Essay/Digital Culture

Shame on you

Unburdening ourselves online can feel radical and liberating. But is baring and sharing all as emancipatory as it seems?

Firmin deBrabander

Former Democratic representative Anthony Wiener consults his Blackberry after the 2011 State of the Union address. Photo by Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty

Firmin deBrabander

is a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the author of Do Guns Make Us Free? (2015).

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1,900 words

Edited by Sally Davies

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There’s a well-known contradiction in the way many of us behave online, which is this: we know we’re being watched all the time, and pay lip service to the evils of surveillance by Google and the government. But the bounds of what’s considered too personal, revealing or banal to be uploaded to an app or shared with a circle of social media ‘followers’ seems to shrink by the day. When faced with an abundance of digital toys that offer magical levels of connectivity and convenience, many of us succumb to a ‘giddy sense that privacy is kind of stupid’, as the writer Gary Shteyngart wrote in The New Yorker in 2013. 

That’s not to say that social media curbs our self-awareness, or that our internet selves aren’t highly artificial and curated. Nor that people living in oppressive regimes, or as minorities in societies where they know they will be targeted, aren’t justifiably anxious about what they say online. But the point remains that digital media have radically transformed our conceptions of intimacy and shame, and they’ve done so in ways that are unpredictable and paradoxical.

I moan about the lack of privacy, for example, and yet I willingly and routinely trade it for convenience. I am no longer forced to take my chances on a restaurant and guess which one is best; Yelp will tell me and then escort me to its front door. I no longer run the risk of unforeseen delays on public transport; Google Maps will inform me of the fastest route to my destination, and, in a pinch, an Uber can get me there via any number of hidden by-roads. I no longer need to remember my friend’s birthdays; Facebook will nudge me, and invariably lure me to post an update to remind people I exist. To avail myself of these applications, all I have to do is make my location, habits and beliefs transparent to their parent companies whenever they choose to check in on me.

So what’s going on? ‘Visibility is a trap,’ wrote the French philosopher Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). What he meant was that allowing oneself to be watched, and learning to watch others, is both seductive and dangerous. He drew upon Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century plans for a ‘Panopticon’, a prison in which inmates are observed from a central tower manned by an invisible occupant, his watchful eye seeing but unseen. The idea was that the prisoners would internalise the presence of the spectral watchman, whether or not anyone was actually inside, and behave of their own accord. ‘Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burthens lightened,’ Bentham enthused.

According to Foucault, the dynamics of the Panopticon bore an uncanny resemblance to how people self-monitor in society at large. In the presence of ever-watchful witnesses, he said, physical coercion is no longer necessary. People police themselves. They do not know what the observers are registering at any given moment, what they are looking for, exactly, or what the punishments are for disobedience. But the imagination keeps them pliant. In these circumstances, Foucault claimed, the architecture of surveillances become perniciously subtle and seamless, so ‘light’ as to be scarcely noticeable.

Individuals not only accept this form of discipline, but it soon becomes invisible to them, and they willingly perpetuate it. Put people in a situation where they are the agents of their own censorship, and they still fancy themselves to be free and self-determining. Surveillance makes power ‘multiple, automatic, and anonymous’, Foucault writes – less about the top-down threat of violence, and more about ‘a network of relations’ that induces acquiescence. Foucault’s conception of power resembles Sigmund Freud’s description in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) of the role of the ‘super-ego’ in the human psyche: a restraining, moralising agency installed by civilisation in each individual, ‘like a garrison in a conquered city’.

So what would Foucault make of the current digital media landscape? In many ways, the modern surveillance state – enabled and expanded thanks to new technologies – is a shining example of the Panopticon. The American theorist Bernard Harcourt points out in Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age (2015) that ‘surveillance state’ hardly fits the bill any more. He prefers to talk of a ‘tentacular oligarchy’, to include corporations now spying on us from numerous vantage points. To this we must add our audience followers, from colleagues and acquaintances to the public at large.

Foucault’s central claim is that such monitoring is worrisome, not just because of what corporations and states might do with our data, but because the act of watching is itself a devastating exercise of power. It has the capacity to influence behaviour and compel conformity and complicity, without our fully realising it.

But something’s not right here. The internet has no centre; we don’t need hard evidence of a conspiracy between companies and governments to know that we are seen online. We seem to be surveilled from everywhere and nowhere, and yet the self-display continues. Have we been so thoroughly disciplined that the guards have taken away the watchtower, or is some other dynamic at work?

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There was a time not so long ago when it seemed like the internet might be capable of fashioning a new public space for the 21st century – a robust digital polis to replace run-down physical venues and fragmented urban environments. Yes, social media might spell the end of bourgeois respectability; but doesn’t it also embolden people to be frank and open, to free themselves of inhibitions and say what they mean, without shame? Foucault suggested mass surveillance could squash free speech and thought, and enlist the cooperation of those surveilled. But perhaps social media inoculates people against such compulsion. We might be the democratic citizens that philosophers have longed for since the time of Socrates: people willing to lay bare their lives for the sake of discussion and debate, people for whom nothing is hidden or out of bounds.

By now, of course, it’s banal to point to the election of Donald Trump, with the support of the hateful meme-generating machines on the alt-right, as proof of the limitations of this dream. Social media provides a public space that often operates more like a private venue, where many people express themselves knowing that those watching will agree – or, particularly for internet trolls, in the belief that there they won’t suffer the consequences of what they say online, as if protected by the mediation of technology. Having a smartphone and access to the internet does not automatically equip us with the tools necessary for effective and respectful collaboration, negotiation and speech, such as democracy requires.

Plato would be alarmed by the lack of shame online. He thought that shame was a crucial emotion, indispensable for doing philosophy and acting morally. In Plato’s famed dialogues, the character of Socrates is always being pestered by people who complain that his wisdom makes them feel ashamed, as soon as his arguments start to sink in. At one point in the section known as the Symposium, the drunken Alcibiades declares his disgruntled love for the philosopher, saying: ‘I know that I cannot answer him or say that I ought not to do as he bids, but when I leave his presence the love of popularity gets the better of me.’

Shame presupposes that we ought to know better but flout the rules regardless. This is precisely Plato’s point about moral knowledge: we already possess it, we already know the right way to live a just and fulfilling life, but are constantly diverted from that noble aim. For Plato, then, shame is a force that helps us resist the urge to conform when we know it’s wrong to do so. Shame helps us be true to ourselves, to endure Socrates’ needling, and to heed the moral knowledge within. A man without shame, Plato says, is a slave to desire – for material goods, power, fame, respect. Such desire is tyrannical because, by its nature, it cannot be satisfied.

The approbation of the digital crowd has come to fill in for the authority of the confessor

Foucault, however, cast shame in a rather less emancipatory light in The History of Sexuality (1976). He argued that sex, in particular, was mediated in Western civilisation via the tool of confession, which involved the dispensation of approval and shame. ‘Man has become a confessing animal,’ he says. Starting with the Catholic sacrament, supplicants were urged to bare their souls, dig deep within themselves and let the truth, in all its ugliness, surge forth. This was the only way to be cleansed by one’s confessor, to avail oneself of the grace of God. In doing so, the priest relieved you of your guilt, and passed down sanction or authorisation for your behaviour.

Later, according to Foucault, the institution of confession shifted from religion to a host of secular traditions, such as confessional literature, medical examinations and psychoanalysis. But they all operated on the same principle, which was to patrol the boundary between what was normal and acceptable, and what was shameful and deviant. ‘The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us,’ Foucault wrote. ‘On the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, demands only to surface.’

Confession can feel like liberation, because it seems to unburden us of our shame. It can also be a forum for the display of democratic virtues, including the honesty, bravery and humility evident in St Augustine’s Confessions. But if one believes Foucault, it is always a ruse. We always confess to someone – in the presence of an authority, real or imagined. When people post online, it is always for a supposed audience; it is never purely gratuitous.

What manifests itself as a certain shamelessness, then, might in fact be precisely the opposite. The approbation of the digital crowd has come to fill in for the authority of the confessor – or, to put it another way, it acts as a substitute for Socrates’ inner voice of moral conscience. People unburden themselves to their followers in the hope that their needs will be validated, their opinions affirmed, their quirks delightfully accepted. The result is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them.

Those in positions of power have always craved a mechanism with which to expose the inner beings of citizens, to reveal ‘the fragment of darkness that we each carry within us’, as Foucault described it. There are, or seem to be, rather dangerous and wild expanses within each individual. If we are to be controlled, that must be made known, and tamed. There is no better way to divide and subdue a people, and seduce them into self-regulation, than to expose their perversions but promise absolution.

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