Theater of Shame

The rise of online humiliation

Charlie Tyson

“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.

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…