The shame game: humiliation in the digital age

2014 was the year of celebrity hacks, Twitter mobs and doxxing rape victims. Can we survive the ugly new era of public shaming?

Photo, Vladimir Serov/Blend Images/Corbis.

Photo, Vladimir Serov/Blend Images/Corbis.

When Glen Canning* speaks at high schools, he comes prepared with an array of photos. Most are of his daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons — here she is, hugging a dog; look, you can see how much she loved art. Once he senses that his audience is paying attention, Canning starts to talk about the girl in the pictures. He tells them her name. Chances are they know it. When she was 15, he says, she went to a party, where she was the victim of an alleged gang rape; one of the perpetrators took a photo of the incident and passed it around to a friend, then a friend of a friend, then a friend of a friend of a friend. Before long, it seemed like everyone had seen the picture. They called her a slut. They sent her nasty texts. They mocked and harassed her, in person and online. In April 2013, a year and a half after that party, Rehtaeh took her own life.

Sometimes, he follows up with another image, a stock photo of a little boy beating the heck out of another kid. “This was me in grade 7,” he says of the kid being hit. “I got beat up and I’d be crying, but [when I went home], I was safe.” He swaps that shot for another one, the same photo of the two boys repeated a thousand times over. “This is someone who gets beat up today,” he says. When he finishes speaking, most of the time, the teachers tell him they’ve never seen the student body so quiet.

For Canning, these visits are essential. They’re a chance to be on the front lines, to confront his daughter’s death at a source, if not the source. The alleged assault may have been the core of her trauma, but the events that followed, in which a rape victim became a target of viral ridicule, not only reopened that wound but re-inflicted it, over and over. “I don’t understand where the meanness comes from,” Canning says. He’s visiting Toronto from Nova Scotia, on a kind of informal speaking tour. The next day, he’ll appear at the White Ribbon Campaign’s What Makes a Man conference. “Maybe it has to do with the fact that they don’t have to look at someone’s face and see the broken look and the tears and the anguish. It brings out something in people.”

Canning’s daughter is a recent, heartbreaking example of online humiliation as entertainment, but she’s not the first. Shame is the viral infection of our digital age. We see it with hacked intimate photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Gabrielle Union; with teens being outed by spying college roommates; with revenge porn, where private sexual images are posted (usually by exes) without consent; and with jeering tabloid spreads featuring paparazzi shots of celebs without makeup. We see it in the aftermath of Rolling Stone‘s collapsing article about campus rape at University of Virginia, when conservative blogger Charles Johnson published the full name and photograph of Jackie, the woman at the centre of the story whom he calls “rape-obsessed.” (The photo is in fact of another woman, now suing Johnson.)

In an era when a photo can pass through an entire friend network a moment after it’s taken and a tweet can reach millions in a millisecond, mass humiliation has become as simple and effortless as sneezing. And we are in the middle of an epidemic. Experts are starting to understand what shame does to a person — what we’ve yet to figure out is how to contain it.

girl texting on phone or sending photos

Photo, Shutterstock.

Every epidemic needs a Patient Zero. And in a speech delivered at the Forbes 30 Under 30 conference last October — her first-ever public address — Monica Lewinsky cast herself in that role. She was, she told the crowd, “the first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the internet.”

In 1998, when the world discovered that Lewinsky, then 24, had engaged in an affair with Bill Clinton, digital culture was in its infancy. But the news broke on the Drudge Report, a gossipy political website, and forms of proto-social media — bulletin boards, chat rooms — were multiplying like mushrooms. They emerged just in time to broadcast the details of the Starr Report, an investigation into Clinton’s professional and personal dealings. Among the revelations were the salacious minutiae of the sexual relationship between the then president of the United States and Lewinsky, a former White House intern. The impact was stunning, and, thanks to the internet, the story was everywhere.

Even as Clinton was impeached, his transgressions were met with a boys-will-be-boys shrug: Fun-loving Bubba from Arkansas always did have a weakness for the fairer sex.  Lewinsky, on the other hand, was cast as a dim-witted floozy who might as well have worn a scarlet A on her stained blue dress. Her actions may have amounted to little more than a youthful error in judgment, but the sexual nature of that error, coming from a woman, was unacceptable. Lewinsky quickly became one of the most recognizable punchlines of the ’90s, cannon fodder for late-night talk shows and a pariah in her professional life. Despite her estimable qualifications, she couldn’t get a job. As she wrote in an essay for Vanity Fair last June, “because of what potential employers so tactfully referred to as my ‘history,’ I was never ‘quite right’ for the position.” Media outlets channelled their inner schoolyard bullies for a relentless barrage of personal attacks, condemning her morals and tearing her appearance to shreds.

She reflected on that experience in her Forbes speech. “When I ask myself how best to describe how the last 16 years has felt,” she said, “I always come back to that word: shame.” Now, after a protracted absence from public life — and inspired by a slew of high-profile incidents of lives ruined by mob-style online shaming — she’s speaking out against “a ‘culture of humiliation’ that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others.” Because as Lewinsky well knows, there’s only so much shame a person is built to take. digital dots If you’ve felt shame — and really, who among us hasn’t? — then you’ll be familiar with its physical characteristics: a flushed face, the sound of your heart pounding in your ears, cold sweats, a sense of acid doom in the pit of your stomach. In the hierarchy of powerful, all-consuming emotions, shame is right up there. For that reason, scientists are now trying to understand it better.

In late 2013, two researchers from the University of Amsterdam published a study in Social Neuroscience titled “Humiliation as an intense emotional experience.” The scientists asked dozens of people to read stories and imagine themselves in the scenarios depicted; then they analyzed their subjects’ neurological responses to humiliation, anger and happiness. They used electroencephalograms (EEGs) to obtain a quantitative measure of the relative brain activity generated by each emotion. According to their findings, humiliation — shame, in a public context — is significantly more intense, emotionally speaking, than happiness or anger.

That may have something to do with the source of those emotions. Joy, sadness, anger and fear are triggered by external stimuli: the death of a loved one, for example, or a shadowy figure in a dark alley. Shame, on the other hand, is self-referential. As Dr. Annette Bruhl, a researcher in the Behavioural and Clinical Neurosciences Institute at the University of Cambridge, explains, it is “evoked by, or directed at, something within your own person,” she says.  And unlike guilt, which is typically linked to a particular behaviour, shame is comprehensive, rooted in the essence of self. “You can apologize for something and maybe get rid of the guilt,” says Bruhl, “but you can’t apologize for what you are.”

That makes shame — especially as it plays out in a digitally powered feedback loop — a very effective weapon. It’s a popular choice for those looking to take down celebrities and powerful figures, whose rise and dramatic fall plays out in the coliseum of public life. Think, for instance, of the cruel responses to Renée Zellweger’s altered appearance at the Elle Women in Hollywood awards last October. The website Gawker ran a series of photos of the actor (who, many speculated, had undergone cosmetic surgery), then cracked “It’s always nice to meet new people, even if they’re old friends.” Jon Ronson explores this phenomenon of mortification by the masses in his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The new mode of shaming, Ronson says, “tells us that our worst nightmares are true. People get cast out into the wilderness.”

Vulnerability is certainly key in these interactions. Bruhl, whose background is German, says that in her native tongue, a word for shame — die Scham — is also used as slang for the genitals. At the root of the emotion, she says, is “being naked, being visible to others in a very weak situation.”

Teens, achingly aware of visibility, vulnerability and imbalances of power, are developmentally susceptible to both shaming and being shamed. “As youth enter adolescence and create their own identities independent of their parents, their strongest motivation is to have friends and belong in a peer group,” explains Dr. Debra Pepler, a professor of psychology at Toronto’s York University who specializes in aggression, bullying and violence among children and adolescents. “When these relationships go awry, it hits to the core of the developmental tasks — which are to develop an identity and a strong sense of who they are and where they stand.”

Too often, the victims of shaming turn into cautionary tales for other victims. Canning saw this first-hand. His daughter, he says, had heard about another girl who’d allegedly been sexually assaulted by the same boy. When Rehtaeh tried to get in touch with her, he recalls, “the girl said, ‘After what happened to you, I don’t want to say anything.’ That’s the big message right there.”

Shaming and bullying are as old as time, but Canning maintains that the internet has made these practices more insidious and toxic. Pepler agrees. Powers of amplification aside, when an electronic medium is involved, she says, the person inflicting pain is unable to see any of “the cues and the brain processes that have been developed over millennia, since the beginning of humanity, to help us communicate with others, to help us signal distress and discomfort.” Our brains are designed to work best when we’re interacting face to face. Says Pepler, “What’s now occurring requires much more cognitive processing.”

That level of cognitive processing is difficult enough for adults — for teens, whose hormone-flooded brains are still being formed, it’s nearly impossible. But the result is the same: Digital culture destroys our ability to empathize, transforming an act that would be unthinkable in real life into a bit of online fun. Effectively, it lays the groundwork for people to behave like monsters.

girl on laptop

Photo, Shutterstock.

Last June, Trish Kelly won the most votes in her party’s race to nominate candidates for the Vancouver park board. An artist and grassroots activist in her late 30s, Kelly had gone through a rigorous vetting process, filling out a 35-page survey and sitting through in-depth interviews. She made it clear that she had no qualms about her past work, which includes burlesque, contributions to erotica collections, and sex-positive performance pieces. Her party, Vision Vancouver, assured her they had her back.

Less than a month after the initial nominations, however, Kelly withdrew her candidacy. A right-wing blogger dug up a decade-old video of a monologue from a Fringe play in which Kelly talks frankly about masturbation. Vision Vancouver became concerned that debates over Kelly’s conduct would hijack the election and undermine their party as a whole. Kelly stepped down, but she didn’t go quietly. “You can tell me I can’t have this conversation within the confines of an election campaign, but I won’t be a silent woman,” she says. In the wake of the debacle, Kelly wrote op-eds and ran workshops to continue the public discussion about sexism, sexuality and power dynamics in politics. Not only did her voice drown out those who had attempted to shame her, it wound up dominating media coverage of the Vancouver election.

It’s a compelling example of how to confront humiliation head-on. Ronson, who’s spent a lot of time with disgraced former luminaries, contends that Kelly was able to thwart shame because she was never truly ashamed. But for the average target of a public shaming, confrontation is less crucial than simply surviving. Just talking about what’s happened can be anathema for victims, says Annette Bruhl, because shame is a taboo emotion. “People say, ‘I’m happy,’ ‘I’m sad,’ ‘I’m afraid,’ but saying ‘I’m ashamed’ is rare. Shame is often thought to be why people don’t seek help. Because it’s this small, vulnerable feeling, talking about it is very difficult.”

For that reason, both Canning and Pepler insist that, in addition to providing accessible support for victims, the only way to shift our culture of humiliation is to attack the infection at its origin. Pepler, who runs the online bullying prevention network PrevNet with a colleague, says a student once told her, “Schools need to be a place where we learn to be human.” She was deeply affected by the comment. “We focus so exclusively on academic subjects that we forget that schools have a responsibility for social and emotional development as well,” Pepler says. For her, that means education around sensitivity and advocacy for both students and teachers.

“I still believe it starts with young people,” says Canning. He maintains that we need a mass movement to recalibrate our collective moral code, along the lines of what Mothers Against Drunk Driving accomplished in the ’80s. “They changed the entire conversation. They made it so that if someone went to a bar and had two beers and was walking out to their car, people would be like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ No one feels sorry for a drunk driver. We have to start doing that with people who shame victims. How could you do something so mean? How could you ever say something like that?”

This is why Canning spends so much time in schools. He wants to show youth that their words and actions have weight, that what seems like a flippant insult can impose the burden of tremendous shame. He’s driven by the idea that his daughter’s face will connect with his audience, that her name will resonate, that her story will help facilitate a zero-tolerance policy around victim-blaming and violence. Each time Canning stands in front of an auditorium of students, speaking directly to them, showing them photos of a young woman who could be their classmate, he’s one step closer to ensuring his daughter is remembered as a person, not just a statistic. And he’s one step closer to reminding us all how to be human.

*A publication ban on the Rehtaeh Parsons case was loosened on December 17, allowing us to add the names of Rehtaeh and her father, Glen Canning, to this story.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.