The mathematician and author talks about the exploitation of our feelings, cancel culture, and why she believes JK Rowling is an example of ‘punching-down shame’
Cathy O’Neil is a writer, a mathematician and author of the bestselling Weapons of Math Destruction, which won the Euler book prize. Her latest book is The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation, which looks at the ways shame is manufactured and exploited in a range of industries, including prisons, welfare systems and social media, for coercive and commercial purposes. She argues that a common intention is to shift responsibility for social problems from institutions to individuals.
This is a very different book to your previous one. What made you decide to write about the subject of shame?
I first became really interested in shame while researching Weapons of Math Destruction. I talked to teachers who had been evaluated by a secret scoring system. And they were sometimes getting fired or denied tenure. When I asked if somebody had explained the formula to them, they said they were told it was math and they wouldn’t understand. That silenced them. It was shame as a systematic mechanism.