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Does shame matter anymore?

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From politicians who are caught in their blatant web of lies to business tycoons who use their social media platforms to spread hate and misinformation, shame seems to be nonexistent for these masters of the non-apology.

Yet they are experts at wielding shame onto the masses for fame, profit and power.

David Keen writes that we are caught in a shame spiral—a vortex of mutual shaming that pervades everything from politics to social media. We are shamed for our looks, our culture, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our poverty, our wrongdoings, our politics. But what is the point of all this shaming and counter-shaming? Does it work? And if so, for whom?

In his book Shame, Keen explores the function of modern shaming, paying particular attention to how shame is instrumentalized and weaponized. He points out that there is usually someone who offers an escape from shame—and that many of those who make this offer have been piling on shame in the first place.

Self-interested manipulations of shame, Keen argues, are central to understanding phenomena as wide-ranging as consumerism, violent crime, populist politics, and even war and genocide. Shame is political as well as personal. To break out of our current cycle of shame and shaming, and to understand the harm that shame can do, we must recognize the ways that shame is being made to serve political and economic purposes.


David Keen is the author of Shame. He is a professor of conflict studies in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also the author of The Benefits of Famine, Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone, Endless War?, Complex Emergencies, Useful Enemies and When Disasters Come Home.

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*This interview will be recorded on Monday, October 2, 2023.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi