The stigma of shame in the 21st century has all the depth of a Twitter hashtag

You might think that disgraced public figures would spend their days in guilty silence trying to restore their reputation, but this couldn't be further from the truth

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The Independent Online

How best to describe the face of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, pictured on Wednesday on The Independent’s front page, as the old voluptuary returned to his hotel in Lille after the prosecution’s case against him all but collapsed?

“Shameless”: that’s le mot juste. Look at that tired but triumphant gleam in his saurian eyes, that Roman-emperor face with its pouchy folds of flesh, that smug smile of victory over the latest attempt to nail him in public. (The chambermaid had to settle out of court; the sexually assaulted journalist was too late with her prosecution; now his defence lawyer told the judge he should be acquitted “pure and simple”, of all the adjectives to use.)

Shameless is how we describe a man, the once-eminent and distinguished head of the International Monetary Fund, who admits to attending orgies (sorry, “festive occasions”) four times a year, and has forced prostitutes to have anal sex against their wishes – yet still emerged from court looking seigneurial and unsinkable, as if his ambition to be a future president of France will soon be back on track.

Shame is a sliding concept in the 21st century. Once it was a condition (“State of disgrace or regret or ignominy or discredit” – OED) that fatally coloured your reputation among your acquaintances or in polite society. You’d done something wrong; you’d been found out; you were stuck with the consequences. In past centuries, these were nasty physical manifestations of your shame: you’d be whipped, or ducked, or put in the stocks, or have your ear or nose slit open. Or you’d be branded – the Greek word stigma means the letters branded on your skin to show you were a thief, or murderer or chronic debtor.

These things ceased, together with public hangings, in the 19th century, and miscreants were imprisoned, away from public sight. But shame remained, hanging around a disgraced person like a bad smell, ensuring nobody would trust them, befriend them or marry them, ever again.

You might think that, in this century, disgraced public figures would spend their days in guilty silence trying to restore their reputation, as John Profumo did by working at Toynbee Hall for decades. No chance.


Neil Hamilton, who resigned as MP after the cash-for-questions trial, was elected to Ukip’s national executive committee and stood last year as a candidate. Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce went to prison for perverting the course of justice over speeding points. Now Pryce is back in the media, offering her views on the Greek bailout. Peter Mandelson had to resign from the government twice, but bounced back into the Cabinet as Business Secretary under Gordon Brown. The taint of scandal hung around them all for a while but shame never stopped them from banging on the doors of power, expecting to be allowed in and trusted again.

Is shame dead or still relevant? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? With remarkable timing, two new books look at the subject from different perspectives and arrive at quite different conclusions. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson looks at the power of Twitter to hold certain people to mass ridicule for expressing an opinion, or making a joke that’s deemed racist, sexist or unusually obtuse.

Ronson looks at how the multiple “shaming” of a careless tweet can ruin the life of an otherwise inoffensive person. Once, Ronson basked in feeling part of “a great renaissance of public shaming” which was “like the democratisation of justice” – but he comes to fear its power. “I,” he concludes, “no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of anybody, unless they’re committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should.”

How different is the approach of Jennifer Jacquet, author of Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool. Ms Jacquet works at the department of environmental studies in New York University and used to write a blog called Guilty Planet, so you can guess where she’s coming from. Her thesis is that it’s not enough to make people guilty about carbon emissions and climate change; “active citizens” must be “ready to find creative ways to shame those who have the power to bring about political and social change but aren’t [sic]”.

Approvingly noting that the mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus, cut the figure for traffic deaths in half by his stratagem of hiring 20 professional mimes to walk through the streets, drawing attention to jaywalking, reckless driving and excessive honking, she offers seven “habits for highly effective shaming” and calls shaming “a non-violent tool of resistance that anyone can use and, unlike guilt, it can be used to influence the way groups behave”.

So who is right? It’s hard to argue that, say, mass tweeting the dubious fiscal practices of Amazon, Google et al is a good thing, whether or not it makes such global giants pay a blind bit of notice. It’s less cheerworthy when you reflect that shaming campaigns aren’t always conducted by saintly people. As Jacquet concedes, they’re things “anyone can use”, including those whose political or social views may be anathema to you. The appalling William F Buckley once suggested that all people diagnosed with Aids should carry a shame tattoo to that effect on their arms and buttocks to stop the disease from spreading.

And once a shame campaign is under way, it becomes an unlovely spectacle of a growing crowd reinforcing a single point of view and shutting out debate. Even if we have right on our side, mass tweeting against the rich, powerful and degenerate doesn’t necessarily impose shame on anyone unless he, she or they feel the emotion themselves. Those who feel no guilt about what they’ve done won’t be bullied into feeling shame when they’re found out. Just ask Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Howard Jacobson is away