Tag: shame

„You can criticise Taylor Swift, but not George Michael"

Once frowned upon, pop music has become a must for every music connoisseur. You get suspicious looks if you don’t have guilty pleasures, says music critic Carl Wilson in our interview and explains how we have come to love what we used to hate.

In your book ‘Let’s Talk About Love’ that came out in 2007, you analyse Céline Dions famous album of the same name and take it as a starting point to ponder the meaning of bad taste and what makes us feel ashamed of certain things we like. Do you have a lot of guilty pleasures?
I don’t have that experience with music very often anymore. Probably because I have thought so much about it over the past years. But I do get it with TV, when I see something really cheesy or fake that somehow still gets to me, like a teen soap opera. There is a vague feeling of embarrasment, when I like it. But it’s not necessarily shame because of me liking it but because of the question, if something is worthy of your time or not. Are cheesy romcoms really the best way to spend my free time?
You feel it’s a waste of time?
Not so much a waste of time but just not the best option. Instead of scrolling on Facebook I could read a book instead or spend time with my friends or family.
The philosopher Kenneth Goldsmith actually challenges the widespread assumption that “wasting time on the Internet” is a waste of time. He argues that it demands active engagement and thereby makes us more social and creative. Do you agree?
I agree, but it’s a question of proportions, I think. The complete refusal to use Facebook or watch TV because it can lead to procrastination is also not good. It’s a kind of puritanical reaction. We should be allowed to ‘waste’ some time.
Coming back to the feeling of shame. Usually you would feel ashamed of something you like but when George Michael died and I told people that I think he is overrated, I was criticized a lot and felt ashamed for actually not liking his music.
Shaming works in strange ways. At the height of George Michaels commercial success, you would have found plenty of people agreeing with you, that he is overrated. But when the artist is in the rearview mirror and no longer a ‘threat’ to the hierarchy of taste, when he or she is not part of the current popculture debate anymore, then people become far more soft on them. Taylor Swift? Sure, you can criticise her, but George Michael? We have developed our own rituals around celebrity deaths now and they do not include criticism. It’s purely based on paying tribute. That reinforces the unspeakability of any negative feelings about that artist. When Elvis died in the 1970s, it was much easier for people to privately criticise him, but now the mourning happens in public and sharing negative feelings about a deceased musician is like voicing criticism at a funeral. It’s just not allowed.
The feeling of shame vanishes over time and we now celebrate the popstars that were detested at the height of their success . Do you think that reinforces a higher acceptance of today’s bubblegum pop?
I am not sure. Take the EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers for example, they have a lot of critics, because they are changing the trajectory of pop music. When “Let’s Talk About Love” hit the shelves ten years ago, Céline Dion was still a pop figure that people talked about and attacked. But she was granted immunity a few years back, because she is no longer an active part of the debate. Modern-day pop acts are not as fortunate. They don’t have the benefit of nostalgia.
Because nostalgia makes everything better – even a past we disliked.
Exactly, Céline Dion also represents Titanic and 90s fashion faux pas and especially for people between 30 and 40, she also represents their youth.
Why do you think guilty pleasures are such a big part of our current culture? Is it just nostalgia?
No, that would be too simplistic. Our taste is also our identity. We define ourselves by what we like. Taste can be at the core of a group identity as well. It is such a strong instrument of differenciation. Then there is also the perception, that art is supposed to be enlightening instead of just hedonistic. That makes it hard to openly like something that is not considered high-brow culture. The guilty pleasure is a way around that.
But you have to earn it. The guilty pleasure is only allowed because you have proven that you have good taste. As in listening to five Sonic Youth songs allows you to listen to one song by Britney Spears.
That’s a way musical taste has evolved in the past decade or two. Guilty pleasures were not a thing in the 70s or 80s. It would have been dubious. Because you had your musical genre, and you stuck to it. But if you only listen to what the cool kids listen to today, it makes you seem narrow-minded. Pop has become an obligation for music nerds. Your taste profile needs a broad variety of styles, not all of them should be considered good.
It’s fascinating how bad taste has become an extremely positive concept. There are bad taste parties celebrating the absolute worst of the worst. It has stripped bad taste of its own meaning.
It’s a countercultural battle that was fought and won. The tag bad taste is now owned by people that are very proud of their taste and consider it good. Bad taste has become a transgressive phenomenon. The director John Waters has used the term to delineate who’s square and who’s edgy, for example.
But what is then, objectively, bad and how can you differentiate between good bad and genuinely bad?
That’s a hard question but I think that we are in a much more sophisticated place today when it comes to taste because we are being exposed to so much more. There is no scarcity of culture anymore and so we have come to accept the validity of different worlds and trends. That also means, that we are no longer so serious about our own taste and think we have to defend it at every occasion. That was certainly different a few decades ago. I think that also resulted in us not being so bent on judging everything straight away. There is still genuinly bad taste but we show mercy a lot of the time. Also, shame doesn’t need to be a bad experience.
How so?
In the same way that sadness is also celebrated or at least positively connoted. It’s a human reaction that tells us something about ourself. It’s not really a utopia for me if everybody has a wide-open, let-it-all-hang-out-sense of culture. Shame has its place in culture. The problem starts, when we start to take advantage of things in a hostile way, when we start shaming and attacking others.
I recently read about the Disco Demolition Night. A radio station called upon its audience in 1979 to destroy disco by publicly burning disco records before a local baseball game. The promotion stunt ended in a riot and was expressive of racism and homophobia. That’s the shaming that goes too far.
At that time, disco was extremely commercially dominant. The strange thing is that it was music for the marginalised: gays and the black community. Then there was a white, homophobic backclash because of others gaining ground. The same happens today with the Trump presidency.
Is it fair to say that although pop music is more generally accepted today, it is still the primary target for critique?
It’s an easy prey. Pop music is like parents: you hate it when you are young and then you patch up things as you get older. It’s also by definition the most mainstream music and we live in the most egocentric of times. Individuality is sacred and pop is the opposite of that. Also, pop is predominantly understood as a female genre because of its focus on feelings and emotions. Most men do not want to be associated with that. Those prejudices persist.
I think it also comes down to authenticity. Emotions are also the centre of all other musical genres but the perception is different. Listening to Björk sing about heartbreak feels more genuine than hearing Céline Dion do the same thing.
It depends on how you see the world. Many people do not question the facade of the pop commercial world. It feels genuine. Connecting to a sad Björk song is probably something that most people do alone and in their own way. But pop music is more social and it is an experience you share with many people. It evokes the presence of a public, even when you are alone. Pop is not an introspective form of music. It is not a dark night of the soul.
Would you describe artist like Björk or Nick Cave as authentic?
They are definitely genuine but it depends what you mean by authenticity. I mean Nick Cave is a master of theatrical performance. You don’t go to a Nick Cave gig in order to find truth. His fans prefer his kind of artificiality over the one that pop acts put on. It depends on what you are willing to believe.
Then again, an artist like Father John Misty uses ‘fakeness’ in order to create an authentic stage persona. He is honest about being fake.
That is the oldest trick in art: putting on a mask to tell the truth. Father John Misty opens the engine room of showbusiness and shows us, in a very ironic manner, how artistic showmanship works. Spontaneity is a rare occurrence in performance and he is not trying to hide that.
And irony helps him get away with it
Irony is an aquired taste. Father John Misty appeals to people that like art from a safe distance. To other people, irony can seem hostile.
Could Céline Dion pull off irony?
Her fans like that she has a sense of humour about herself but she is serious about what she is doing and would never mock the performance and the audience for believing in it.
We talked a lot about bad taste. What, in conclusion, do you think is good taste then?
Good taste is probably more individual than bad taste. I don’t think there is objectively good taste but there is consensus taste: Things that you and the people around you can agree on. Sometimes that consensus is quite big, other times it is not. But it is never a given.
Carl Wilson is Slate’s music critic and the author of several books.

"Shame is absolutely necessary"

Man wearing hat with card "Bread or revolution"

Jennifer Jacquet argues that shame is often our most potent instrument to enforce social norms and punish those that go against them. For her, shame is not just a strong emotion but a powerful political weapon.

Your book is called „Is shame necessary?“ Is it?
Shame is absolutely necessary. At the same time, it is a very dangerous and fickle instrument. It is difficult to characterize it in any general way.

Jennifer Jacquet

Jennifer Jacquet is an assistant professor at New York University and the author of “Is Shame Necessary?”. Read more about her on her website.


Because it can be completely different things depending on the situation or context it is being used?
There is certainly a dose-response issue, as well as an issue of proportionality. Sometimes a very mild form of shaming is being used for a severe transgression and vice-versa. Especially online we see a lot of intense shaming for sometimes very little reason at all. The cases that we are most drawn to are cases where the shaming is really disproportionate. Cases where shaming is used against innocent victims. That’s in part why we paint shame with a broad brush and label it a bad thing. That was my impetus for the book. I wanted to show that sometimes shame can be a positive thing.
In the book, you argue that shame is very often a weapon of last resort. How effective can it be, especially in an arena like international politics?
We should think about it as a tool of last resort, but on the other hand it might sometimes be the only available option – especially in international politics with issues like climate change commitments or human rights violations. Reputation is something indispensable and something every political actor cherishes. Shaming bad actors can sometimes be the best way to express social values. In the past, there were more sanctions, like trade sanctions, tariffs, and boycotts, that could be used but these have been diluted over time by agreements made, for instance, at the WTO. Reputation has become one of the only areas where countries and citizens can push back.

“Shame works in relation to norms”

Have shaming tactics worked in international politics? The UN is one big naming-and-shaming-arena and yet is often powerless.
There is evidence that it can work. There is evidence that in the absence of shaming campaigns, things would be much worse in areas like human rights. It is not a perfect tool but no form of punishment is. The problem on the state-level is that states have no conscience and sovereignty grants them a certain moral immunity, which can make them more impermeable to shame. We might expect that companies built on public reputation would be much more vulnerable to shaming than countries. Globalization has created so many regulatory vacuums. In some cases, we can’t wait for legislation to catch up. Shame is our best option to try to regulate certain kinds of behaviors.
The problem with international issues like climate change is that they are not just linked to one or two states but to almost all of them which makes shaming harder.
Shame often has more traction in small groups, but the real thing that mattes is how widely held the beliefs are. An issue like climate change is relatively new. Shame has a lot to do with rules and shared social values, and it helps if those rules have been established for some time, such as the rules of war or human rights or an obligation to vote. When shame fails, it is most often because the standards have not been established firmly enough. Shame can only work if there is a norm or standard that is disrespected, but I have confidence that action on climate change is reaching a new and global moral imperative.
But norms are very different and often in conflict: A bank manager has a responsibility towards his shareholders to make a maximum profit but that is often in conflict with his responsibility towards society at large.
Quarterly returns used to be the gold standard of publicly traded corporate metrics. Now more and more corporations, including banks, are keeping track of other things, including reputation with the public and its customers. This is what has led to the success of groups like BankTrack, which exposes the banks that are most heavily invested in coal and other fossil fuels. Partially as a result of their work, which relies on shaming, several very big banks have vowed to stop investing in new fossil fuel operations. I agree with you that profits and larger social values are in conflict, and the banks are, more and more, going to have to choose whose side they are on.

“Donald Trump is the perfect bad apple”

In the book, you talk a lot about “bad apples” – individuals that go against norms and thereby ruining the advantages of obeying the rules. If someone will start smoking in a non-smoking environment, other smokers might be inclined to do it too. It becomes contagious.
And it’s not just about contagion but also sometimes, in certain problems, just a few bad apples can ruin things for everybody else. A very good example is the trade in endangered wildlife. You might have 99% of people against the trade in endangered species, and not participating in it. However, just 1% of people engaging in the trade are capable of driving many animals to extinction. Carbon emissions are another example: if big polluter countries like China or the US are not on board to reduce emissions, other countries will be less inclined to curb their emissions since they would be paying the price for the damage done by others, while the bad apples went on polluting.
Benjamin Franklin argued that it takes many good deeds to build a reputation but only one bad deed to lose it…
…unless you are Donald Trump. He is a perfect example of a bad apple. Now people think it’s acceptable to be racist, misogynist or not pay taxes. His dismissiveness of the system has made certain kinds of behaviors and attitudes socially acceptable to a large group of people. He is changing the rules, but also our attitude toward the rules.
Would you agree that there are always ways to cope with shame and losing your reputation?
The very rich and the very poor seem to be the most immune to shaming. The poor because they have nothing to lose and the rich because they are insulated from the shame or can always try to buy themselves a good reputation. Coping with shame is easier for groups or states because they do not feel ashamed because they lack a consciousness. Shame is a very personal emotion, and individuals have a harder time coping with it than groups do.
You argue in the book that shame works because it can scale whereas a feeling like guilt does not. But often companies try to escape the shaming by putting guilt on individuals – the consumers. The shamed have become the shamers.
That is the consequence of neoliberalism in which individual consumption is at the core of everything. Chevron ran a campaign in Washington D.C. in 2008 that read “I will unplug stuff more” or “I will take my golf clubs out of the trunk of my car” with an individual’s face above the statement. The problem of high emissions that is produced by companies like Chevron and Exxon is blamed on individual consumers. The consumer became the scapegoat. That is an absurd view of responsibility given how locked into a system of fossil fuels we are, in part because of the efforts of major fossil fuel corporations.
Shame can also be misused by one company to harm its competitors and gain a market advantage.
Yes, you see fossil fuel companies jockeying for their place on the hierarchy, like how BP tried to call itself “Beyond Petroleum”. You can shame companies like Exxon or BP or you can just stigmatize fossil fuels, which means that any company involved with fossil fuels will be considered partly responsible. I think moralizing the commodity is a smart move. We stigmatized slavery itself, not only the companies that participated in it.

“Shame is being overused”

I sometimes feel that shame is being overused by consumers today because they see that it works against companies. Shaming a company on social media has much more public effect than calling a customer hotline and blaming them there. But once you have a hammer, everything resembles a nail and shame is being used for the most banal things.
Yes, that is a problem. Shame is being overused, and we’re using it excessively against each other, too. There is even an app that alerts your friends every time you hit the snooze button in the morning. Shame is most powerful and should be reserved for serious social problems that we all share.

Because it is being overused we might reach a point where shaming is being shamed.

We are already there. There is a documentary about the politician Anthony Wiener who was involved in multiple sex and infidelity scandals. There is a great moment where a woman screams “We don’t care about his private life, we are from the Bronx”. She was shaming the shamers. There is a backlash against the overuse of shame. We all have things that we can be shamed about and we have to be careful to not become a society of finger-pointers, but rather aim shame well and cautiously at those genuinely doing the most harm to widely held social values.

Histories Hidden in Trash

What we learned walking across Berlin with a garbologist.

For Eva Becker, trash is a research subject. Germany’s first garbologist researches refuse and what it says about the humans creating it. In late summer, we joined her on one of her trash walks: A stroll through Berlin’s Kreuzberg district to document the trash on the streets.
Trash has a tendency to blend into the human environment. Especially in a city as busy and sometimes gritty as Berlin, you may fail to notice it. Walking with Eva, asking questions and slowly turning over the trash we found on our way was an eye-opening experience: Not only is there much more trash than you might think, it’s also scattered in the most unexpected places. We’ll let Eva explain.
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Garbology is the study of modern trash. William Rathje of the University of Arizona started using modern archaeological methods to analyse trash in the 1970s. He realized, that the way we litter tells a lot about the way we live. I stumbled upon his research some years ago and was fascinated by it. I did some research and found out that garbology is virtually non-existent in Germany which motivated me to do it.
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Trash is nothing new. As a species, we have always left something behind. In the Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world, archeologists have found trash in the form of bones or stone splitt-offs.
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The interesting thing about garbage is that it serves as a common denominator. We all litter. Every part of the city is dirty. It’s just the amount and type of garbage that varies. A neighbourhood like Kreuzberg or Neukölln is a real treasure trove for somebody like me: Most people don’t really see the garbage that surrounds them because it is so ubiquitous. We filter it out. It’s only when the amount or type of garbage is unusual that we are reminded of it.
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There are two ways people in cities deal with garbage when they are on the go: either they hide it or they present it. Sometimes, you come across a piece of garbage that was not just thrown away but carefully arranged or positioned by somebody. You would assume that people would dispose of their waste in the most discreet manner but some expose their garbage so that the trash collectors can more easily spot and collect it. And then there’s human laziness. That’s probably the prime reason for all the trash we find here. Even if there are enough garbage bins around: the incentive is not strong enough to overcome laziness and actually use them. Hiding waste, on the other hand, is mostly driven by shame or disgust. None of us likes garbage, not even our own.
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I have a very high tolerance by now. Of course there are things that disgust me like used syringes or human waste. When I go and talk to school classes here in Berlin, I am always amazed at how the kids react to the garbage I bring with me. They will gladly take up a plastic cup or something that was laying on the street but they jump up and scream if there is an ant or spider crawling around. They have lost all connection to nature. Nature has become something unfamiliar and hence disgusting.
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I have seen and documented so much garbage, there is relatively little that still amazes or shocks me. The most surprising thing is probably when you see something valuable being thrown out. I once found this very old and beautiful Indian antique. An acquaintance of mine – an Indologist – later told me that it was quite precious and rare.
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It’s very hard to tell where garbage begins and where it ends. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. Are dead bodies garbage? When we die, our bodies no longer fulfill any functions, they become more or less worthless and that’s how many people would define waste: a useless object. But our bodies continue to have a function after we die, they become compost and re-enter the biological cycle. I would define garbage as something that is of no use but stays in the environment in some way or another. A plastic bag in the ocean will disintegrate but its parts will stay in the water for a substantial amount of time. Marine biologists call these little shreds of plastic mermaid tears.
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William Rathje analysed the garbage at the Fresh Kills Landfill in NYC and what they found out was astounding. One example: they found large quantities of beef. They were able to trace it back to a specific moment in time because in the layer that had all the beef in it, they also found telephone books. They realized that the beef was thrown out during a time of economic recess. Why would people throw out expensive meat during a time of crisis? They bought it in such large quantities because they assumed it would only become more expensive or cease to be available completely. So people started buying beef in bulk but often had no means of storing it appropriately. They were forced to throw out the beef that had turned bad.
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Garbage is often a better indicator of human behavior than human communication. In New York, an ad agency was commissioned to find out about the eating habits of the residents of a certain area. The residents were asked to complete a questionnaire about their diet and eating habits and it was established from the answers, that people in that neighborhood were eating extremely healthy. Yet, when a supermarket in the area started offering healthier food options, nobody bought it. It was only by analyzing the garbage of the area that they found out people were not really all that dedicated to a healthy lifestyle. Waste doesn’t lie, humans do.

"Trash is a snapshot of our life"

Photographer Gregg Segal portrayed friends and strangers lying in seven days of their own garbage. Between polished eggshells and used syringes he found a lot of shame, pride and contradiction.

Gregg Segal is an American photographer based in California. See more of his work on his website.

Gregg Segal is an American photographer based in California. See more of his work on his website.


With this project, you portray something that most people don’t think about too much: trash. It is an undesired byproduct of something we want and yet it tells us a lot about how we live, consume and who we are. Was that the idea?
Yes, trash is in a way instant archaeology, giving us a glimpse at our value-system. It is a snapshot of our way of life. Trash defines us. Where you shop and what you eat reveal your socio-economic standing. Hopefully in 100 or 200 years, people will look back and think “can you believe how much trash that society produced?”.
Looking at the pictures, the characterization of the subjects is done by showing the garbage they produced over seven days. How important was it to you, that the people lay down in their trash?
As you said, we usually disassociate us from the trash we produce and my idea was to go against that and make a graphic connection between the trash and the people responsible for producing it. The message is pretty straightforward: You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.
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Despite all the filthiness depicted in the pictures, the subjects are usually portrayed quite glamorously and not derogatorily.
Yes, despite the heavy subject, the pictures are meant to be looked at and enjoyed. Just because the context is such a serious or yukky one, doesn’t mean the pictures should be ugly. Contradictions and opposites make for compelling pictures.
In most pictures, the person really fits and matches the items of trash spread around it. Were there instances where you were surprised by a person’s trash?
The problem is that some people probably edited their garbage to portray themselves in a certain light. That was disappointing but also interesting because it really showed to me how trash can shape the impression we want people to have of us. There was one guy who even cleaned his garbage. He came and brought eggshells that he had cleaned for the occasion. He didn’t want to appear messy or slackerish. Another person was the exact opposite and we found used syringes and tampons in her garbage. Another person brought a milkshake but it smelled like rotten chicken. It was interesting to see how people dealt with the disgust-factor of their trash: does it bother them to show the nasty reality or do they want to polish it?
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Is there a picture that resonates better with the audience than the rest?
That is a very subjective choice because everybody identifies with something else, but I found that the pictures showing middle- or especially upper-class citizens and families in their trash to really capture people’s attention. It’s one thing to see a poor person lying in trash but to see a rich family in that surrounding – you can’t help but look and ponder the contradiction of the image. The more money you have, the easier it is to distance yourself from the ugliness of the world.
Yes, but trash is something that all humans share. Some might be able to keep it out of their life, others live in it or of it, but we all produce it. It is one of life’s common denominators.
Very true. I would be interested to see the results if I would replicate this project in some other countries or in some other time even. 200 years ago, people just did not produce a lot of trash. There was no packaging, nothing like that. We all produce trash but it differs greatly. Also the awareness to the problem. The project received much more attention in Europe than over here in the US because I think that in Europe, there is a feeling of “we produce this together, we deal with it together”. Here, people think that they can do however they see fit.
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You and your family are also portrayed in the series. What made you also include yourself?
I don’t just want to point my finger at others and pretend like I don’t produce any trash. I also contribute to the problem. The real problem is awareness. It is easy to forget about your impact on the planet’s well-being. Consider how many people go and grab a plastic cup and drink from a water dispenser. They use that cup for maybe five seconds but it will harm the environment for many years to come. There is a complete imbalance between the usefulness of some items to us and the damage they do to the planet.
Were you interested in that topic before you embarked on this project?
Very much so, that lead me to the project in the first place. Even as a kid, I was amazed by the fact that people just put all their garbage in a bag and then a truck would come and make it disappear. I never understood where it went. It still amazes me today. Of course I know by now, but there is so much about garbage removal and disposal that many people are simply very ignorant about. It is a common misperception that recycling can fully solve the problem. The energy needed to recycle a bottle of plastic is so high that it again damages the planet in some other way. There is no easy fix.
Do you think that is easier to educate or raise awareness with a project like this than with a shocking and polemic campaign that would show dead animals or starving children on a landfill?
This project is definitely subtler and it doesn’t immediately hold you responsible for the planet’s problems. It’s easier to discuss with people if you don’t point the finger at them. But I do of course hope that people identify with the project and thereby the problem.