Cathy O’Neil, the guest on episode 9 of the “Wider Angle” podcast, is an American data scientist and mathematician, the author of the bestselling book “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” and “The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation.”
In this conversation about shame, O’Neil recognizes that many others before her have written about the psychology behind it. She clarifies that in her book, she focuses on how shame is manufactured and analyzes it as “an immense structural problem in our society.” Shame, which O’Neil notes as an “important evolutionary tool,” is organized in huge parts of the economy with a function “to make us feel horrible.” She explains the ensuing exploitation, using candid personal examples of bullying and fat shaming as well as others’ circumstances. From addiction to the beauty industry to wellness to poverty, O’Neil asserts, “The nature of choice, the nature of how we project choice onto other people, allows us to get that kind-of-like blaming, shaming distance from people, so we can say that things that are happening to you are not my problem, not my responsibility to help you solve; they are the product of your poor choices. And that is inherently dismissive and shaming.”
O’Neil argues that shame can be harnessed for good and talks about the “healthy opportunities.” But she also elaborates the role of social media platforms in the digital age, in terms of so-called “networked shame,” and the repercussions of our interactions after they are stored in the data economy.
Proposing a nuance between what she calls “punching up” and “punching down” shame, O’Neil in the podcast mentions as an example Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. She praises his ability in leading a great punching-up shame campaign in his pleas for help from other liberal democracies against the common enemy.
The discussion included ideas about shame across cultures and the rise of “cancel culture” in the past few years. One reason O’Neil cites for writing this book is urging the readers “to recognize when shame is taking the place of persuasive argument.” She adds in the podcast, “A large part of my efforts here are just to get people to be self-aware, not just what’s happening around them and also what they are doing to other people as well.”
Listen to the conversation to hear the wider angle of becoming aware of “giant shame machines” and “powerful shame industries” in the U.S., and the way they profit from exploiting human vulnerabilities. It is available wherever you listen to podcasts or on YouTube here.
“Wider Angle” is produced and hosted by Riada Asimovic Akyol.