Dictionary entries for the word shame include “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety” and “a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong.” Etymologically, the word comes from the Old English scamu, a “loss of esteem” or something that “brings disgrace[…] private parts.” The word is powerful, calling to mind images of our most closely held secrets and deepest insecurities. Unlike embarrass, by definition “to make (someone) feel confused and foolish in front of other people,” shame carries the weight of guilt and wrongdoing.
Adam and Eve were shamed for listening to an evil serpent, and they covered their bodies. Phrases like slut-shaming and body-shaming exist because making someone feel guilty, as though their bodies are morally wrong, is unacceptable and reprehensible. These phrases and their impact are important and serious; our society needs them.
When we start using shame in lieu of embarrass or criticize, the word and the phrases that incorporate it lose their value. As Slate’s Mark Peters writes, phrases like creep-shaming, privilege-shaming, and bigot-shaming undermine the potency of the word and very real idea of shame. “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,” he explains.
Peters is also disturbed by the increased use of phrases like child-shaming and dog-shaming, claiming that the word is now used for comic effect. He writes of librarian-shaming et al, “Shaming has always been a form of emotional abuse, but now it’s also a growing genre of humor.”
He’s right: shame isn’t funny. But I see websites like dog-shaming not as destructive but as opportunities to gain some insight into the way we use the word; I think it’s more of a parody of things like “creep shaming” than anything else. Saying shame when one really means critique or embarrass transforms the whole idea into a joke. Lest we go the way of the boy who cried wolf, maybe we should reconsider crying, “Shame!”