Social media has the power to shame people in just a few clicks. Take former public relations executive Justine Sacco, who jokingly tweeted an offensive comment about AIDS and Africa, or charity worker Lindsey Stone, who while on a work trip broadcast a photograph on Facebook in which she appeared to be mocking dead war veterans. Their posts went viral, receiving thousands of comments from strangers who condemned and threatened Sacco and Stone. Both women lost their jobs, their friends and their dignity. In So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Riverhead Books, 2015; 304 pages), journalist Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry, explores high-profile examples of how making a mistake on social media can ruin your life. In fact, the unbridled shaming, Ronson says, far surpasses any actual or apparent transgression. In his book, he shines a light on this trend of online bullying, highlighting how this form of harassment has become particularly easy and vicious via posts on social media sites.
Sometimes shaming, whether it's online or in person, can be fatal. In Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Shame, Bullying, and Violence (Oxford University Press, 2015; 256 pages), Jonathan Fast, associate professor of social work at Yeshiva University, describes the dark underbelly of shame. Fast admits that at low levels, shame can be beneficial—signaling, for instance, when we have behaved inappropriately—but when unhinged, it can become a weapon. Fast delves into the psychology and sociology of shame and concludes that this powerful emotion is the common thread explaining the recent rise in domestic terrorism and gun violence, school and online bullying, and suicide among adolescents. He hopes that by understanding shame—why we feel it and how it can fester—we can develop strategies to prevent the acts of violence and hate that are motivated by it.
But is it possible to put humiliation to good use? In Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (Pantheon, 2015; 224 pages), Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University, argues that shame can be an effective, nonviolent tactic to promote positive change if targeted appropriately. Shaming powerful groups (governments and corporations) or dominant individuals (CEOs and the wealthiest 1 percent in the U.S.) may help us challenge potentially harmful decisions or behaviors and promote political and social reform.