Magazine | February 5, 2018, Issue

The Shame Game

On January 11, television host Megyn Kelly took a swift jab at the proverbial Internet hornet’s nest with a simple comment on her morning show: “Some of us want to be shamed!”

Kelly was referring to “fat-shaming,” claiming that when it comes to staying skinny, a little outside derision and mockery often does the trick. This was a very silly thing for Kelly to say, for approximately 1,000 reasons, but I’ll stick to the most important one. It is a truth every human male has known for at least 170,000 years — since the first time, as earnest scientists tell us, that humans decided to don those first scanty scraps of animal skin we now call clothes. That simple truth, constant throughout eternity, is this: When a woman asks you whether she looks fat in her dress, the answer is always a resounding no.

In other words, deep down, no one really wants to be fat-shamed. Kelly later apologized for her “jaw-dropping” remarks — that’s from the New York Post — and the Internet outrage cycle quickly shuffled on to other chunks of low-hanging fruit, as it tends to do. But the Kelly fat-shaming debacle got me thinking about shaming in general. America, you see, is in the midst of a shaming obsession.

Today, we don’t “criticize” or “judge” or “chide” or “castigate” or “nitpick.” We “shame.” As a term, “shaming” has swiftly charged into the national vocabulary — including the vocabulary of yours truly, to my infinite shame.

“Shaming” signifies more than simple opprobrium or judgment. It also implies that such opprobrium or judgment is ultimately wrong or unfair. Along with fat-shaming, our great nation is reportedly plagued with slut-shaming, body-shaming, tattoo-shaming, and mommy-shaming. If you believe recent reports, even babies can be shamed. On the Internet, columnist-shaming is also wildly popular, which is downright baffling to me, given that I am never, ever, ever wrong.

Food-shaming! Feelings-shaming! Bad monograms! Bad T-shirts! Bad carbon footprints and bad SUVs! Shaming surrounds us, we are told; today, we are all Hester Prynne.

Given our culture’s wild embrace of shamelessness in general, from celebrities to politicians, this shaming obsession is all rather weird, but whatever. I’m sure some plucky social-science Ph.D. candidate from Harvard could write a fascinating dissertation on this striking cultural contradiction — but then, of course, that poor soul would promptly get raked over the social-media coals for shaming the shameless. (As an aside, I suspect this is why academia churns out jolly dissertations like “Am I a Man, or Am I a Muppet: A Tour through the Subversive Gender Identities of Sometimes-Taxpayer-Subsidized Puppet Television Stars” instead.)

Curious about the origins of the shaming craze, I did a quick search on Google Trends, discovering that the term spiked — a spouting Vesuvius in chart form — in October of 2012. What happened on that particular date? I’m glad you asked, but please brace yourself, for the answer lies in the rise of an Internet meme involving an almost universally well-loved but often wildly clueless and messy household companion. I’m speaking, of course, of “dog-shaming.”

In case you’re wondering, dog-shaming involves taking a picture of your dog next to a sign describing something bad it has done. Here’s one sign, in front of a shifty-looking German shepherd: “I jumped into a stranger’s car and stole a hamburger from someone’s hands.” Another, hung around the neck of a melancholy black pup: “I have eaten so many Legos, I could poop a Star Wars ship.” My personal favorite features a wildly cheerful-looking golden retriever, beaming in that oblivious doggy way: “I opened the door and let a robber in.” You get the idea. Because America is an amazing country filled with an indefatigable capitalist spirit, dog-shaming calendars are now available for purchase, likely at a retailer near you.

Back in 2013, ahead-of-his-time Slate writer Mark Peters shamed the shaming craze, arguing that the Great American Shaming Proliferation was “stretching a useful word to the point of meaninglessness. . . . We really should restrain ourselves from mindlessly slapping this label on every single thing in the world that makes us feel bad.” Peters helpfully traced the history of shaming from before Shakespeare — “The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of shaming as a noun going back to the 1300s” — to the rise of “slut-shaming” in 2006.

“Once a buzzword is out of the barn,” Peters wrote, “it’s not likely to go back in.” No kidding! Five years later, America’s shaming craze is going strong. “We are at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming,” declares Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Oh, no. Oh dear.

Well, as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, you might as well join ’em. With that in mind, let’s unite the nation like never before, drawing up a universally agreed-upon list of things that should always be shamed. No, really! Imagine, for instance, that there are no slow drivers in the left lane. It’s easy if you try. Now for some additional clear-cut shame-worthy offenses: watching a movie on your iPad on an airplane with the sound on and no headphones; failing to return your shopping cart to the cart corral at Target; restaurants’ calling on the day of a long-planned reservation and leaving a message demanding that you call them back to confirm your reservation, which is basically like having to make the same reservation all over again; wearing shirts that have swear words on them in giant-sized fonts to locations frequented by young children, so that said young children can learn their first swear word and sometimes read it out loud to their parents.

These are just a few; together, I’m sure, we can come up with more. After all, it’s the American way! And if we fail, well, you know the drill: Shame on us. We should all be ashamed.

Heather Wilhelm is a National Review Online columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.

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