Shame

A while back, a friend had gifted me a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson.  I didn’t read it until recently, because I honestly I wasn’t in the right headspace.  Plus, I have a thing about reading actual paper books and getting me to open kindle on my iPad is challenging.  I should have read it sooner and yet, I think I also read it at the perfect time.

Now my disclaimer, I am not this amazing book reviewer.  This is simply my learnings and thoughts after reading this book.  I highly encourage you to read for yourself.

This was a tough book and tough reflections.  I thought the book was going to be about how to deal with being publicly shamed  – tricks / responses / etc.  Sure, there was an aspect of that but this book opened me up to a much bigger picture that I’m not sure I will do justice in a blog about.  I’m going to note what stood out for me in no particular order:

  • I was truthfully torn while reading this book – I realized my principles were conflicted based on my behavior.  On one hand, I completely support calling out inappropriate behavior.  I also believe people can learn and grow.  I have never been secretive about my past, I have plenty of things to be ashamed about and I work still today to be better, do better and help others.  What I had to accept, is my behavior wasn’t helpful. For example, I would see a viral video of something horrible.  I would quickly judge and pile on with commentary.  I would feel validated by calling them out.  I would feel supported by others applauding my lack of tolerance.  I would express things such as “I have no tolerance for hate”.  And then move on.  I moved on.  That person likely spiraled out of control in shame.  Now one could say that is the goal.  This book reminded me what could happen to a person in shame – defensiveness, trying to hold on to intent, isolation, learning with limited ways to apply moving forward.  If I know that I grew and changed, why am I lashing out versus trying to help them learn.  When I honestly asked myself, it came down to this:  was I invested in the person or some random online person?.  If so, I did better.  If not, I judged/shamed and moved on.  That’s not who I want to be.  I’m not saying people don’t need to be called out but I don’t support torture.  Public shaming is torture.  
  • A common sentiment is “So what, they deserve the viral public shaming.  People will move on in a few weeks.”  I’ve said this.  What they did was wrong, I felt justified.  They needed to learn.  As I read the stories in the books, I cried at multiple times.  People still can’t work years afterwards, they isolate themselves despite learning, and some have committed suicide. Some of the stories in the book, I remember.  I contributed to.  I judged.  I never was curious whatever happened to them afterward.  So although the “world” moved on, this connected world means the ability to move on for the person publicly shamed is extremely difficult.  I don’t want to be the person that says “good, I hope they are miserable for the rest of their lives”. I want to be the person that says “I hope they learned and are helping others now learn.” I think about my teenage kids.  One horrible mistake, could mean a lifetime of shame.   I made lots of horrible mistakes – where people taught me why they were inappropriate.  I got to learn and grow with consequences but not life ending consequences.  The stories in the book helped me to understand the public shaming life ending consequences I contributed towards.
  • There are some topics, such as many sexual choices, that were once considered shameful are now normalized and/or accepted today.  So while embarrassing and a violation of privacy/trust, being exposed online will not often destroy a person. There was an interesting element in one of the book stories how a number of men had visited a brothel and one woman.  The men came out rather unscathed but it was different for the woman.  This wasn’t surprising to me but something to keep in your mind when the thought “exposing that is not a big deal” is maybe only because of your gender, privilege, etc.  For that person, it may have different consequences.
  • I found myself frustrated with a pattern I was thinking about in the book.  I was categorizing who I felt sympathy for when they were publicly shamed.  My categories seemed to fall in “power or no power” – which really meant for me rich or not &  “dishonest or dumb” – which really meant with bad intent or not educated.  Power and dishonest…I still seem to lean towards “you get what you deserve”.  No power and dumb…it could be anyone. I think this is because I believe that often change for the “power and dishonest” requires public mounting pressure.  I’m now realizing that I applied that to all situations warranted public shaming/pressure.
  • “I think we all care deeply about things that seem totally inconsequential to other people.  We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing.  We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who know what will trigger them?” For a long time, people without privilege were unable to express their pain.  They just had to take it.  I applaud that this is changing.  I applaud that people are able to speak about their vulnerabilities and pain.  I certainly have my trigger topics.  That when someone makes a bad joke to them – is a knife to me.  I wouldn’t change speaking up for anything, but how I speak up needs to change.

Please note that there were so many stories in this book that I learned about – public shaming in our courts, more about donglegate, etc.  I’m sticking to what internalized for me and not the specifics of the book.

So what does this mean for me.  Several things:

  1. I will continue to call out inappropriate behavior.  I will do that in ways that demonstrates I’m investing in helping them learn.
  2. I will openly talk about about people’s abilities to learn and grow – instead of piling on to the shame.

Why am I sharing this on a leadership blog?  I know for certain, I will be a better leader having reflected on this material.  How is shame playing a part in our organizations?  How is shame impacting people’s ability to grow?  How do I want to be in incredibly challenging situations?

How will you lead away from shame? 

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