The Blog

The Power of Shame

The reality is being called an idiot, a bigot, a racist, a homophobe, a transphobe, an ableist, a misogynist, a misandrist or anything else isn't restricting your freedom of speech it's a group trying to use shame to make you conform to their world view. The question is, do you care?

You would be forgiven for thinking recently that social media is a shame generator that is crushing free speech whilst being run by a cabal of angry feminists/trans women/teenage boy gamers. And considering some of the strides made recently you'd think feminism has won. There are those who do. Those who think equality "has gone too far!" (pro tip, it can't, it can only ever reach the middle) Even Kirsty Allsopp was in The Times this week was complaining: "There is a prejudice against being a white, middle-class, middle-aged, female. That should not render you voiceless." I suddenly, as the daughter of a teacher and a probation officer feel working class if The Honourable Kirsty Allsopp, daughter of the sixth Baron of Hindlip is middle class. Though I don't see how regular newspaper columns and hit TV shows, plus countless guest appearances, makes you voiceless either.

It's the same with Jeremy Clarkson. I don't know fully what happened, as I understand it, being pieced together from half-read tweets and conversations overheard in my local branch of Game between two staff members - he punched an Irish bloke because he didn't have a steak ready for him, AND ON STEAK AND BLOWJOB DAY TOO! So apparently health and bleedin' safety or Political Correctness Gone Mad or something has meant he's been suspended from the BBC in a way that's all about freedom of speech. Or something.

Twitter and the world at large are confusing places. Freedom of speech generally is accepted to mean "you can't be arrested for saying something" - which is why in the UK we don't have freedom of speech. There's loads of things you can be arrested for saying, mostly stuff that will incite people to commit crimes often based on race, gender, or sexuality. On Twitter and in the general shouting of those accused of bigotry it means "being allowed to say bigoted things without anyone criticising you for it", or even "being paid to say the bigoted things I've written in your university."

Obviously we all have this magnificent ability to create our own internal narrative where we're good people, even if like myself your inner monologue manages to accommodate thinking you're almost Christ-like in your righteousness and abilities whilst also being the single worst human being to have ever lived, AT EXACTLY THE SAME TIME! So when things question this story we've built up we resist, we get defensive, some of us go to incredible lengths and massive levels of cognitive dissonance to convince ourselves we're "doing good". It's key to our functioning as humans especially in a world where everything is set up to suit middle aged, straight, white, cisgender, rich, men (anyone who regularly reads the Mail will be thinking I'm going after the most persecuted group in society). And even by that standard I'm lucky, I benefit from the system. I'm white, so I benefit from a thousand years of colonialism, I live in the UK so I benefit from there being cheap slave labour in foreign countries meaning I can get clothes I can afford. I may be trans and a woman and until recently living in poverty (yeah, check me out, I was choosing between heating and eating back in 2006 before the world wide financial disaster), but I still benefit from the system in various ways that I know and that I don't know. I certainly make more than my fair share of "stupid white people" mistakes. But my internal narrative is still "I was trying to do good".

In Jon Ronson's latest book So You've Been Publicly Shamed he touches on this where he debunks Zimbardo's Stamford Prison Experiment. Upon reading it I wondered to myself why I'd never questioned this study into 'obedience to authority' before? I assumed the people writing it were in a position of authority and naturally, I obeyed. I THOUGHT I WAS DOING GOOD!

Shame as a tool is interesting, we're all bound by it in one way or another - even me, and I over-share everything. It works to keep power structures in place, every time a woman steps out of line she's shamed for being fat or too thin or too gobby, or having too much sex, or being frigid, or being vain, or not caring about her looks. Every time ANY of us step out of line, whether from the norms of society as a whole or from our own little groups, if we make a major transgression we get shamed for it, sometimes that's good, like when I do a stupid white person thing, or say something that upsets someone when I don't mean to. Or like when I have a massive lack of self-awareness and talk in a national newspaper about being voiceless, or even when I'm so hungry I could punch a producer.

It's horrible when you realise that, and there are two ways you can react to it, you can:

a) front it out, refuse to accept the shaming and stick to your guns, you've done nothing wrong so why should you modify your behaviour, whoever it was who's getting upset is clearly at fault because you're lovely and they just didn't get the joke.


b) You can get upset and all fragile, shout about it and think "the sodding nerve of them!" and then take a few more minutes, get the anger out of your system, think about why they're saying what they're saying, have a look at your own part in it, apologise and then try not to do it in future.

I know which one's easier, and these days I try to do which ever one's right. Because I'm Christ-like and awful, like the worst, like if Hitler and Mugabe had a baby it would call me out for being a douche. What you've really got to think is "do I care what they say?" if no, then carry on with reaction a, if yes then have a look at reaction b.

The reality is being called an idiot, a bigot, a racist, a homophobe, a transphobe, an ableist, a misogynist, a misandrist or anything else isn't restricting your freedom of speech it's a group trying to use shame to make you conform to their world view. The question is, do you care?