The Shame Machine
[Reading Challenge 2022]


The Shame Machine:
Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation

by Cathy O’Neil
Crown, March 2022

[ Challenge # 45 : Face your fears: A book that intimidates you, for any reason ]

This one’s a late-year substitute. ¬†Shoehorned The Shame Machine by Cathy O’Neil into the “Intimidating” category, because the title certainly is. Who wants to read about being ashamed?

However, it was a good overview of how the concept of shame keeps members of society in line and on the same path, except when it doesn’t. That is, when it’s harnessed by capitalism. Case in point, to get people to buy dubious health products to be younger, fitter, or more beautiful. This concept was explored in the first part of the book, which dealt with “punching down” — a term I just encountered on reading the book — which is how those in power shame those with less power to do what the powerful thinks they should be doing, with a moral component: Shame on you for being poor and not being able to provide for your children, now you must go through all these humiliating steps for aid to ensure that you never, ever, are in this shameful state again. Not really the best way for pulling people out of homelessness, drug addiction, or mental illness.

The author is a mathematician who has previously written a book about algorithms, and that’s touched on in the text in the second section, in how disparaging tweets and posts go viral. That aspect is slightly out of date because the internet world moves so rapidly, but it’s nice to see it summarized and stated all in one place. Reading the book has certainly made me reflect on my own behavior; there’s nothing to be gained by laughing at and mocking most people.

The third section dealt with “punching up” — those without power shaming those in power, such as the tactics of Gandhi in expelling the British from India. This also was a good basic overview. I have to say, though, a method without much teeth these days, when politicians brazenly lie and the consequences are nonexistant. I mean, lying in a way that is readily apparent to the average person with some search engine knowledge. What can we do about that?

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