Shame has existed since the first humans walked the Earth, according to mathematician and journalist Cathy O’Neil. But lately its evolutionary function – to encourage pro-social behavior by enforcing norms that help sustain societies – has been hijacked by parties seeking profit and power, O’Neil contends.
Efforts to shift blame away from institutions and toward individuals sabotage shame’s original mission, O’Neil explains in her new book, “The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation.”
Instead of reinforcing fairness and justice to reengage people with their communities, shame “has been weaponized by corporations to profit and by institutions to maintain power.” Usually, she said, “that’s being done in a bullying, punching down shame kind of way.”
By recognizing and confronting the “shame machine” wherever it operates, O’Neil said she hopes we can unite to “punch up” at the real sources of the problem.