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October 21, 2013

Let's stop 'shaming' each other

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. 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."

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