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Group Shame

 

Dear Blog readers,

 

I’m kind of stuck in my new book about shame, so at the advice of my BFF Laura I’m writing a good old fashioned blog post  – or perhaps many! – to try to get through some sticky topics.

I hope it helps! And I know you all are rooting for me, and that definitely helps.

I’ll start with the reasons this is a hard question, then an example of when it happens, and I’ll finish with why it matters to me.

 

Love,

Cathy

 


 

When we think about shame, we almost always consider the individual experience. I want to know how to talk about the group experience instead. I’m stuck on how exactly to do it.

So the question of today is, how does one make the transition between the language of the individual experience to the language of a group experience?

I’ll first list the reasons that we’re more comfortable talking about the individual experience:

  • We each experience shame individually, so we can talk about that as our own experience. We are therefore less willing, out of modesty or just a sense of being factual, to talk about what “people like us” have experienced.
  • Psychology and psychiatry as fields focus on shame of the individual, often in extreme cases involving childhood abuse or neglect, so they become idiosyncratic narratives that couldn’t possibly be what everyone experiences.
  • We are just used to hearing individual narratives, often about tragic heroes and their journey. Those stories obviously become archetypes for something that we can aspire to, but they don’t seem ever to become truly shared, in part because they’re so epic.

Next, the reasons we absolutely must have a concept of group shame:

  • Shame is social. There’s no such thing as shame outside the group experience. Shame is experienced with respect to a norm, and a norm is something that exists in the framework of a group.
  • In some sense, I can restate the above by saying, the individual experience of shame, for each person in a group that shares such a norm, is just a variation on a larger theme. Each person in the group will experience the shame associated to a group norm somewhat differently, but all of their experiences together will comprise the group experience of shame, and we cannot understand the norm without understanding the individual experiences as a group.

 


 

When norms change, this concept of group shame is particularly interesting. Consider the #MeToo movement. It’s an example of a shifting norm, where certain types of behaviors, which were kept quiet even though they were technically unacceptable, have become something that we discuss openly.

The discussion is a mess, obviously, because we haven’t yet come to any sort of agreement on what the border of acceptability really is yet (I have way more to say on this but I’ll put it that way for now to avoid changing the entire point of this blogpost).

And yet it’s pretty clear that there’s an associated group shame that is a direct consequence of the rise of #MeToo, namely the group shame being felt by men who feel newly scrutinized by the shifting norm. And to be clear, I’m seeing very different reactions by different men who have had different kinds of experiences. It’s fair to say that the men who should be feeling the most amount of shame probably aren’t the ones who are, for example.

But the reason I brought up this example is that, as a group, it’s really happening. There are reactions, and they run the gamut from deep, abiding shame to defensive outrage to non-defensive activism, which probably most of you wouldn’t recognize as shame at all.

 


 

Why bother talking about group shame? I’m convinced that, depending on the type of shame, we can more or less predict what will happen with that shame at the level of social experience.

I’ll go into my taxonomy of shame in another blog post, but for now I’ll just present my list of types: punching down, punching up, and punching nowhere.

In the case of punching down shame, which you can think of as bullying shame, the result of group shame will be exploitative, whether it’s getting fat people to join Weight Watchers (i.e. profiting) or silencing rape victims in the military (i.e. maintaining power).

Maybe the most important thing about group shame is that, statistically at least, it works really well. Fat people keep feeling shamed about their bodies and they keep diligently signing up to pay for a solution that won’t work. Assault victims know they will not be heard.

The question then becomes, what has to change for that dynamic to change? Or to make things really explicit, what would need to change to make the weight loss industry unprofitable? For the military to actually address the problem of rape and sexual assault?

In some sense I already know the answer: the underlying norm itself needs to change. But that’s too abstract. I want to talk about it as the group dynamic itself changing, which of course ends up being the individuals in the group experiencing changes.

 


 

Comments/ questions welcome!

Categories: Uncategorized

Shame Machine: an owner’s manual

Friends, I’m writing today to announce that I’m hard at work on a new book, called:

 

Shame Machine

an owner’s manual

 

It’s once again being written with my editor Amanda Cook at the publisher Crown Random House, just like Weapons of Math Destruction. The tentative release date is January 2021, after the next presidential election.

The idea of the book is to understand shame as a social mechanism. When, why, and how do we shame each other? Who profits from shame? Who maintains power or gains power through shame? When is shame valid, and when is it simply mean and cruel? How is shame delivered in the age of big data?

I come to these questions because of the proliferation shame-based interactions and strategies in politics but also interpersonally; from my experience of getting my insurance company to pay for bariatric surgery, to observing people interacting viciously on Twitter, to hearing how teachers were unfairly scored with the value-added model, it seems like shame is the informal glue that holds our system together. So naturally I started nerding out bigtime.

Shame Machine is a culmination of quite a bit of thinking and writing, research and personal development that I’ve been busy with for the last couple of years. Readers of my blog will have noticed that I’ve been posting a lot less, and this is why. Where I tried out a bunch of ideas for Weapons on this blog, and heard back from you guys (thanks again!), this time it’s quite a bit more personal, so I’ve been hesitant to write about it openly while I was still thinking it through. Suffice it to say I’m sure you readers would have had lots of great advice, and hopefully I’ll be able to ask you for thoughts in the future.

Anyway, I’m out of the hibernation/ideas/planning phase and into the writing phase, and it’s both amazing and scary.

Categories: Uncategorized

Sex Robots!

Guys I’m super proud of this Sex Robots essay I wrote for Boston Review:

 

A History of Cyborg Sex, 2018–73

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Bloomberg Opinion piece on Facial Recognition

My newest Bloomberg Opinion piece just came out:

Amazon Can’t Fix Facial Recognition

Companies lack incentives to stop the creepiness.

See the rest of my Bloomberg Opinion pieces here.

Categories: Uncategorized

At JMM 2019!

I registered for this year’s Joint Math Meeting by claiming to be Press so I think it’s only fair that I blog from the conference.

I got here Wednesday, met up with my BFF Aaron Abrams, and we promptly dashed to a fancypants reception to meet up with my buddy Ken Ribet. And yes, both of these wonderful men were wearing knitted hats that I knitted for them in the blistering Baltimore weather. Ken happens to be the outgoing AMS President so has lots of fancypants receptions to go to, and he was kind enough to let us in. The highlight, besides reminiscences with him and others, was when I got to write on a board about how Ken has been a great mentor to me since I was 18, welcoming me with open arms into the warm and wonderful community of mathematics. I also got to (re)meet Francis Su, who is awesome.

Then, yesterday I was honored to receive the MAA Euler Book Prize along with a bunch of adorable nerds receiving all kinds of mathematical honors onstage. It was fun, and afterwards there was a reception, which I went to. Then after that I ran over to a Budapest Semesters in Math reunion, and then the MAA dinner for prize winners. So that’s pretty much three more parties, bringing my total to hour as of last night. If you’re wondering what else I did besides party, the answer is I totally checked out the Exhibitor Hall and went to lunch with an editor from Cambridge University Press and a friend of mine who might write a book. Yes, we went to a pub.

This morning so far I’ve been to the HCSSiM reunion breakfast, I’m having drinks with Ina Mette, AMS editor, and I’m looking for receptions to crash later (please leave a comment if you know of any good ones!).

Finally, tomorrow I’ll be giving the Gerald and Judith Porter Lecture, which will be great in part because I got to meet Gerald and Judith Porter last night and they’ve very cool. Also, the title of my talk is “Big Data, Inequality, and Democracy”, which are three topics I love talking about. I’m considering inviting the entire audience to the aforementioned pub afterwards.

Besides my alcohol consumption, I have a few comments to make.

First, math nerds are and always will be unbelievably adorable.

Second, unlike many past years when I’ve visited JMM, I am less pessimistic of the future of mathematics. I was quite worried, for many years, that MOOCs and other “flipped classroom” type scenarios would take over calculus teaching. I’m no longer so worried about that, because I simply haven’t heard of it working on a broad scale.

Third, on the other hand, from the little I’ve understood talking to people, the other effect I’ve been worrying about, namely the slow replacement of tenured faculty by adjunct staff, doesn’t seem to be abating. So I will say that the profession of academic mathematics is not a growing or improving field in terms of quality of life for the median Ph.D. grad.

Fourth, I’m kind of surprised how slowly the world of publishing in math has changed, and its flip side, the world of credentialing. It seems like there’s just as much gaming, counting, and other kind of dumb metric stuff going on as ever. I guess it’s because I’m on the outside now looking in, but I’m wondering when people will start seriously contributing to things like the Stack Project – and figure out a way of giving credit to people for those contributions – because it seems like the obvious future of mathematical contributions. Tell me if I’m wrong.

Categories: Uncategorized

Our Dystopian Future and the Next Cold War

My newest Bloomberg Opinion column just came out, about the international competition for AI dominance:

Want To See Your Dystopian Future? Look at China

 

See the rest of my columns here.

Categories: Uncategorized

Karaoke is even better in French

As I found out on my last night in Paris. I dare you to tell me I’m wrong.

 

Categories: Uncategorized