are always onstage. These developments have rekindled old worries about the role of theatricality in a democracy—expressed for instance by Plato in the Laws, in which an unnamed citizen frets that Athens is becoming a “theatrocracy,” a state ruled by audience applause and catcalls rather than by law.

When I describe online shaming as “drama,” I mean it literally. There is, first, the performativity involved in calling out wrongdoers in front of an audience. Second, these shame events involve acts of collective fiction-making. When we shame people, we create a narrative that justifies our treatment of them. The pretense of evidence-gathering that sometimes accompanies an online cancellation—the unearthing of unflattering photos or incriminating tweets—is not truly meant to convince, but is instead part of the game, miming the fact-finding of journalism, history, or law with little of their rigor. The rest is projection or invention: the discovery of a needed antagonist.

Such fictionalization is endemic to shaming. Because shaming targets the whole person, rather than a specific act, it favors the flatness of stereotype over the complexity of the real. It is comforting to believe that we can easily sort the people we encounter online into good and bad, allies and enemies, human and subhuman. Online shaming expresses the fantasy of a simple moral world.

The appeal is clear. Nowhere else but in public shaming do sadism and moral righteousness so alluringly entwine. From the safe position of moral superiority, we can join the crowd baying for blood. Social-media shaming is atavistically pleasurable: it unfolds in real time, contains a real element of risk, and flatters our sense of power, making us feel superior to the person we are shaming. If we grant that many of these shame cycles are akin to role-playing games or participatory reality television, we might begin to compare them with other kinds of games and dramas and see how debased they are as a form of entertainment. The theatrical nature of our shaming rites, moreover, poses dangers. In theater, the normal rules of conduct are suspended. We know that actions that take place online can have real-world consequences. But participants caught up in shaming rituals who believe, consciously or not, that they are in the wonderland of drama may not hesitate to inflict harms.

Such rituals do not injure only the offender being disciplined (who, to be sure, sometimes deserves criticism). They are also bad for the rest of us. In a letter protesting his country’s practice of capital punishment, Charles Dickens describes watching a public hanging. The huge crowd of spectators is rough and disorderly. The novelist hears whistles and yells, sees fights break out, and observes swooning women carried out of the fray by police. He describes the crowd as bestial, screeching and howling, surrendering to bloodlust, unable to see the humanity of the condemned. When day breaks, and the sun rises on “thousands upon thousands of upturned faces,” the expression captured in the golden light is a mask of “brutal mirth.” Dickens’s complaint about the brutality of public executions is really a comment on the ethics of spectatorship. Such spectacles of shame, he suggests, deform the human response to suffering.

although contemporary shaming rituals are often defended as pedagogical—teaching someone a lesson, making someone into an example—our theater of shame shares little with, say, the didactic drama of Bertolt Brecht, who enlisted many techniques (music and song, full lighting, placards, a self-conscious and gestural method of acting) to keep the audience’s emotions in check so that the spectators could reflect critically on the social conditions being dramatized. It has more in common with the overheated world of Shakespeare’s history plays, in which feuding nobles smear each other’s reputations in bids for power while, outside the court, the long-neglected population, embittered by hunger and exploitation, prepares for revolution. It was in the Renaissance that shame became a serious philosophical subject. The most searching examinations of shame in that period, however, took place on the stage, for reasons that should by now be obvious. Involving as it does the conspicuous and passionate use of the body before the public’s eyes, theater is superbly equipped to analyze the workings of this emotion.

Inspiration might come from drag performance and queer pride parades, in which the thing that had been the source of shame undergoes a transvaluation.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s early play Henry VI Part 2. It is a blunt, powerful work, at once an intelligent study of political factionalism under a weak king and an exercise in brutality that approaches the pitiless gore of Titus Andronicus. A host of characters in this play meet the same fate: shame so unbearable that it verges on annihilation.

Early in the play, Eleanor Cobham, the disgraced Duchess of Gloucester, is convicted of witchcraft. She is forced to walk barefoot through the streets of London dressed only in a white sheet, a candle burning in her hand, a list of her crimes pinned to her back. The people of London laugh and jeer at the spectacle of proud Eleanor, once the “second woman in the realm,” put in her place, made to wind her way on bruised and bleeding feet. Eleanor cries:

Methinks I should not thus be led along,
Mailed up in shame, with papers on my back,
And followed with a rabble that rejoice
To see my tears and hear my deep-fet groans.

This punishment achieves the humbling of a woman whose ambition had previously known no bounds and who had pushed her husband to seize the throne of England.

Eleanor’s punishment is presented as a play within the play. The scene of her public correction is rigorous in its division of the actors onstage into watchers and watched, spectators and spectacle. Her husband Gloucester and his men enter in hooded black garments, witnesses to her social death. Eleanor’s opulent attire had been, at court, a sign of her overreaching ambition: “She bears a duke’s revenues on her back,” Queen Margaret seethes, so that visitors to court “take her for the Queen.” Here, stripped of her finery, she is reduced to wearing a sheet. The duchess’s penance has many features of a well-staged play: not just costumes and an audience but a set start time (ten o’clock) and precise blocking (Eleanor must pass by, and Gloucester must not move to help her). The heightened theatricality of this shame sequence calls our attention to the theatrical structure of shaming more generally. To be shamed is to be forced to participate in a drama of someone else’s design, to be made painfully visible.

Eleanor is not the only character in Henry VI Part 2 forced into a meta-theatrical spectacle of shame. A man and his wife who appear before the throne with false claims about miracles are ordered to “be whipped through every market town.” When the haughty Duke of Suffolk, costumed in rags, falls into the hands of pirates, he rages against the humiliation of being killed by such coarse men: “It is impossible that I should die / By such a lowly vassal as thyself.” Later in the play, during the popular rebellion led by Jack Cade, two noblemen are decapitated as preparation for a grotesque, homophobic puppet show: their lopped-off heads are mounted on poles and forced to kiss each other.

In the world of this play, shame governs social relations. Small wonder, then, that this political culture paves the way for the rise to power of someone who is utterly shameless. The populist ascent of Cade—who briefly seizes control of London and unleashes a reign of terror—confirms the play’s cynicism about shame-based politics. In Cade’s insurrection, the shaming of elites is a key tactic. Special disdain is reserved for the literate and the learned. One clerk who confesses that he can write is hung “with his pen and inkhorn about his neck.” This attack on the educated provides the occasion for the play’s most famous line: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

As Cade’s humiliation of the nobility attests, there is vast theatrical potential in shame punishments in which the mighty are brought low. And Cade’s shaming of elites might seem democratizing, a blunt method of reconfiguring social hierarchy. But while his rebellion pays tribute to egalitarian radicalism—he proclaims, for instance, that “henceforward all things shall be in common”—such remarks are cover for a cultish authoritarianism. Shakespeare makes plain that this demagogue who claims to represent workers and peasants is in fact an infantile narcissist. Cade’s fate is a posthumous humiliation: his corpse is dragged to a dunghill for crows to feed on. His followers, too, face one last shame punishment. Near the play’s end they appear onstage, wearing nooses to signify their submission.

throughout his work, Shakespeare exploits the theatricality intrinsic to political life. Few writers make us more aware of the degree to which power is a matter of performance; for the duration of his plays, the king is simply he who wears the crown. Drama as an art form asks an assembly to watch as the social world is created anew onstage. It is hardly surprising, then, that theaters have often been sites of protest and riot; they are typically among the first institutions shuttered by insecure regimes.

Yet lovers of democracy, too, have found reasons to distrust the theater, and no one more so than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose arguments against the establishment of a theater in Geneva sound a warning about how democratic citizenship is corrupted by a culture of spectacle. Rousseau opposed the stage because he feared the theatricalization of society. If the world becomes theater, he worried, our powers of sympathy will diminish. “Everything that is played in the theatre,” he argues in his Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre, “is not brought nearer to us but made more distant.” A theatrical society turns human beings into aesthetic spectacles, vaguely unreal phenomena to be contemplated from a distance. The result is a community of spectators rather than citizens. Rousseau distrusted representation, its ability to supplant the real. That he rejected representative government in favor of direct democracy is entirely consistent with his opposition to the stage.

Our public life has indeed become perilously theatrical. Symbolic fights have displaced material issues. This very defect, however, might offer a way out. In an increasingly digital and alienated society, live theater can provide a powerful corrective. Two functions of theater might assist us in developing a less punitive, less artificial political culture.

The first is that theater provides a benign substitute for aggressive energies. Theater has likely served this purpose before. Many scholars have surmised that ancient rites of violence, scapegoating, and sacrifice are among the wellsprings of drama. Greek tragedy may have derived from such rituals (the Greek word for tragedy refers to goats). Consider the long history of scapegoating on the stage: from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, in which the play’s inexorable logic requires that the king be expelled from the community, through Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, another drama of sexual transgression, which ends with a dead goat—the hero’s beloved—hauled onstage. The transformation of real scapegoating rites into fictional depictions marks a moral advance as profound as the substitution of a goat for a human being on the sacrificial altar.

The second is theater’s capacity to model collective action. Onstage, a troupe of actors cooperates to pull off the show; in the audience, a live assembly agrees to participate as observers. The embodied presence of actors and onlookers provides a moral grounding missing from our virtual spectacles of shame, in which the absence of the body leads participants to forget that they are dealing with real people.

We need new forms of collective expression. What might such expression look like? What kinds of drama or spectacle could respond effectively to our virtual theater of shame? The details must be worked out through experiment; as John Maynard Keynes once commented, theaters are to dramatic art what laboratories are to science. Inspiration might come from drag performance and queer pride parades, in which the thing that had been the source of shame undergoes a transvaluation. More likely, such a theater would need to engage a darker repertoire of emotions, to help us channel, examine, and purge our desire to inflict shame on others. In its insistence on local assembly and the live presence of the body, this theater could serve as a check against the isolating disembodiment of an increasingly virtual world.

The theater allows us to imagine new selves. It celebrates fluidity and metamorphosis, showing us how one person can transform into another. Shaming behavior tells us that we are spoiled, defective. It punishes deviations from the norm. The infliction of shame makes many enemies but changes few minds. If we want to ask people to change, we must show them how. Theater, the art of transformation, will not lead us to a society free of humiliation. But for a moment, glinting in the footlights, we may catch a glimpse of a better world.

Charlie Tyson is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Baffler, and Bookforum.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022


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