March 28th, 2011 / 11:19 am

What’s the value in being mean? Is there a purpose in publicly shaming people?


  1. The Reading Ape

      I suppose the most generous answer would be to highlight socially unacceptable behavior; shame as instruction.
      I would also decouple “meanness” from “shame”: you can cause shame without being “mean,” generally when you publicly notice wrong-doing of some kind. “Mean” implies behavior out of scale with the infraction, punishment that exceeds the scale of the crime.

  2. eda acara

      there can be good reasons, if they are being racist, ignorant and sexist and heterosexist, abilist…etc. it is good publicly shame of this sort so that they understand they can be alone too! but north americans are usually “very polite and nice” and kind of afraid of getting into conflicts with other people even if the world is a conflicting place already. so, yes there can be purposes to publicly shaming people- and yes i object to positive burdens!

  3. Brendan Connell

      The traffic on blogs where no one is mean is much lower.

      But who was publicly shamed? Links please.

  4. lily hoang

      Nah, I’m at a conference where I just saw someone metaphorically crucified. For no good reason too.

  5. lily hoang

      Yes, I agree, though there’s a difference between being “mean” and being “constructive.”

  6. lily hoang

      Hi Reading Ape: Yes, meanness does not equal shame and shame does not equal meanness. I wonder how often shame does instruct though. And “meanness” generally does not lend the offender to “learn.” Or, at least not in my experience. Feel free to disagree.

  7. Brendan Connell

      Well, at conferences, there is always one person who is there just to show how clever they are….at the expense of others. The person probably handed out their card after I’d guess.

  8. Peter Jurmu

      Yeah, “for good reason” is the litmus test. Meanness almost seems to have its own facial expression, eating habits, sour musk, and seems more a general disposition than a response to an action or series of actions. Shaming does require a certain narrowness of thought, but in the same way that Hemingway (in that letter to Archie MacLeish going around) says Pound “deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule,” it’s the most painful, the most retributive erasure a group of artists can level at one of their own. Of course, the person being shamed has to agree to feel ashamed, which means they need to agree with their own crucifixion, which, I don’t know. Maybe if you’ve done something really catastrophically stupid that’s led to several amputations.

  9. The Reading Ape

      Whether or not shame actually instructs doesn’t alter its intent, which is to create definitions of acceptable behavior.

      Meanness does seem to benefit the person being mean somehow–feelings of superiority or some such.

  10. Samuel Sargent

      As someone who has been more or less an asshole (albeit a controlled one) for most of his online life and who has recently underwent a fundamental change in life outlook (so recently that I’m still processing it all and probably shouldn’t be trying to voice my thoughts), the primary benefits of such situations are strictly for the person being mean, and are mostly illusory at that.

      Metaphorically crucifying someone gives a temporary boost of self-esteem while unleashing pent up anger that very likely has nothing to do with the person being attacked. The more people who see the shaming, the more of a release it is.

  11. Jhon Baker

      I can never relish in the misery of another, that said, I like to be right.

  12. Sean

      That’s two different questions. Mean is a big quiver, publicly shaming someone is an arrow.

      You might publicly shame to amuse yourself. To lift yourself. Or maybe it’s revenge. Or maybe you feel the public shaming isn’t mean, but is subversive, like when someone throws a whipped cream pie in Bill Gates’s face or throws a statue at the Italian Prime Minister. The public shaming might be thought beneficial, like when Judge Judy makes you look like an ass and you go home and think I don’t want to be an ass anymore, I’m not going to do those things, thank you, Judge Judy, for the harsh mirror showing me my days. Flannery O’Connor shamed all her characters and thought it fine. Maybe someone gets a dopamine influx from publicly shaming? Maybe their boss is in the audience and they are competing for a middle management position and you can’t just avoid conflict for that type of job and this was an opportunity to show-not-tell the boss? I don’t know. I’m wondering if its publicly shaming to bomb someone’s house? But that’s politics. I forgot that Flannery O’connor said more writers should be discouraged, not less, so that might be another motive, to really stop someone from writing, and in that way improve the world.

      It’s a good question.

  13. Anonymous

      I read the first question as synonymous with “What is the value of being?” or “What does it mean to say we value being?” Then, it ended up that wasn’t really what you were after…

      I’m reading Civilization and its Discontents right now. If you ask Freud, the value of being mean when it comes to shaming someone is to protect civilization from certain behaviors. Our baser selves are shamed into developing/changing/submitting.

      If you ask him about just being mean, like…sadism (physical, yes, but also verbal sadism. why not?), well that’s the opposite of the above, that’s what we all have inside us to some extent, an aggression, a drive toward destruction.

      That makes a lot of sense to me.

      These two forms of meanness value opposing goals. One is communal progress, the other is personal satisfaction. The value of those two goals, though, is another issue.

  14. jesusangelgarcia

      For me, there’s no value in meanness or shaming — on a human(e) level. Of course, how many humans really value humane behavior? Perfect example is what Brendan mentions above: blog meanness = blog traffic. Same goes for talk radio, TV, etc. Extremism sells. Judgment is entertainment. Both are an evasion from connection or communication, which scares the hell out of most everyone. From what I can tell, most people lash out at others b/c they’re insecure, ignorant or so full of themselves that they’ve lost sight of what really matters, which is relative, I guess, but I challenge anyone to make an argument that meanness or belittling others somehow brings value to our endless numbered days.

  15. erica barmash

      I don’t think there’s much of a point. Especially in being mean to a stranger on the internet. Last week someone called me pathetic when I wondered on twitter who would get to 10k followers first, us at harper perennial or the people at harvard books. It wasn’t the most erudite thing I’ve ever said, but I thought the response was uncalled for and I said so, and the person apologized. People don’t expect to be called out on being mean, and I plan to do it more often.

  16. davidk

      More power to you Erica. The lesser forms of gratuitous meanness shouldn’t be excused or laughed off just because their victim doesn’t jump off a bridge or something.

  17. lily hoang

      I’m rooting for you, Erica!

  18. JimR

      You could make a compelling case that the public shaming of James Frey didn’t go far enough. A bit of meanness could have prevented Bright Shiny Morning.

  19. Nick Mamatas

      Well, in the case of a conference, the point is to keep the attendees from talking about their children or paychecks between sessions.

  20. mark leidner

      being mean to people who are themselves mean is one of the few pleasures in life