Monica Lewinsky's '15 Minutes of Shame': 5 things explored about cancel culture in the doc

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In recent years, cancel culture has dominated headlines.

Many, including Hollywood stars, have been subject to intense public scrutiny over a variety of topics or actions, occasionally resulting in someone being “canceled,” meaning their careers and personal lives take a dive due to increased negative publicity.

“15 Minutes of Shame,” a new documentary on HBO Max, was executive produced by Monica Lewinsky, who refers to herself as “patient zero” for public shaming. The doc examines cancel culture, the science behind it, its historical origins and more.

Here’s a look at five angles explored about cancel culture and public humiliation in the film:

WARNING: The video below contains graphic language.

It dates back centuries

Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith, a cultural historian at Queen Mary University of London, reflected on the early days of public humiliation, explaining that past societies often required people to pull together and follow rules such as not hoarding resources.

“These kind of societies punish very quickly and very severely anyone who is trying to take more than their fair share, anyone who thinks they don’t have to abide by the rules,” she explained. “Societies across the ages have this strange process of ritualized public humiliation.”

Anonymity can compound shaming

Oftentimes, when people are canceled, it’s done by a mob of strangers, as is regularly the case with celebrities.

As it turns out, such anonymity makes it easier for critics to go on the offensive.

“When someone is just a name on a screen with some of their text as well as maybe a stranger you’ve never met, that is not enough information for our human brains to fully perceive them as a human,” explained Dr. Helen Weng, a neuroscientist and psychologist, who studies processing of emotions.

“One quick route that our brains understand the mental states of others is viewing people’s faces and body language. And our brains process this information very, very quickly,” she continued. “If we don’t have access to that information through the internet, then it’s harder for us to even think about what this person might be thinking or feeling.”

Monica Lewinsky executive produced and narrated ’15 Minutes of Shame’
(HBO Max)

The term “cancel culture” dates back to the early 1990s

While “cancel culture” may seem like a relatively new term, writer and internet culture journalist Aja Romano revealed that it comes from 1990s pop culture.

In the 1991 movie “New Jack City,” Wesley Snipes uses the phrase “cancel that b—h, I’ll buy another one” while breaking up with a woman.

Romano then points to a December 2014 episode of “Love & Hip Hop” in which a man tells a woman that she’s “canceled” after she reveals that she has a daughter.

“It took off from there,” the journalist said. “People started using it initially humorously, and then it sort of [caught on].”

Humans release ‘dopamine’ when seeing someone get called out

“There are studies that show that dopamine is released when we see a transgressor being punished,” Smith said. “I think it’s possible that we just are chasing that hit that we get when we see someone that we’ve perceived to be a wrongdoer, get their comeuppance.”

Smith is an expert in schadenfreude, “the pleasure that you get in seeing someone else’s misfortune,” as she put it.

The historian then recalled a Dutch study done with soccer fans that examined the faces of fans watching a team they’re a fan of scoring a goal, as well as videos of an opposing team missing a goal.

“At those videos [of the rivals missing], that’s when they smiled most broadly and most quickly,” Smith explained. “It wasn’t seeing their own team score a goal, it was seeing their rivals miss a goal.”

’15 Minutes of Shame’ is now streaming on HBO Max.
(HBO Max)

Social media algorithms may promote negative content

Technology Ethicist Tristan Harris recalled an NYU study that found that ” for every word of moral outrage” – such as “horrible,” “disgrace” and “abomination” – added to a tweet on Twitter, the “retweet rate” of that post increased by 13%.

Tweets with higher engagement are promoted by algorithms on social media platforms, which is they’re profitable, according to Harris.

UCLA professor and author Safiya Noble echoed such sentiments, explaining that social media algorithms aren’t “neutral and objective” but are focused on “drawing eyeballs to material on their platforms.”

More of those eyeballs result in more money for social media platforms, meaning they’ll promote what clicks, Harris explained. 

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