The German language, never shy of eclectic terminologies, has a word for a specific kind of shame: Fremdschämen. Roughly translated, it means stranger shame, and denotes the feeling of shame you feel when someone else does something particularly shameful. Arguably, this Teutonic proxy-shame manages to be empathetic and disdainful at the same time – but when it comes to shame, matters are naturally complex.
On its surface, shame is deeply personal: An unpleasant feeling, serving for emotional self-flagellation. But this specific power of shame has always been wielded against other as well. Back in the day, misdeeds were punished with public shaming at the market square. And even though most modern states have moved away from emotional punishment, the urge to shame others is very much alive on the internet, where (perceived) misdeeds lead to shitstorms, doxxing, and other forms of amateur vigilantism. In his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed“, author Jon Ronson succinctly states that we’re seeing a “great renaissance of public shaming”.
So there you have it: An emotion that’s both public and private, ancient and contemporary, complex and simple. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be shining our flashlights into the darkest corners of shame. And guess what: It would be a shame not to.