The Shame Machine: Author Cathy O’Neil Interviewed by Danielle Spencer

by Danielle Spencer

The Shame Machine

Cathy O’Neil’s The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation (Crown) was released on March 22, 2022. O’Neil is the author of the bestselling Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Crown 2016) which won the Euler Book Prize and was longlisted for the National Book Award. She received her PhD in mathematics from Harvard and has worked in finance, tech, and academia. She launched the Lede Program for data journalism at Columbia University and recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company. O’Neil is a regular contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

Danielle Spencer: Can you speak a bit about your background and what led you to write this book?

Cathy O’Neil: I’m a mathematician and a child of two mathematicians. Very nerd-centered childhood, where science was the religion of the household. They were otherwise atheists. I became a data scientist at some point, also a hedge fund analyst.

Weapons of Math DestructionAnd then I started trying to warn people about the dangers of algorithms when we trust them blindly. I wrote a book called Weapons of Math Destruction, and in doing so I interviewed a series of teachers and principals who were being tested by this new-fangled algorithm called the value-added model for teachers. And it was high stakes. They were being denied tenure or even fired based on low scores, but nobody could explain their scores. Or shall I say, when I asked them, “Did you ask for an explanation of the score you got?” They often said, “Well, I asked, but they told me it was math and I wouldn’t understand it.”

That was the first moment I thought, “Oh my God, shame is so powerful.” That was math shame, evidently, because it wouldn’t have worked on me. [laughs] I’m a mathematician. You’re not going to shame me on math. If you tell me I wouldn’t understand something because it’s math, I’d say, “Dude, buster, if you can’t explain it to me, that’s your problem—not mine.” I would just be bulletproof to math-shaming.

DS: Didn’t they also say that it’s a proprietary ranking algorithm, so even the school system that was leasing it couldn’t have access to the details?

CO: I ended up figuring that out, but no, they weren’t told that. They weren’t told, “It’s literally in the contract that you don’t get to know this.” They were told, “It’s math, you wouldn’t understand it.” Which is different. Because if they were told, “Oh, it’s secret and nobody understands it,” then I think they might be outraged, rightly so. That would’ve triggered a different response. That was one of the things that was so curious to me: Why did people stop asking questions when they were told, “It’s math, you wouldn’t understand it”? I was really interested in that. How does it have so much power? Why does it momentarily confuse people and cause them to rescind their rights?

I noticed its power but I didn’t understand it. I just went along my way, until I discovered that same kind of power happening to me a couple of years later. The summer my book came out in 2016, I was researching bariatric surgery in order to avoid getting diabetes. I had read that it was a very successful anti-diabetes surgery, but it was putatively a weight-loss surgery. And in spite of being fat all my life and thinking that I had overcome fat shame, I was completely wrong about that. I was completely inundated with fat-shaming advertisements and pictures and messaging when I was doing my research. Day after day after day, I would wake up saying, “Okay, got to go do some research on bariatric surgery.” And then two hours later I’d find myself in fetal position, wanting to die. [laughs] And really wanting to pay somebody whatever amount of money they would ask for in order for that feeling to go away.

I wasn’t actually going to buy the things that were being attempted to be sold to me online, because I knew they didn’t work. I had this weird cognitive dissonance—this clash in my brain—between my rational part of myself, which was saying, “None of this makes sense. This diet doesn’t work, liposuction is not a good idea.” Not to mention that I used to work in ad tech, so I knew exactly why those ads were being pushed to me. I knew exactly how my search terms were causing this. I could have explained this underlying technology to anyone who bothered ask, but I was still emotionally so vulnerable to it, and that’s what I found so crazy. It also made me retroactively understand what the teachers had gone through. And it was exactly that sense: “I will do anything to stop this feeling, including changing the subject, even if it’s a really important subject.”

DS: So in both cases, shame is being used as a shield for the reality of the power structures at play?

CO: Yes.

DS: And in this case, even though you’re consciously aware of that, you became aware of the potency of the effect of shame.

CO: Exactly. And so as you say, I started seeing shame as a deliberate strategy that corporations and institutions that wanted to maintain power, or corporations that wanted to gain profit, could wield on people in order to get them distracted and confused and to cede their rights and to offer their money. And I thought, wow, that’s a mechanism that I hadn’t visibly seen until this moment. I hadn’t been aware of it, and I hadn’t known to observe it, and I started observing it everywhere after that. And that was how the book came about.

DS: In the book you describe what you call a “shame machine,” and you use terms like the “shamescape.” Can you talk about some of the examples of shame machines that you explored?

CO: A shame machine, loosely defined, is a system that uses punching-down shame in order to maintain power, maintain status quo, and to profit. Punching-down shame is defined as a bullying shame, shaming people who have little to no choice to conform to the norm that the shame refers to. Every act of shaming is referring to some kind of rule, some kind of norm that’s being broken. The primary goal of shame, at least theoretically, is to get the person to conform to it. But if that person has little or no choice about conforming to it, then it’s a bullying notion.

I would suggest that people who are fat don’t want to be fat; nobody actually wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to get fat.” Similarly, I talk about how we shame poor people, how we shame people with addictions, how we shame old people, how we shame young women about the smell of their vaginas. All of these examples profit or maintain power for the people who are on the attack. And they are always more powerful than their targets. So that’s what I call the shame machine.

DS: Part of the gaslighting too, as you describe, is to make people feel ashamed by implying that they do have a choice—by suggesting that diets do work or that you can make your vagina smell not “disgusting.” [laughs] As opposed to the reality, which is that diets for the most part, as you describe in the book, don’t work over time.

CO: Right. And that the vagina deodorants actually probably cause yeast infections. The critical ingredient of the profit-engine shame machines is that the products they’re selling do not work and possibly make things worse. Which I would say is true for both the vagina issue and the dieting issue. But they maintain this assumption—I would even sometimes say a myth—that the thing that you naturally are is shameful. That your vagina smells shamefully bad; that your body’s natural state is shameful. That you should be doing something about it. And why aren’t you doing something about it?

DS: That reminds me of the distinction between saying to a child, “You did something that I’d like you not to do” versus “You are bad,” which we’re not supposed to say—for good reason. We’re supposed to say, “I wish you didn’t throw the celery on the floor,” or whatever the thing is.

CO: That’s a great point. And I would say, parallel to that distinction, that we also differentiate between shame—which is the feeling that you are unworthy, unlovable, unsalvageable—and guilt, which is the feeling that you did something wrong. You could make up for guilt. You could apologize, you could do better the next time. If you forget to recycle the can of Coke after lunch, then you can recycle it the next day, and on average, you’re recycling. It’s okay. Whereas something you’re ashamed of, it’s hard to make up for it. And it’s not impossible, but I would argue that’s really hard.

And I’d love to take this moment to mention that this book is not a self-help book. It’s not a how-to-get-out-of-your-chronic-shame book, which I actually think is probably impossible in a complete way. I also would say that self-help, as an industry, is a shame machine.

DS: There’s an interestingly self-reflexive aspect to all this that’s tricky for you, as an author, to navigate. You address this several times in the book when you draw attention to the operation of your own analysis and discussion. For example, the case of “Roberta,” the woman on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with this issue of homeless people placed in hotels in the early stages of the pandemic, and the community’s objection. And you call yourself out and say that by pointing to this person’s pushback against that policy, that could be considered shaming. Perhaps you could speak about that further.

CO: Yes. And I did change Roberta’s name so that it’s not as easy to find her online and pile onto the shame, because the point I was trying to make is that it’s certainly not clear at all times whether something is punching up or punching down. Typically what I would argue is if you are shaming somebody who you’ll lose track of—who will not, in some sense, have the opportunity to redeem themselves in your eyes—then that’s punching down, and you probably want to avoid it.

There are people who end up being in the limelight for long enough because of their viral shaming incident that you end up keeping track of them; but that’s not something you know a priori.

DS: It’s circular, as they become known because they’ve been publicly shamed.

CO: Exactly. I think Amy Cooper is one of those people who are just so famous that I did actually name her.

DS: Had you described the incident without naming her, everyone would say, “That’s Amy Cooper!” [laughs]

CO: [laughs] Yes.

Of course, when you write a book about shame, it’s hard to get over the fear that what you’re doing is exactly what you’re suggesting we shouldn’t do. Not to mention the fear that you yourself are going to be the object of a lot of shame once the book is published. There are a lot of meta issues around this, but I did my best.

DS: You did a brilliant job at it. And the complexities—you’re welcoming us to embrace them and try to gain more understanding by wading into this territory.

In that spirit—you’re very clear on the punching-down, the bullying shame as you just described it. Particularly when an individual is being shamed for something about which they’re said to have agency, when we can demonstrate that they really don’t. One example you recount from your own personal history is of fat-shaming a child or adolescent, which is exacerbated when the diet doesn’t work, even though diets are proven to be typically ineffective. And so then the child feels this sense of internalized guilt and shame that lasts for the rest of her life, right?

CO: Yep, yep.

DS: Even if ameliorated through therapy and writing books and all that good stuff.

CO: [laughs] Yes, indeed.

DS: But let me bring up another example, which you discuss later in the book, which is the 2020 Harper’s letter. This was a group speaking out against what they perceived to be an intolerant climate. And here’s a quote from the letter which you also cite in the book: “Censoriousness is spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” They did not single out any specific examples of individuals to make them feel “worthless.” But you characterize it also as an instance of “punching down” because a lot of the signatories are culturally privileged figures, right?

CO: That’s wasn’t my intention. If I thought that the sort of celebrities had signed the Harper’s letter had been speaking on behalf of silenced people, I would’ve liked it a lot more. But I really felt—there was a particular line in there which is a little further on—I really felt that they were speaking on behalf of themselves. And here they are, famous people, saying, “We don’t like being silenced.”

That’s what I had a problem with. Not that they were famous. I would love famous people to get together and speak up for the men who were sent to prison for dealing crack cocaine in the nineties, or the opioid addicts now who are being sent to these awful rehabs. There are people whose lives are over because of our punitive sense that people should be punished for things like addiction. And that’s probably the biggest shame machine of all—the prison industrial complex. Those are the truly silenced folks. Or people abused by priests when they were kids. There are so many really true victims of silencing and of cancel culture. And I just feel like those people were essentially just saying, “We don’t like being criticized for things that we say on our very large platforms.”

DS: Here’s a quote: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated…” and so on. Philosopher Karl Popper argued that “an open society needs to be intolerant of intolerance.” Then wouldn’t the object of the intolerance really make a difference? In this case, the object of intolerance isn’t a 13-year-old who’s overweight; it’s a tendency in universities and publications and so forth toward intolerance.

CO: I do agree with you that a lot of the criticisms they were making, I agree with. I just don’t agree with the last sentiment: “We, the signers of this letter, need to have a space where we get to make mistakes.” Guess what? You do have that space. Speak on behalf of the people who don’t have that space. I wanted to see that and I didn’t—that was my criticism. Not that they’re wrong. And I agree with you that we want to be able to disagree. Intolerance for intolerance is a good idea. And I certainly argue that in the book. But at the same time—and I think you’d agree—the notion of cancel culture when mouthed by Andrew Cuomo is ludicrous, and there’s lots of in-between, but you see people who don’t like consequences to their actions complaining about cancel culture. And that’s different.

DS: Sure. We are in agreement on that. But if one is in a position of power and says, “My voice is not being stifled. I get to co-sign this letter in Harper’s; I have my privilege and so forth. And yet I’m seeing this effect, this stifling, I’m seeing people not speaking up”—then couldn’t it be a good use of power to say, “We need to be aware of this because the folks who can’t speak up, can’t speak up.”

CO: Gosh, and if they had said that, I would’ve signed it too.

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book about shame. I blame the Facebook algorithm and Facebook’s undying need for power, in that they optimize to us being outraged by each other. That’s how they make money. They literally make money through creating the perfect atmosphere for us to jump to the worst possible conclusions about each other, and then attack viciously. And just lob grenades of shame across the different filter bubbles.

So yes, it is a terrible space. I sometimes admit to myself that I could not possibly start a blog now. Somebody ten years younger than me could simply not do what I did. Because one of the assumptions I had—which was well-grounded—was that people would give me the benefit of the doubt and correct me when I was wrong. And it would be a faster way of learning. [laughs] It makes me laugh to think about it now. It is a terrible atmosphere.

DS: When Weapons of Math Destruction came out, I remember you said that you hoped it would be a provocation, a spur to dialogue. And it has had this amazing afterlife that’s continued, as will this book. Which is exactly that kind of dialogue.

You just used this phrase, “lobbing grenades of shame.” I wanted to ask you about that because Weapons of Math Destruction (which for the record I think is the most brilliant title in history)…

CO: [laughs] Thank my friend Aaron Abrams, he came up with it.

DS: …is a military metaphor, obviously, WMDs. And here you continue those sorts of metaphors: “lobbing grenades,” “weaponized shame,” and also “punching up” and “punching down.” Do you have any thoughts about that? Are you trying to reflect the way that you think that a sort of military shame complex has been built up?

CO: It’s actually the previous comment you made before asking me this question: WMD was my effort to have a better conversation about algorithms and the blind trust that the public was expected to have. Not just trust, but intimidation; it was a dual-edged sword there. For me, The Shame Machine is an attempt to have a better conversation about shame. Primarily for us to recognize shame when it happens, but also secondarily to have a taxonomy, if you will, a framework to measure it: “Is this appropriate?” And so “punching down” and “punching up” for me are, number one, stolen from comedy, as phrases. So not from the military, but from a comedy perspective. I wanted to inject a vocabulary to have a better conversation. We desperately need this better conversation, and let’s have useful ways of talking about it. That’s really my interest there.

DS: Sociologist Sherry Turkle speaks of the notion of an “idea-object,” by which she means an idea that prompts people “to think about the self in relation to the social world.” She uses it in reference to Lacanian thought. I like the idea-object as an idea-object, because when I read Lacan I thought, “Well, I don’t agree with a lot of it, but it’s really useful.” And then many years later I read her description of it in that way. And I thought, “Aha.” That’s the utility of a metaphor.

CO: Yes. And thank you for saying it that way, because I also want to suggest that I don’t know if I’m right—about the Harper’s letter or many other examples. Really what I wanted to do was, as I said, spur a better conversation, but I’m also willing to be told, “You got this wrong” in one way or another. Even if I did get it wrong, I assure you that I thought about it a lot and I’m ready to have that conversation. Even though I don’t think the average person can start a blog, I feel like I am, at this point, prepared to be in a tough conversation about shame. And I hope that happens.