Most English-speaking Americans recognize that the words hating and hater have been overused for years now, propped up like fluffy blankets to muffle all kinds of criticism. More recently, a similar journey from useful and specific to vague and meaningless was traversed by the word troll, as Farhad Manjoo pointed out so persuasively right here on Slate. Everyone’s a troll and a hater these days, at least according to anyone on the Internet who sees anything they don’t like.
These two words have some new company in the Overused Buzzword Club. While shaming is often used to point out legitimately horrible behavior—especially against women—it is becoming so common that its meaning has begun to leach away. Shaming, in other words, is going the way of trolling. And that’s particularly unfortunate in this case, because shame, like hate, is a powerful and important idea. There are things of which we should be unashamed, like our own bodies. There are times when we should feel shame, like when we’re tempted to hunt for Communists. But nowadays one suspects that Joe McCarthy would have just accused his critics of “red-shaming.”
Consider the term that may have sparked the current surge: slut-shaming. It’s a striking term, one that uses the very label it is both rejecting and reappropriating. In the linguistics journal American Speech, Slate contributor Ben Zimmer defined slut-shaming—which he traces back to at least 2006—as “Publicly deriding women who engage in sexual activity the speaker considers taboo, usually to modify behavior by inducing guilt or to assign blame.” Another useful definition comes from blogger Andrea Rubenstein: “Slut-shaming, also known as slut-bashing, is the idea of shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings.”
This term has been in the news lately thanks to Miley Cyrus; Sinead O’Connor’s open letter to America’s belle of the wrecking ball is, in some circles, considered an example of slut-shaming. And because O’Connor accused Cyrus of pimping and prostituting herself, she inspired some newer formations, such as prostitute-shaming and sex-worker-shaming. Slut-shaming has also been powerfully used many times in the past few years to rebut Republican statements and policies that trivialize rape and reproductive rights. (If you believe the story of Adam and Eve, you might say that God was the original slut-shamer.)
Then there’s the related but—so far as I can tell—slightly newer term, body-shaming, which Zimmer thinks was influenced by body-snarking as well as slut-shaming. The website Jezebel published one of the term’s earliest uses in a 2008 headline: “No Celebrity Is Safe From Tabloid Body Shaming.” Basically, body-shaming encompasses all words that people use and actions they carry out to make someone feel bad about their body. Since giving women a hard time about their bodies seems to be the American way, body-shaming is almost always directed at them. And it has a number of more specific variations: weight-shaming, fat-shaming, skinny-shaming—basically no matter how a woman (or girl) looks, someone has a problem with it. As Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has pointed out, such usages of shaming have produced back formations, so you can also say someone has been fat-shamed or body-shamed.
If contemporary shaming were limited to those areas, it would still be a useful, clear concept, recognizably rooted in its long history. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of shaming as a noun going back to the 1300s—and shame’s current sense as a verb has been around since at least the 1500s. (Thus the Duke of York, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3: “To tell thee of whence thou art, from whom deriu’de, Twere shame enough to shame thee, wert thou not shamelesse.”)
But a certain kind of parenting and a certain breed of Internet humor have collided and exploded in popularity, producing an endless array of shaming that, though it appears to fit under the same definitional umbrella, has actually begun to stretch that umbrella to its breaking point.
Take child-shaming, in which parents embarrass their offspring publicly. A fourth-grade boy is made to stand in public holding a sign that says “I am a bully,” a teenage girl suffers with a sign that reads “I was disrespecting my parents by twerking at my school Dance.” Those shamings are disciplinary and understandably denounced by many, but a similar phenomenon often happens online with kids too young to be shamed, including babies. These shamings are done purely (or mostly) for the sake of humor, like a baby girl posed next to the confession “I fart like an old man.” They take the concept of contemporary shaming in a totally different direction: shaming as comedy.
In the same good-natured vein as baby-shaming, there’s animal-shaming. Making a dog wear a sign that says “I break into the pantry and hide potatoes all around the house” is surely no less cruel than making a dog wear a Halloween costume. There is also, of course, cat-shaming. And ferret-shaming. And parrot-shaming. And bunny-shaming. (And horse-shaming? Yes, there is also horse-shaming.) The trend has recently jumped back to the human species with the humorous blog Librarian Shaming, in which librarians make confessions like “I think most classic novels are rubbish.” Shaming has always been a form of emotional abuse, but now it’s also a growing genre of humor.
And it can be quite funny! But these deliberately comical uses go hand-in-hand with the worst uses of shaming: the unintentionally comical kind. Guys who are tired of being called creeps have absurdly claimed creep-shaming, for instance. Breast-feeding advocates are sometimes accused of formula-shaming moms. I’ve also seen social-media-shaming, tattoo-shaming, luxury-shaming, attendance-shaming, snack-shaming, bigot-shaming, privilege-shaming, salary-shaming, single-shaming (i.e., shaming the nonmarried or nonattached), fedora-shaming, Drake-shaming, and filter-shaming. This last word was used, with all apparent sincerity, in an article by an acne sufferer who felt “shamed” for her use of Instagram filters by “selfie queens” (a term someone else will have to unpack).
With all due respect to both the acne and creep communities, these broad uses of shaming are stretching a useful word to the point of meaninglessness. The more I hear about filter-shaming, the harder it is to really hear what a problem body-shaming can be. We really should restrain ourselves from mindlessly slapping this label on every single thing in the world that makes us feel bad. I’d hate to lose such a potent word to the Buzzword Abyss, especially since real shaming—the kind mostly done by misogynist jerks or terrible parents—is a true disgrace.
Unfortunately, once a buzzword is out of the barn, it’s not likely to go back in. Pretty soon, doctors may be known as sickness-shamers. Dentists might be scolded for cavity-shaming. Teachers could catch flak for their relentless ignorance-shaming. Even police officers might be lambasted for their thoughtless and cruel crime-shaming. Shaming is probably already finished as a meaningful word.
And, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, “That’s a shame.”