“You Ought To Be Protected”: On Shaming

2012 iHeartRadio Music Festival - Day 1 - Press Room

Dear readers,

I’m back. I’ve gone, and returned, before. But I’m really feeling it this time. To put it simply: I need this blog to live. Intellectually speaking, I need it in order to breathe. So happy 2014, everyone! Around here, things are about to get interesting.

Here at The Kugelmass Episodes, we continue to play your requests. Today’s post is about shame.

I’m an Old Testament kind of guy
I like my coffee black, and my parole denied
The Dismemberment Plan

Well, it should come as no surprise that I’m a “guilt, not shame” kind of guy. I’m even on the same side as longtime Kugelmass Episodes vexation Dr. Brene Brown:

[Caption: Shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown says shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression. Guilt, however, is not. Find out why she says there’s such a big difference between shame and guilt.]

Today’s question comes from alert reader tomemos, who asked:

Dear Internet Left, does anyone else fear that the term “shaming,” as in “slut-shaming”—while a really useful shorthand that is used in a productive way most of the time—is also sometimes getting abused as a “thought-terminating cliche” to shut down discussion entirely? During the whole Miley Cyrus flap, it seemed like the term “slut-shaming” was being applied not just to those who criticized her dance as immoral or disgusting but also to those who suggested that she was being objectified, as though objectification were no longer a valid concept. And recently, the term “tone-shaming” sometimes seems to suggest that discussions or questions about rhetorical effectiveness are in themselves somehow bourgeois or reactionary. When “shaming” is used in an extreme way like this, it seems to totally dismiss the idea that the personal is also political, which I think is true and worth keeping in sight. I know some will disagree with my examples or even my whole premise, but I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts.

…I think there’s a lot of use to the term “privilege”–as a privileged guy it’s helped me step back and listen way more than I used to–but I also agree that it’s sometimes used in place of thought rather than to encourage thought. Originally, before I decided it would make this post too long, I was going to discuss that word here, and specifically a bizarre column where a pro-Obama columnist accused liberal critics of the Obamacare website problems as being “privileged.” When the term “privilege” is being used to defend those in power against critiques on behalf of those in need, that’s an abuse of the term.

…[By “extreme,”] I meant something capturing “hair-trigger” or “over-applied.” I guess I should define what I take the term to mean, so I can say what would constitute an incorrect use: I take “shaming” to mean saying that a certain activity is bad in itself, either acknowledgedly because it is disapproved of by the elites (“you’ll never get a job that way!”) or not acknowledgedly (“that’s disgusting!”), but playing into elite hands either way. So for instance, when someone calls Kim Kardashian a whore for making a sex tape, that’s slut-shaming, because it presumes that sex for fame or sex for money is bad, not making an argument but simply relying on the good ol’ virgin/whore dichotomy. On the other hand, I thought Sinead O’Connor’s letter to Miley Cyrus was well-considered, and yet it got called “slut-shaming” too, which seems to expand the “shaming” category into “making any speech against [x]”; that seems over-applied, to me.

…My ambivalence about the Potter-Schuman flap influenced this post, as I guess might have been obvious. I don’t mean I view the two sides equally; Schuman is clearly in the right and I was disappointed to find that Tenured Radical (whom I don’t read regularly) was using the “radical” name with no right to it. But I thought that the accusations of “tone shaming” against Potter were sometimes on point and sometimes not. When Potter complains about profanity, or anger in general, on the grounds that it will take someone out of the job market, that’s pretty clearly tone-shaming (in past years it would have been called concern trolling). But when she says that criticizing UC Riverside based on speculation (about what caused the late MLA invites) makes Schuman’s argument less effective, that to me seems like a substantive critique, not to be dismissed as just shaming. More broadly, in comments people seemed to be reacting as though managing one’s tone for the greatest rhetorical effectiveness is *never* important, and suggesting that one do so is *always* working on the side of The Man. That seems to me to be an excuse not to actually engage with people who aren’t already on our side.

Tomemos get this very right, even if we disagree about specific cases: shaming involves thinking something is morally harmful — inherently bad — but acting as if it is objectively harmful. 

Another litmus test goes like this: if the attack shifts the argument away from the whole, to focus on a single aspect, it is probably shaming. For example, “I’m not going to deal with her argument, although it is  deeply flawed. I simply wonder if she needed to proclaim her views in such a brash, thoughtless way…”.

Or: “‘Wrecking Ball,’ a dull but inoffensive bit of modern pop tripe, is now a monster hit thanks to the video in which Cyrus licks sledgehammers with evident pleasure…”

The various kinds of shaming — tone-shaming, slut-shaming, and ad hominem shaming (Schuman’s favorite) — differ in numerous, obvious ways. But they do have a common feature. Invariably, they produce “kettle logic,” a term originally coined by Sigmund Freud:

The term “kettle logic” refers to Freud’s mention of the defensive tactics engaged by a neighbor who had borrowed a kettle and was accused of having returned it with a hole. Freud mentions this tale in his Interpretation of Dreams (Traumdeutung, 1899) and also in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (Der Witz un seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, 1905). The context of it being mentioned relates to Freud’s interpretation of a dream of July 23-24, 1895. The dream occurs after his conversation with his fellow physician Otto regarding Freud’s treatment of Irma. In it he was trying to exculpate himself of any failure associated with her treatment. In the dream, he argued that it was her own fault that she was ill because she failed to follow Freud’s advice. He argued that her pains were organic in nature, and did not relate to Freud’s treatment at all. He argued additionally that the pains were caused by the fact that she was a widow, and so had nothing to do with his treatment. And finally, he argued that her pains were caused by a dirty syringe administered to her by another person. The arguments were—taken together—inconsistent. “Instead of the ‘and’ in my dream,” Freud mentions, “I should have put an ‘either/or’, if I wanted to avoid being accused of nonsense.”

(Source: http://www.harris-greenwell.com/HGS/FreudsKettleLogic.)

In shaming, kettle logic consists in warning the “shameful” person that something bad will happen to them, with the caveat that if this bad thing doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter, because what they’re doing is still wrong.

That’s not logic; it’s intimidation. It’s an attempt to present as many frightening scenarios as possible, until the other person is suitably terrified, and ceases and desists.

1. Tone-shaming. Where there’s tone-shaming, there are threats about one’s job. We saw this in the recent Potter-Schuman debate, where Potter told Schuman that Schuman was putting her own professional career at risk by writing inflammatory, colorful blog posts. We can’t know for sure, but this seems far-fetched. Schuman did not suddenly become unemployed. The threat, though, is pervasive, and I’ve received many versions of it myself.

Here’s Potter:

I can’t believe that she isn’t a little more cautious about attacking people in public without getting their side of the story, given that she is a professional journalist. And yes, it is great to say whatever the fuck you want: it’s just not always the right thing to do.

This leads me to one of the unexplored but fascinating topics in contemporary academia: chronic rage, and the ways that digital media now allows us to express our rage without having to deal with actual people. Furthermore, people put their anger out there with the misguided idea that only a few close and sympathetic friends are paying attention, when in fact there are hundreds, or thousands, of potential readers who are, by accident, forming an opinion about people based on their hostile posts.

Potter deliberately leaves ambiguous whether writing angry is “not always the right thing to do” because it’s bad for Schuman, or because it’s bad for the world:

What worries me is that any number of people who have every reason to be happy about how their lives turned out — they made a good transition to non-academic work, they have tenure-track or tenured jobs themselves — continue to encourage generations of graduate students to be enraged that the job market of the 1960s no longer exists, and to express that rage in ways that immediately call other people’s reputations into question.

This, however, is almost at the end of the article, and depends on the accumulation of questionable logic and phony concern that precedes it. Its implicit claims, after all, might not be true. Graduate student rage might not be the result of freelance journalism. Bloggers like Schuman might not have much power to ruin reputations (of upstanding people, anyhow). So Potter fortifies these weak “sociological” diagnoses by feigning concern for Schuman, and feigning alarm over the supposed impact of the Internet on etiquette.

2. Slut-shaming. The same thing happens in the letter from Sinead O’Connor to Miley Cyrus, except this time, the spectral threat is not unemployment, but a whole gamut of disasters, from being underestimated, to feeling lonely, to being raped. O’Connor writes,

…I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos. It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether its the music business or yourself doing the pimping.

…The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted … and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.

…Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals, a distressing majority of whom work in the music industry and it’s associated media.

Notice all of O’Connor’s definitive predictions: You will obscure your talent. You will find yourself very alone. You ought to be protected as a precious young lady…. this is a dangerous world. 

Yet none of these predictions require the slightest response, from Miley, because the real victims here are her listeners: “Whether we like it or not, us females in the industry are role models and as such we have to be extremely careful what messages we send to other women.” So even if Miley’s talent is all anyone remembers, fifty years from now, and she never gets raped or lonely or sent to rehab, “Wrecking Ball” is ultimately still just as immoral, because it makes Sinead uncomfortable. No wonder she’d rather be perceived as “motherly” than as — a gigantic square. She even dropped the old line about what seems “cool,” but is totally not cool. Sinead O’Connor, folks! Buy her latest album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)! 

(I’m not kidding. That’s the actual title.)


I didn’t have a big problem with “Wrecking Ball.” On an aesthetic level, I didn’t like it, and didn’t even make it through the whole video. But I certainly don’t think it encouraged prostitution. I don’t even think its significance was that it objectified her. Yes, it objectified her, but compared to something like America’s Next Top Model, it’s downright wholesome.

To me, what was actually more insidious was the assumption that I was supposed to care whether or not Miley was making a brilliant career move. This came up in tomemos’s thread, naturally. This year, the same people who praised Inside Llewyn Davis for being about uncompromising artistry — in fact, it was just boring — praised Miley for her Machiavellian genius at brokering compromise. I am, what, supposed to be proud of her? Or, like, impressed? “Wrecking Ball” wouldn’t even be smart if she wasn’t Hannah Montana, and that original brilliant career move was dreamt up for her, by someone else.

You know what I am just dying to objectify? The work itself. Miley’s music video — is it good art? If so, and it’s sexy, so much the better. Sadly, it was just mildly shocking, like a sex tape made by an angsty, chalk-based alien. Schuman’s blog post — did it create consequences for UCR’s irresponsible behavior? Yes; well then, in that case, the rest doesn’t particularly matter, unless it also caused six deaths, or a Chilean earthquake, or something.

When we talk about something like the HUAC blacklist, we can talk about real-world consequences. Senator McCarthy cost people their jobs, their reputations, and in some cases, their lives. The harm can be measured, at least to a certain depth; I don’t have to resort to describing him, or his blacklist, as “mean.” He wasn’t just mean. He was, and is, guilty.

At the same time, his meanness was part of the story. McCarthy was a vicious, unscrupulous, paranoid bully, and those qualities came through in the hearings, and will always matter to any evaluation of HUAC’s rise and fall. Tone, objectification, and privilege aren’t “besides the point,” but they are part of larger wholes. Tomemos is right that how something is written matters quite a lot, but in ways that are unique to that text, medium, and moment. We can only know (for sure) how something like explicit sex appeal (or an inflammatory tone) mattered later, after the fact.

There are a lot of good artists out there. I’d rather keep discovering their music than bother trying to scare Miley into changing hers. I thought about doing that, but then — as the inimitable Aldous Snow put it — I kind of just went on living on my life.