Shame, Cancel Culture and Social Media
Before I begin; evolutionary psychology is mostly trash and that’s where the majority of the studies seem to come from when you google 'shame as a motivator', so I’m mostly going to rely on Brene Brown’s research If you have research that’s not her and not evolutionary psychology i’d love to read it (love you, thanks).
Shame is both a complicated emotion, and a complicated motivator. Researchers like Dr. Brene Brown claim shame is always harmful. She defines it as
“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” vs guilt which “is adaptive and helpful—it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.”
Shame is one of four types of what shame researchers call self-conscious affect. According to their work we use the words shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment interchangeably, but that’s not accurate.
“Shame: “I am bad.” Guilt: “I did something bad.” Humiliation, similar to shame, but “I didn’t deserve it.” Embarrassment: Often fleeting, sometimes funny, the least serious of the four emotions.”
— descriptions of self-conscious affect
Brene claims that shame is a tool of oppression. She draws on an essay by Audre Lorde, from whom the quote "The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house" originates, and also the fact that shame is correlated with blame, violence and aggression in her studies.
I'd argue that shame is a tool of control; all the master's tools are just tools after all. It depends how you wield them and what your intended and actual outcomes are.
Shame definitely helps people drive a behaviour into hiding, but you will probably not bring someone to a place of openness, curiosity and contrition that will lead to them changing their actual belief systems rather than just their visible actions.
There is a difference between calling for accountability, shaming someone and someone feeling shame. Being held accountable might trigger people to feel shame, but that is on the person being held accountable. Being shamed means that we paint the person being called out as irredeemable; this obviously isn’t an (prison) abolitionist point of view, and leads to the hiding rather than changing that I mentioned earlier at best, and can lead to violence and higher tension at worst. I don't think it's always possible to avoid shaming people; that would be a form of tone policing, where someone (shames!) tells someone that they don't have a right to voice negative and sometimes harsh emotional views after being harmed. However, we can endeavour to not shame people when we are able, and not enshrine shaming as a regular correction tool.
The only coherent claim you can make about cancel culture is that the term is overloaded.
‘Canceling’ as a concept originated within African American culture, and as the internet and non-African American users of it tend to do, it soon was contorted beyond its original use and memeified. Canceling someone is a way to use individual voices to bring accountability to the unaccountable. It can be personal or collective. Canceling someone you find problematic doesn’t have to be a social death sentence for anyone.
Cancel culture on the other hand has morphed into a hydra, with heads such as ‘enemy of free speech’ and ‘death of humor and culture’ and ‘targeted harassment’. The calls for accountability inherent in the original usage have long since been lost amongst many users of the term. Consequence Culture is a term for the original meaning coined by Le Var Burton, highlighting how actions having consequences was the original point.
Cancel culture has been blamed for things as varied as the decline of American universities to the ‘cancellation’ of Russian culture during the ongoing war in Ukraine. It’s been compared to things as outlandish as the rise of Hitler in Germany and blamed for countless actual cancellations and changes to media like books and TV. If we're using cancel culture in the way that the right wing media circus likes to play it, then people of all around the political universe are guilty of perpetuating cancel culture, it's just that when the left or "woke" do it, it's seen as an issue rather than the meting out of justice.
Cancel culture in its purest, most click-worthy form says that you are irredeemable for an awful comment you made when you were 12, and hounds you off the internet for it. This is definitely shaming. Cancellation can change the directions of lives, and I argue that the right wing pundits so scared of it are just as guilty of calling for these kinds of cancellations as the left. Cancel culture is the punitive arm of shame-based policing online, whilst harsh criticism and mockery form the other.
The worst parts of cancel culture are the public shaming aspects. Public calls for accountability have their place, I think most convincingly in the arena of politics, where people mostly protest to make themselves heard outside of voting, and business, where arguably most consumers have no power over the company beyond making it look bad and convincing themselves and others not to spend money there. I think it also can be great when a small number of people compassionately address an issue on social media by directly talking to the person doing harm, but this is more risky as people can quickly join in and turn a friendly call-in into a dogpile.
Cancel culture is fully at home online, and is at its strongest there.
So far I’ve focused on what cancel culture is supposed to be, and not on the medium through which it is delivered. Some people are cancelled in person, sure, but cancel culture’s ancestral home is on social media. Anonymity is often professed as the reason for rampant online harassment, but there must be something else about the online experience as plenty of people pile on with the full names and workplaces in view. I'd argue it's the way that our online experiences are crafted by social media companies.
Social media companies weaponise our emotions against us, causing us to doomscroll and bicker in our comments sections and replies to drive engagement, leading to more ad clicks and longer sessions on their apps. A study in 2021 found that in-group (people like you) and out-group (people not like you) dynamics played a part in what was shared and retweeted; you’re more likely to share negative posts about by someone in your in-group about an out-group, which is a long way of saying that divisive content wins.
Facebook’s own documents reveal that algorithmically surfaced posts on the newsfeed meant it preferred divisive, hateful and sensational content. Twitter discovered in 2021 that their algorithm for home timeline tweets amplified conservatives more; both news and general views. Anecdotally, Twitter inserts "relevant and interesting” tweets into the default timeline that again often lead to inflammatory interactions due to the tweets being surfaced in timelines that aren't known or friendly to them. Tiktok’s ‘for you’ page does its best to deliver a perfectly personalized experience, leading to heavy siloing between users. Anecdotally, users often talk about falling onto the ‘wrong’ side of tiktok for their content, and seeing their views and shares tick up only to find them full of hate.
Clearly the social media companies have a vested interest in internet drama, and the way they build their platforms only ameliorate it.
So, Am I responsible for feelings of shame someone has because I called out bad behavior? No. Does social media amplify that shame and make it so loud it can drown out all nuance and thought? Yes.
You may well be thinking, this is all very well and good, but what should I do about it?
Are you a user of the internet trying to get someone cancelled? Well, are you trying to change implicit biases or stop a particular behaviour? If the latter, you may have success, and that's what online accountability of the cancel culture variety is best at doing. Otherwise maybe change tack!
Are you a tech worker? Whilst algorithms dictate what we see on social media and are controlled by companies primarily driven by their bottom lines, we will struggle to make any progress on diminishing the amount of hatred online. Distributed, interoperable and smaller tech platforms would remove most of the incentives to play the engagement game, but would require a huge shift in the way we construct our social media tools. Moving towards this would require technologists to both demand more from their companies if they work in social media - join a union! - or to set up new alternatives.