Jerry Springer Show. Shame and the media have a complex relation.

Cops. Authoritarian uses of shame...

...remind us of the power of surveillance

CCTV. Close Circuit Television.

CCTV is more prevelant in England and Wales than...

...anywhere else in the world.

CCTV encourages us to self-police.

CCTV also spreads our awarness through broadcasting.

Crimewatch UK is a platform for the police to shame criminals and those who may know them.

Images of the police can remind us of the social force of shame.

Sally Jesse Raphael. Platforms for the ambivalent pleasures of shame proliferate.

Jerry Springer, "Transexual Tales." Talk shows foreground shame but...

...is this shame felt by participants or is it...

...a form of performance?

Trisha Goddard. Does our cynical reaction to talk shows lessen shame's power?

Street Crime. Surveillance footage reminds us of shame's power while...

...also offering vicarious thrills. [Street Crime]


Video Vigilantes and
the work of shame

by Gareth Palmer

"A little shaming goes a long way" — Judge Ted Poe

In this paper I want to look at the ways in which a wide variety of reality television programs use shame. Using examples ranging from the U.S. program Cheaters to the UK’s Video Vigilantes I will explore the different ways in which shame is put to work. Using post-Foucauldian notions of governance, I suggest that shame is partly used to offer us ways to patrol ourselves in lines with various authorities' choices but also in more ambivalent and complex ways to help us rethink our behaviour. My central argument is that reality television programs which foreground shame are an important force in debates about appropriate and inappropriate forms of behaviour.

Co-terminous with television's use of shame are evolving debates about the meaning of community. Without a sense of what the community is and how it works there can be no shame. This changing sense of what community is and how television helps to construct it will inform what follows.

I proceed in three sections. I begin by discussing the complex relation between shame and the community. How does shame connect to the community? Both shaming and the community are seen as tactics of governance — the mechanisms by which we police ourselves. In the second section I look at specific television programs and construct a shaming typology. Here I suggest that there are at least four different ways in which television uses shame to patrol or explore behaviour. This also involves our considering the ambivalent pleasures of shame. How are we positioned in relation to the shamed? Are these warnings or amusements or some mixture of both? I conclude by focusing on who is shamed and why. The main thrust of my argument is that shame is generated by a lot of reality television programming. But what needs to be investigated are the diverse ways in which this is done, for understanding the effective circulation of shame brings us closer to understanding how we are being asked to govern ourselves as individuals and as communities

Shame and the community

(i) Shame

Shame has inspired writers as diverse as Mead, Cooley and Goffman. What unites many of their inquiries is their focus on the role shame might play in social interactions. They ask to what extent does the look of the other help activate shame. What does the rise of individualism mean for shaming? More recently in Authority Richard Sennett wrote about the role shame might play in controlling workers, for whom the bosses inspire a particular kind of response:

"What kind of shame has their [the bosses'] strength elicited among those who are dependent upon them?" (Sennett 1980: 82)

Sennett argues that the self-control of the individual who has "marshalled his resources" can discipline others through making them feel ashamed. The indifference the self-controlled have for ordinary people can have a shaming effect driving the others on to work harder.

Several writers believe that the decline of state-sanctioned violence has meant a rise in shame as a tool of discipline. Chief here is Norbert Elias who writes that in cases of shame, "control is less palpable than physical pain but equal in its subduing effect." Helen Lewis reminds us of the ways in which dominant and emergent discourses utilize shame to emotionalize a perspective: once a subject has been agreed upon as a suitable case for treatment, then it becomes possible to legitimately use shame. As we shall see in the following examples, once a target has been selected, we are granted the right to unleash "shaming power" on designated outsiders.

Scheff and Retzinger see Shame as the "Master Emotion of Everyday Life." In a very broad definition they defines shame as

"a class name for a large family of emotions which includes not only embarrassment and humiliation, but also discretionary shame such as modesty, shyness and conscience. The common thread in these variants (of shame) is seeing self negatively in the eyes of others and therefore perceiving a threat to the bond" (Scheff and Retzinger 2000: 45).

Shame is a force which offers us ambivalent pleasures. But it cannot work without community.

(ii) Community

Shame cannot be effective without some sense of community. The earliest researches into the term locate its roots in tribal justice systems which depend upon the active co-operation of the entire community. It is clear that without a group of individuals who have some sense of who you are and who share a belief system, then it is impossible to be shamed. For example early Maori systems of justice use shaming in the community to bring individuals to order. A modification of this tactic can be seen in Restorative Justice practices as they operate all over the world. Here the guiding factor is that the emotional cost of the offence should take precedence over legal sanctions. In Restorative Justice the community gather with a trained facilitator to work out a punishment with the specific aim of re-integrating the offender into the community via instructive and managed shame rather than leaving him or her to be labelled and stigmatized as in traditional systems.

Because shame cannot work without the Other, then, the term community needs some investigation. "Community" is a word open to a variety of uses — it can be used to represent a touchy-feely togetherness or "the silent majority"; or the wounded and neglected as well as the decent and right-thinking. The extraordinary malleability of the term is no accident: the notion of a people united around one cause or another in the name of community is central to the business of governance. As Stenton has argued, "In policy discourse, community usually denotes a desire to foster close human links with troubled and fragmented populations." Rose elaborates on this:

"Community has become a new spatialization of government: heterogenous, plural, linking individuals, families and others in contesting cultural assemblies of identities and allegiances." (Rose, 1996: 327)

For example: in popular news discourses, Northern Ireland is defined as a place where opposing communities struggle to reach agreement. In both official and unofficial ways, shame plays a crucial role in how these troubled people police one another. The threat of being shamed as an informer by elements within the community is as powerful a tool of governance as the use of the law to bring the guilty to trial.

An additional notion of governmentality is useful here. By arguing that shame is part of a neo-liberal method of governmentality which "responsibilizes" people, we can understand its popularity and explain how it can be so successfully be put to work in communities. Governmentality is not so much concerned with actual political parties as with the routines, mechanisms, discourses and procedures that are concerned with our behaviour. "Government concerns not only practises of the government but also practises of the self." (Rose 2000: 186) In one useful short hand phrase, government has to do with "the conduct of conduct" — how are we encouraged to adopt a series of ideas to fashion ourselves. In Dean’s words,

"Government is … a general term to encompass all those agencies, practises, techniques and discourses that provide the means and conditions of administration and rule … the formation of the distinctive means and apparatuses of government that focus on the direction and conduct of individuals and groups, and on the population, a unique entity made available by particular knowledges (e.g. the social sciences, economics and social policy) and dependent on distinctive intellectual technologies such as social statistics, census taking, tables, graphs and charts, etc.)." (Dean, 1995: 569)

A governance framework allows us to consider the relations between government and self-government and to ask, for example: How is a community made individually responsible? How are free autonomous, self-regulating individuals turned into moral agents working in ways which accord with those of state agencies?

In the following discussion of non-fiction television, shame is understood as a tactic of governance; a way in which we are offered models of behaviour; a form of policing which is co-terminously an instrument of community-formation. Shame speaks very much to our social self as well as to our private sense of who we are. Thus we will also consider those who "take on" shame to explore the limits of behaviour.

A typology of shaming

"...the show dedicated to those people who catch crime on camera, felonies on film and trouble on tape..." — Video Vigilantes (Commentary)

Reality TV has enjoyed a boom over the past twenty years, for reasons which have already been well documented in Jump Cut. Its continuing dominance in the schedule is instructive on the new economics of television and the timidity of ratings-driven schedulers and commissioning editors. But what has received insufficient analysis has been the powerful role that shame plays in these programs. As I shall show, "shame" appears in a variety of ways — some of which clearly align an audience with the state and other authorities, and in other ways that offer a more complex and ambivalent position that challenges our understanding of shame. Some programs even mix together these perspectives to produce a truly dizzy variety of tactics utilizing the power of shame. What follows represents a first attempt to construct a typology of shaming within reality television. My aim is to show the different ways in which shame is put to work as a force for patrolling behaviour. I propose four main categories of reality television shaming:

  1. authoritarian
  2. new vigilantes
  3. willing victims and
  4. shame and activism.

But all of these uses of shame have one element in common — they have been enabled by the encroaching inroads of surveillance into more areas of public life. Surveillance footage is itself so prevalent that it now forms part of the grammar of television. However, what I want to explore here is how surveillance footage can be used to create or activate shame, which in turn helps determine how we police ourselves and others.

(i) authoritarian

"The pervasive image of the perpetrator of crime is…of the individual who has failed to accept his or her responsibilities as a subject of the moral community. Punishment by shaming and reform seek to reconstruct these ethical self-steering mechanisms." (Rose 2000: 205)

As readers here will know, most of the public’s knowledge of the police comes via the media and often through television footage shot quite literally from their "position." Much criticism of media coverage of certain key events has developed from the fact that the media are quite literally on the same side as the police. For their part, the media argue that they need the protection of the police and that to join protestors risks harming their own staff. Thus while we can understand the logistic of this production decision, we also need to look at how our authoritarian-led perspective might predispose us to react to people in certain ways.

In the UK there is now a long tradition of television programs that place the audience on the side of the police. Thus from the long-running Crimewatch UK to newer formats such as Street Crime UK, it is always the police perspective that predominates. Those "caught-on-camera" are there specifically to be shamed. The language used reinforces this. Criminals are outsiders. It is the responsibility of those of us on this side of the camera looking at them and sharing the police’s perspective to catch them. In the United States, series such as Cops have long been responsible for placing viewers on the side of the police as officers investigate a wide variety of crimes. It is important to link this official perspective to the uses of CCTV (closed circuit television) images in posters, Neighbourhood Watch leaflets and other literature — all of which seek to bind the community together against the errant outsider. The shame felt by those caught in posters having tried to cheat ticket collectors, etc., is meant also to be a warning. These are people who have been caught by ever-more impressive surveillance systems, indicating their shamed fate is one that awaits us too if we try to cheat.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that we simply line up behind this official version of those who are to be shamed. Sometimes we learn that those on screen have been wrongly accused. Furthermore, increasing levels of mistrust between the public and the police further threaten any implicit agreement between ourselves and the authorities. But the use of footage sourced from CCTV cameras and the police’s own equipment clearly is intended to line us up with the state and other authorities: shame functions as a warning and a threat. To what extent this works — inspires us into action so that we feel this shame — is, of course, far more complex.

(Continued: new vigilantes)

To topPrint versionJC 48 Jump Cut home