Social media allows individuals to explore feelings about unwanted behavior in both themselves and others.
In Society of Shame by Jane Roper, a woman’s world falls apart after she arrives home early from a work trip to discover her garage on fire, her US Senate candidate husband hurrying to dress and conceal an affair. Topping off the bad day, photos focus on a menstrual stain on Kathleen Held’s pants. The photograph goes viral, and women become outraged that a period accident captures more attention than a husband’s infidelity. Activists, including Kathleen’s young daughter, embrace the new #StopPeriodShaming movement. Kathleen, annoyed after her husband expresses concern about damage for his campaign, moves out of the house and gives her daughter permission to participate.
Leaving home, Kathleen steals an elegant invitation from a secret Society of Shame, intended for her husband. All members, shamed over social media for various offenses, hope to restore confidence and reinvent themselves, and Kathleen wonders, “If she was a stronger, more fulfilled version of herself, maybe her marriage wouldn’t have fallen apart.” Maybe she would have published the book she had written years earlier.
Shame can be about self-evaluation and social-evaluation, according to philosopher James Laing, who urges rejection of “the widespread assumption that the other-oriented dimension of shame is best understood primarily terms of our concern with the way we appear to others.” He instead urges treating “shame as manifesting our desire primarily for interpersonal connection.” Shamefulness, he maintains, can be used for merited avoidance or rejection.
But the society in Roper's book turns to shame for the sole purpose of winning attention by any means necessary. The society’s founder orchestrates makeovers, activities and social-media messaging to repair reputations. For Kathleen, that means leaning in to support the new cause while emerging from the most embarrassing and painful moment of her life. Reluctance transforms into reflection and passion, as Kathleen, who decides to go by Kat, realizes that women “were bound together, all of them by this strange and mysterious biological process they shared, with its inconveniences and embarrassments and messes; its power to bring relief (not pregnant!) and heartbreak (not pregnant); the thresholds it marked between child and adult, youth and middle age.”
With new clothes and haircut, Kat becomes an instant celebrity, juggling television appearances, newspaper interviews and a book contract. The society cheers, advising her to “Steer into the swerve.” A quiet member of the group urges Kathleen to enjoy the new popularity, but to “Keep telling the truth.” She finds an agent, and a major publisher insists on a ghostwriter, preferring that the author stay busy with promotion and social-media.
Of course, social media as a tool can build and destroy reputations. Users take advantage of any connection or problem to advance agendas. Interactions are staged, publicized, with daily activities becoming less genuine. Frustrated, the husband plants a story that Kathleen never cared for the family dog, and activists attack her for living in an illegal Airbnb. Danica, organizer of the Society of Shame, stages a bizarre attack at a book announcement party for Kathleen and then expects that the two pretend to have no relationship at all. Kathleen’s daughter accuses her mom of promoting the movement “all for herself.”
Weary, Kat frets about everyone expecting her to be "so perfect all the time," and critics abound on the internet. “Maybe it distracted them from their own faults and hypocrisies to constantly point out hers. Why confront your own mistakes when you can attack other people’s instead?” Kathleen's husband long prioritized his role as politician in their family life, and she repeats those errors, expressing disappointment that the child fails to understand “how complex it was to be a public figure and a spokesperson for a cause.”
The plotting and charades become overwhelming and Kathleen abruptly stops obsessing over what others think. “People I don’t know or even particularly like. The thing we’re all doing here. Controlling narratives and changing conversations and getting back on top instead of trying to actually – I don’t know, grow.”
Calm people, those who refuse to express anger and insist on playing fair, rarely attract as much public attention as do the outrage-makers. A low profile on social media can be priceless.
The book captures the extreme language and emotions of our time, reflecting how social media can instigate divisions with no resolution intended. “Everywhere we look, we see values clashing and tempers rising, in ways that seem frenzied, aimless, and cruel,” suggests a review posted by the Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences of How to Do Things With Emotions: The Morality of Anger and Shame Across Cultures by Owen Flanagan. “At the same time, we witness political leaders and others who lack any sense of shame, even as they display carelessness with the truth and the common good.” People can control and adjust emotions, and “Flanagan makes a passionate case for tuning down anger and tuning up shame," while demonstrating "how cultures around the world can show us how to perform these emotions better.”
Forms of shame leading to revenge, anger or harm to others are destructive, the review concludes. Other forms “can protect positive values, including courage, kindness, and honesty.” As suggested by Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, thoughtful and socializing shame starting at a young age, “can promote moral progress where undisciplined anger cannot.”
Anger can strengthen an opponent's resolve.