(10 minute read, with enough links and references on fascinating stuff to keep you busy all weekend)
And before we start, our friends at Big Think just dropped the second of its three-part docuseries on Recapture the Rapture which popped the book to #1 Bestseller in Cognitive Neuroscience and Top200 on Audible, which is cool to see almost a year to the day from original publication. The last one seemed to land (with over half a million views!) so look forward to sharing this:
––> 5 Ways to Unlock Your Brain’s Ancient Pleasure Centers
📝 Fun Pop Quiz: When clicking on the above subject line, did you think:
a) oh boy, he's really stepped in it this time, absolutely no way he's gonna stick this landing! #rubberneckingFTW
b) gonna rage read until I can have his guts for garters on social media #righteousfury
c) this seems like a plausible diversion from my soul crushing grind and since he mentioned Hegel, maybe I can write this off as a mildly edifying few minutes? #distracteddilletante
d) none of the above, but still reading––get on with it!
To be clear: I am increasingly tweaking the False Idols of the culture wars, not to pick pointless fights down in those trenches, but to introduce some humor, irreverence, and lightness into the mix.
If we forget to laugh, that's when we'll truly be lost.
I'd like to explore with you and hopefully we can show together that good people can have important discussions about volatile topics and come to interesting and productive higher ground on the other side.
AKA: A safe space to have unsafe conversations.
It's time and we absolutely need to.
(I promise I'm gonna stay on the happy side of all the red lines)
the irreverence serves as a bit of an audience filter.
As the world unravels and conflict increasingly goes from memetic to kinetic, we're gonna need to toughen the fuck up and reclaim our rigor.
Because if you can't handle this level of shooting sacred cows and turning over tables in the temple, then you will be of little use to yourself or anyone else in the coming decade.
As the Zen proverb reminds us "The closer to the Gate, the fiercer the dragons..."
Here Be Dragons!!!
Now, onto the topic of the day...(and hopefully sticking the landing)
There's been a strong movement in the past 5-10 years to abolish shame. Brene Brown has become the patron saint of this cause, inspiring millions with her books and workshops, and giving people permission to explore and express their vulnerability.
In all, it's been a really positive and powerful movement that has given folks permission to reclaim suppressed or denied parts of themselves into more honest and empowered expressions.
And...there's increasing evidence that we might have overshot the mark.
We're veering into the realm of the shameless, and it's crippling our society.
And it's doing it three ways:
1) shamelessness is robbing us of highly effective means for organically governing our social relations
2) shamelessness denies real problems that are getting worse the longer they go unaddressed
3) shamelessness weirdly blames the very victims we're trying to protect
Let's see if we can map these one at a time:
The first time I noticed this sad fact was during the 2016 Republican primaries.
There, Trump was mocking grieving parents, ridiculing disabled reporters, patronizing female journalists, and bragging about the size of his unit, onstage, during a presidential debate!??!
And somewhere, I thought someone, (if not HRC herself, at least one of her cunning speech writers) would connect the dots and reboot lawyer Joseph Welch's bitch slap heard round the world (no Oscar hottakes here folks, move along).
In 1954, at the peak of Joe McCarthy's Red Scare, Welch interrupted the Grand Inquisitor:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness...You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"
And that was it. The Red Scare stopped being so scary. McCarthy's power evaporated overnight. Everyone came to their senses. Three years later, Ol' Dead-Eyed Joe was dead at the age of 48.
But Trump never had any sense of decency. Because of that, he was able to run roughshod over first, the Republican field, then the White House, then Washington DC, the judiciary and Congress, then NATO, the UN, Twitter and the world.
He was unapologetically (and potentially sociopathically) shameless, and that has made all the difference. In a world bound and governed by norms, customs, and conventions, (vs. rules, regulations and penalties) shame is a vital social technology that keeps us coloring inside the lines of our social compact.
That's a point that David Graeber makes in his recent The Dawn of Everything. In the 18th century, Huron philosophers encountered chatty Jesuits, fur traders and intellectuals from across the pond. Graeber reports that the natives were decidedly unimpressed with the Eurotrash hierarchy. Instead of falling to their knees in awe, these aboriginal Americans found European coercion distinctly lacking, even inhumane.
Rather than the Rum, Sodomy and the Lash that governed the British Royal Navy (not sure what the French equivalent was, but bet it was even worse), Amerindians had a different cultural toolkit.
On the attraction side they relied heavily on the carrots of rhetoric, reciprocity and ritual to cohere and mobilize the otherwise free agents of their tribe and nation.
And on the deterrence side, they had the sticks of ridicule, shame, and ostracism (up to and including banishment).
First we'll bust your balls and tease you a bit to let you know you’re getting out of line (see: "taking the piss"). Then we'll put you in a shameful timeout so you can consider the consequences of your actions (stronger medicine). Finally, and as a last resort, we kick you to the curb and banish you (a potentially fatal sentence).
So in our rush to get rid of unhealthy versions of guilty shaming, we've accidentally cut-off the healthy versions of pro-social shaming.
That's how we got the Kardashians.
And Instagram shamans.
And info-marketer life coaches.
And utterly craven and inept political leaders on every continent.
Not one of these would've got out of the gates if they'd had a lick of decency, or an ounce of shame. (Boris Johnson would've had to pack his bags ages ago).
Guilt: an unhealthy lack of self worth, typically brought about by judgmental cultural, familial or personal narratives.
Shame: a healthy sense of having transgressed the norms of one's tribe and a felt need to make restitution.
Important: Brene Brown defines these almost exactly backwards from this! But if we're going to discuss pro-social shame from an anthropological perspective, rather than just a psychological perspective, these definitions help clarify those distinctions.
Unhealthy Shame = Guilt, bad.
(Healthy) Shame = Honor, good. (at least for the remaining seven minutes).
Because we've robbed ourselves of these essential, consensual tools of healthy shaming-as-community policing, we're increasingly leaning on enforcement of bureaucratic rules and regulations to fill that void. (like tech companies having to censor content, universities policing professors, and lawsuits managing hurt feelings (see the 66 people who filed FCC complaints about that Oscars slap!).
Also See: Conor Friedersdorf's great article on Victimhood Culture where any perceived slight or microaggression is now appealed to institutional authorities rather than settled in person.
––all these, from Trump to the Kardashians to the Ocscars fracas, are examples of social transgressions which would've been more elegantly and efficiently dealt with at the community level, via teasing, shame and ostracism. Instead, we're all outraged all the time, and running to authority figures to fix it for us.
Totally infantilizing, and wildly inefficient.
But it doesn't end there.
Not only have we neutralized a really effective tool for managing bad actors and social coherence, we're also blinding ourselves to very real problems.
While there's all sorts of social media campaigns looking to shame and counter-shame different folks for different reasons (see Flygskam or "flight shaming" brought to you by those smug bastards at IKEA), two that are especially instructive are Fat-Shaming and Slut-Shaming.
Everyone remembers Ogilvy and Mather's Dove Real Beauty campaign.
For over a decade, it served up images of women's bodies of all shapes and sizes, and emphasized non-airbrushed #nofilter femininity and humanity.
After all, not that many women look like Kate Moss on heroin, and it was long overdue and welcome to see positive validation and literal role-modeling.
Now everyone's onboard, from lululemon to Sports Illustrated. It's rare that a commercial can authentically shape a cultural conversation, but this one really did, largely for the better.
But from those entirely healthy correctives, we may have shot past the mark.
Because let's face it. We are a bunch of tubby cunts these days.*
One in three Americans are obese or morbidly obese.
Our kids are too.
Even our pets are!!!
Americans spend more on diet products for their dogs and cats than many nations spend on children's health care.
That's just plain gross. And not at all natural.
Our obesity epidemic puts incredible burdens on health care systems (most recently with co-morbidities for COVID), and directly impacts our children's health, education and economic futures. Hell, it's even affecting military recruitment and has been flagged by the Pentagon as a national security issue!
And only a small fraction of it springs from congenital conditions entirely divorced from lifestyle and environment.
For perspective see this pic that's been making the rounds on social media, supposedly of a beach scene in the 1970's:
And compare it to some body positive folks before Carnival in Brazil in 2017:
But once we've engaged the "No Fat Shaming" no matter what clause, we suppress an essential conversation about education, food, diet, mobility, health, personal and social responsibility that absolutely has to happen. (See Nicole Arbour's viral Youtube Dear Fat People, and track the fallout from that one!)
When the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that even well-intentioned, statistically incontrovertible statements like Whole Foods CEO John Mackey observing that there's a strong relationship between diet and healthy lifestyle (and positive social outcomes) he gets called out for not accepting people as they are.
More recently, Jonhathan Nemen, the CEO of yuppie salad sensation SweetGreen really put his foot in it, observing “78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people...Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to? Is there another way to think about how we tackle ‘healthcare’ by addressing the root cause?”
And then SweetGreen Nemen got dragged. Mobbed. Canceled.
For saying something that is obviously true.
(See “Don’t Believe the Salad Millionaire”)
I mean, he is a skinny rich white guy with intersectional power and privilege, so I guess we could frame this as "punching up" but really, it's just more of the same shame game. (but not the good kind).
As most folks will remember from their Phil 101 course in college, Georg Hegel was big on dialectics––that back and forth conversation between opposites. A thesis balanced by its antithesis, which if you toggle back and forth enough, might even yield the Holy Trinity––a synthesis––the best of both worlds.
Truth is found neither at one extreme nor the other, but balanced between both.
In Hegel's framing (not strictly his, but he always gets the credit) these dialectics, this backing and forthing, is literally the engine of progress, the driver of history, and what will ultimately lead to the fulfillment of the World Soul.
But until that happy day arrives, let's just focus on a simple takeaway: pinballing from one extreme to the other is just as unhealthy as staying put.
Same goes for Shame. Too much of the unhealthy kind leads to guilt. Too little of the healthy kind leads to shamelessness and the denial of real problems that must be talked about.
So let's talk about another one of those problems––sex.
Instead of a premeditated campaign like those Dove commercials, sex positivity got its recent boost from a gradual expansion of popular culture.
Over the past decade-plus, from the heady days of Sex and the City, to the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Gray and the rise of non-consensual monogamy, to the rise of "hookup culture" on campuses, we entered an era of Fourth Wave Feminism. It basically said, "as long as it's consensual, nobody has any right to make me feel bad about any of my sexual-erotic choices, PERIOD." #noslutshaming
And as with the initial movement away from guilting folks for different body types, this sex-positivity was long overdue and welcome.
There's pretty much no single area of human experience that has greater levels of taboos, guilt and shame than sexuality. So breaking the chains that have held folks (especially women) to unreasonable or impossible standards (or double standards), this Fourth Turning seemed vital and important.
(For folks keeping track at home, First Wave feminism was Susanne B Anthony/Margaret Sanger Suffragettes, 70's Second Wave Feminism was birth control, bra-burning and speculums, 90's Third Wave Feminism was intersectionality and riot grrrls and Fourth Wave Feminism is our current Millenial/Gen Z sex positivity. BAM! Feeling smarter already!)
But then, after a decade-or-so experiment in casual hookups and promiscuity, weird results started coming in. The kids weren't alright. And in fact, many of the girls who had been fully enrolled in the "no slut-shaming" movement were expressing doubts about the whole project.
See: Leah Fessler's viral senior thesis from Middlebury College "Hookup Culture Uncovered" where she explores the pros and cons for young women on campus. Beneath all of the casual empowerment was a bunch of mixed feelings, hurt feelings, and uncertainty. (Also see: Consent Was Never Enough).
A BuzzFeed article observed "These Gen Z Women Think Sex Positivity Is Overrated,” one 23-year-old woman said, “It feels like we were tricked into exploiting ourselves.”
Turns out that casual sex, is rarely as casual as we might like it to be. Which really shouldn't be too surprising, even if it sounds hopelessly old-fashioned.
Which brings us to our final point about Shame.
Let's stick with our examples of obesity and promiscuity to bring this home.
On the one hand, it's not hard when comparing those two beach pictures from 1970 and 2017 to see the obvious: we're putting on pounds like nobody's business.
Plausible explanations as to why Americans got so fat range from massive decreases in physical mobility, massive increases in screen time, ballooning portion sizing, an increase in processed Frankenfoods, to an erosion in our national get up and go.
Except it's not just Americans. (It's not even just people, even our lab monkeys have been turning into Chub Scouts due to the endocrine disruptors in our industrial environments. But that's a DuPont, Monsanto, Dow Chem and EPA issue, not a fat-shame issue).
Brazilians, famous for their Big Butt Lifts, are now having to siphon off the extra from all over. "Brazil, Land of the Thong, Embraces Its Heavier Self" a world where "gordofobia" aka "Fat Shaming" is now being addressed by activists changing laws to widen seats, reinforce hospital beds and public transport, so that overweight folks don't have to feel out of place. Brazil now has one of the highest rates for fat-reduction surgeries in the world and since 2000, the percentage of obese adults has doubled (from 15% to 30%).
So while the anti-gordofobia activists are heroically lobbying to have Brazilian law reflect a more inclusive, less guilty experience for overweight citizens, they're neglecting to interrogate the root causes that prompted, in twenty years, the number of obese people in their country to go up 100%.
Turns out there are three very simple explanations. And they're true not just for Brazil, but increasing swaths of the Global South.
Coca-Cola (and PepsiCo if we're being inclusive)
Taking a page right out of Big Tobacco's playbook, "Big Agriculture" is expanding into developing countries right as the folks back home have realized the error of their ways.
"As their growth slows in the wealthiest countries, multinational food companies like Nestlé, PepsiCo and General Mills have been aggressively expanding their presence in developing nations," the New York Times noted, "unleashing a marketing juggernaut that is upending traditional diets from Brazil to Ghana to India."
The piece went on to say "The shift, many public health experts say, is contributing to a new epidemic of diabetes and heart disease, chronic illnesses that are fed by soaring rates of obesity in places that struggled with hunger and malnutrition just a generation ago."
For the first time in human history ever, more people worlwide are obese than underweight. And these super high calorie/low nutrient diets aren't even leaving us fat and happy. They're creating new morbidities where folks are simultaneously overweight and undernourished.
See: How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food
Because if we're all supposed to drive right past this public health trainwreck because to name it will hurt the feelings of the victims, if we're going to blithely absolve the multinational companies that are hoarding obscene profits while offloading the health burdens to struggling governments and individuals?
Well that's where Woke Social Justice just got pwned, and became a convenient patsy for Late Stage Capitalism.
A little bit ironic, don't you think?
Same thing with the initially healthy movement against slut-shaming and towards sex positivity.
When philosopher Amia Srinivasan, one of the world's leading contemporary feminists thinkers, and author of The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, polled her class at Oxford about anti-porn feminists like Andrea Dworkin, she was expecting eye rolls and boos. She had imagined that her pro-consent class, raised in an era of internet-connected hypersexuality would find Dworkin's position quaint and dated.
Instead she got the opposite.
“Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real? I asked. Yes, they said,” writes Srinivasan. She continues, “Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it.” [emphasis added].
"Porn, the students say, provides the script for their sex lives, one that leaves them insecure and alienated. A man in Srinivasan’s class was unsure if sex that was “loving and mutual” was even possible. The women wondered if there was a connection between the lack of attention to female pleasure in so much porn and the lack of pleasure in their lives. ‘The warnings of the anti-porn feminists seem to have been belatedly realized: Sex for my students is what porn says it is,’ writes Srinivasan."
See: Why Sex-Positive Feminism Is Falling Out of Fasion
So who's winning here? Not the young women coming of age during this time, as that Middlebury study reports. Not the tween girls on TikTok getting algorithmically sucked into increasingly sexualized posts and skyrocketing anxiety and body dysmorphia (See: How TikTok Serves Up Sex and Drug Videos to Minors).
Not the young men either, who have had their circuits burned in from a decade of compulsive and degrading sexual imagery. Not anyone of any persuasion or identity attempting to perform erotic carnival acts in bids for intimacy.
So who wins? Big Sex (and maybe Big Pharma).
Swiping right on Tinder and OKCupid in a never ending carousel of commodified pairings. Scrolling the Tube porn sites that melt the brains of adolescents (the average age that our kids first encounter online porn is 11), exploit sex workers, and hog 35% of our collective global internet bandwidth. Flicking through Only Fans and Instagram, which rely on a never ending stream of stylized sexuality to get clicks and likes for everything from leggings to yoga to fitness classes.
All of those giant companies control billions in market cap, almost exclusively run by the same fat cats, VCs and douche-bros that this whole Defeat the Patriarchy revolution was supposedly being fought against! #deleteUber
And just like the obesity epidemic, if we over index from assuming "making people feel guilty is bad, so we should never, ever allow any shame" we don't fix the problem, we actually make it worse.
The bitter paradox of this whole conversation is that by absolving everyone of personal responsibility we actually burden suffering people with the full weight of systemic injustice. (Only now, we've all agreed never to mention it.)
And we'll call that social justice!
Baudelaire (by way of Keyser Soze) reminds us "the Devil's greatest trick is persuading us he doesn't exist!"
The same can be said of hyper individualistic Late Stage Capitalism.
Its greatest trick is to con us all into thinking that "I am making empowered choices for myself, to protect my self-esteem from shame and blame!" When in reality, we're all perfectly conditioning ourselves and each other to climb back in our cages, convinced that we are more free now than ever.
Today we're packing on the pounds and tumbling into the sack with anyone we match with, and it's Cargill and Cadburys, Pornhub and Tinder that are the real winners, not us.
So the time has come to revisit, and perhaps even rehabilitate Shame. To restore it from something guilt-ridden and disempowering to something honorable and even valorizing.
Healthy shame plays an essential role in our collective immune system.
It lets us know when there's a threat to our social compact.
It alerts us to bad actors and bad actions
It provides a beacon to guide us back to the path of righteousness and reconciliation.
Because what's a world without healthy Shame?
In other words, a whole lot like now.
And what does a world with healthy Shame look like?
It's one where we can trust that we share community norms and values, and we can trust each other to acknowledge our faults and make amends.
It's a world where we might be able to set aside the "hermeneutics of suspicion" of each other and instead demand accountability from the real architects of systemic injustice.
It's one where we choose to act according to the better angels of our nature,
on behalf of our children and grandchildren,
and the least of our brothers and sisters
even when no one's looking,
because we would feel ashamed if we didn't.
As always, replies welcome. Have been really appreciating the thoughtful and provocative comments on all sides of these conversations!
*(Black folks get the N word. Commonwealth folks get the C word. But here's the Terms and Conditions: We don't ever get to lob it at women. But we do get to use it in jokes, especially at the expense of the collective, or directed at men in absurdist and non-misogynistic ways. Besides, just say "a bunch of tubby cunts" three times fast and tell me that sentence didn't deserve to be written ;)
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