We’ll Cede Our Rights to Make It Stop: A Conversation with Cathy O’Neil

April 26, 2022   •   By Elizabeth DeWolf

SHAME IS UNIVERSALLY EXPERIENCED but seldom discussed. We tend to keep it to ourselves as a way to avoid the discomfort it brings, but, when kept private, shame can feel like a personal, individual burden. And, in turn, this perceived uniqueness — the feeling that one is singularly and supremely flawed gives the emotion its potency.

In her book The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation, mathematician Cathy O’Neil finds that we will accept almost any conditions to avoid feeling shame. In this lens, shame becomes a powerful device that can be wielded for influence. O’Neil investigates how industries and institutions can “manufacture and mine” shame to generate profit or avoid societal responsibility, assigning blame and unworthiness to the exploited, who often quietly accept it in hopes of being rid of it. 

But O’Neil hasn’t written off shame entirely. She is also interested in the potential for those with less power to redirect shame and harness it as a tool for justice. In late February, in the lead up to her book’s release, we discussed the challenges of interpreting the feeling’s utility and the inherent ambiguity in parsing “good shame” from “bad shame.”

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ELIZABETH DEWOLF: In The Shame Machine, you start off by interrogating your own experiences of body shame, which gave you your initial inkling that shame could be a tool for profit. When did you start to conceive of the shame industrial complex” you depict in the book, a broader structural apparatus that links other, seemingly disparate experiences of shame?

CATHY ONEIL: I grappled quite furiously and viscerally with body shame — and shame around failed diets — for years. I thought, if I can have three children and a PhD and work at a job and achieve other goals, but I can’t diet, I can’t be the only one. I wanted to understand why people keep dieting if they know it’s not going to work. And yet, when I try to talk to other people, they feel deeply uncomfortable talking about it.

Then, when I was doing research for my book Weapons of Math Destruction, I interviewed people whose lives were being ruined by powerful algorithms, like teachers who got fired because their school systems relied on a particular score-based teacher evaluation model. I asked them if, when they received their results, they inquired about the method in order to understand why they were fired. The teachers told me similar stories, like, “Oh, they just told me it was math, and I would never understand it.” And they felt forced to accept that answer because they were ashamed of their perceived inability to understand. And I wanted to know, what is that power that makes people stop defending their own financial futures? And I realized the system punching down on these teachers is a form of shame — in this case, math shame. As an observer, I saw that this shame was distracting people from pursuing their rights, and I put that in my pocket. This issue was and is extremely important to me because my life’s work revolves around algorithmic auditing and algorithmic accountability, and I have to understand where the power is.

Then, a couple years later, my older brother was diagnosed with diabetes around the same age my father had been when he was diagnosed, and I wanted to prevent it from happening to me. I spent so much time researching options online, and what I found was an onslaught of shaming content. By the end of a long research session, I noticed I was willing to fall for these ridiculous come-ons from the diet and plastic surgery industries, out of shame. I recognized in myself exactly what I’d seen in those teachers who had been math shamed: a complete inability to analyze what was happening to me and a willingness to cede my rights in order to make it stop.

Even in the case of lifesaving surgeries, you have to jump through so many hoops to get it covered by insurance. Insurance companies use shame — by framing body issues as personal failings rather than medical concerns — as a way of avoiding paying for treatment. And it works, because by that point people will accept or do literally anything to make the feeling go away, the feeling that they’re not worthy, that they’re unlovable and unsalvageable.

Meanwhile, I also participated in Occupy Wall Street, and I realized that, too, was about shame. We were drawing attention to ways these institutions should be ashamed of themselves. And then I thought, why is some shame appropriate while other shame isn’t? I was very confused. And when I get confused, I get obsessed. And I spent the next four or five years thinking about it.

In reference to how weight loss companies exploit people by publishing shady data about their products, you mention: It boils down, as statistics often do, to self-serving choices about what to count.” Is a reliance on sketchy statistics becoming more common in this industry?

Yes, I think so. One of the fun parts of writing this book was taking down bad statistics, which is a longtime hobby of mine. The weight loss industry is absolutely rife with bad statistics. And the problem there, of course, is that they do have actual doctors associated with these studies. They manage to find doctors and scientists who will put their names on them.

We want people to trust science, right? Especially when it comes to vaccines. But when scientists don’t seem to understand what their numbers are saying, it’s difficult to ask for that trust. And the flip side of that is, going back to the teacher value-added model, we’re also shaming people for not being scientists themselves or suggesting they can’t have critiques because they’re not scientists. So we have a trust problem, and it is exacerbated by bad pseudoscience that shames people.

There should be higher scrutiny of things that affect people’s health. But it’s not the only problem. Even if you took away the pseudoscience, you’d still have people who want the claims to be true. We want it to be true that we can pay money and become more attractive, right? But then add in the pseudoscience, and it helps people feel like they are paying for something that is scientifically supported, which feels better. 

You write about shame as a tool or a resource that can be wielded for good and for evil. You classified certain instances of shame as punching up”when people with less power shame people or institutions with more (good)and punching down”when those with power shame those without or with less (evil). But you note how those lines are often blurred. Was it challenging to structure the book in this way while maintaining the necessary nuance?

I needed to create a taxonomy of shame in order to analyze it. I wanted there to be principles, and, to some extent, I really feel that there are. But I grappled with it for years in order to get it as clear as I could. And even so, to your point, it’s not mathematical. There is no axiomatic proof of there being good shame and bad shame.

In many cases, it is obvious whether an act of shaming is punching up or punching down. There is a separate question as to whether it’s going to work, whether the shame will be “successful” in one way or another. But the question of how to know whether an instance of shaming is appropriate was the first question I wanted to answer for myself. I think it comes down to choice and voice. When someone is being shamed for a behavior, can they choose to do the opposite? Even that, by the way, is not that simple. There are structural considerations that affect when somebody really has a choice. And there are some things that some people have a choice about while others don’t. Like smoking cigarettes — some people find it a lot easier to quit than others, and there is a lot of shame around smoking. So choice is already complicated. And then, by voice I mean the ability to defend and explain yourself and the ongoing privilege to publicly demonstrate making better choices in the future.

Nobody ever feels shame is fair when it’s targeted at them. Nobody ever feels like, oh, it’s okay because they were punching up at me. That’s the nature of shame: it really hurts. So it’s difficult to admit that being shamed is sometimes reasonable, especially because, when it works, it always feels like it’s overdone.

You offer online shamingand the much contested cancel culture”as a particularly double-edged example. On the one hand, you mention there are people shamed online who didn’t have much power to begin with and who go on to experience serious repercussions. And then, of course, social media provides unprecedented opportunities for people to speak out against wrongdoing.

With social media, you have a lot of people who kind of have a voice, but not really. But some people online really do have a voice. The New York Times op-ed writers have a voice, for example. It’s pretty undeniable. Those folks need to understand that, because of the position they have been given, they may occasionally be targets for shame and that’s not necessarily inappropriate. Public figures don’t like that. They don’t like the attention when it’s not working for them. But they get the bad with the good.

A lot of people will claim that they’re being shamed inappropriately when actually what’s happening is that there are consequences to what you say. And that’s good. It’s good for people in power to hear reactions. I’m not saying that the critique is always reasonable. And shame never feels reasonable. But it’s not inappropriate. Whether it’s effective is a separate question.

In your chapter about the undeserving” poor, you look at how institutions that we often think of as benevolent, like nonprofits and charitable organizations, can operate using the same logics of shame as the systems they so often critique. What do you think is driving this?

There’s an obsession with metrics, especially short-term metrics. Programs that are intended to help people, and which tend to be funded by lefty organizations, are not usually measured by whether they’re actually good for people.

For the book, I interviewed Duane Townes, who, post-prison, was put into this program run by the Center for Employment Opportunities. The program was supposed to help him acclimate to normal life, but he was picking up garbage on the side of a highway and being paid very little while being overseen by someone who might call his parole officer if he took a break. From his perspective, it felt like an extension of prison.

That’s why I refer to Donna Hicks’s concept of “dignity violations.” Her framework asks us to consider, in a given context: Do people have basic rights? Do people have the right to appeal? Do people have the right to explain themselves? Each failure to meet these standards of dignity is a violation. I think anybody who anthropologically visits these programs and does a survey will find a lot of dignity violations. 

You write about how those in power tend to react to shame with denial, but that acknowledgment of shameful acts can actually bring relief; denying ones responsibility can prolong the pain.

Right. I think what happens is that when we are initially shamed, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance, and it’s very painful. We all want to think of ourselves as good people. Shame makes us see ourselves as unworthy. A lot of us cannot admit when we are wrong because it’s acknowledging that we did something bad. So it’s about cognitive dissonance and denial, especially when we have whole communities of like-minded, defiant people who are willing to be in denial with us. Because then it feels collegial. It actually feels more right to be in denial. And that’s the other thing that social media has provided us so diligently: larger and larger corners of the internet where, whatever our particular cognitive dissonance is, we can find our community.

For public figures, like politicians, their reactions are not simply about wanting to feel good about who they are. Politics is a game. Election cycles make it a short-term contest that people don’t want to lose. People are so engaged with the game that it’s hard for them to imagine admitting a wrong. It is seen as a sign of weakness.

But, for the rest of us, getting over that hurdle of shame really can help. So for the people that can handle it, admitting that you’re wrong, and truly apologizing, and then transcending the shame to the point of saying, “I was wrong for probably a systemic reason. Other people like me are still wrong. So how do we change the system?” That is exciting to think about.

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Elizabeth DeWolf is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Some of her work can be found at elizabethdewolf.com.