Last year, fashion designer Dame Denise L'Estrange Corbet mislabelled some T-shirts. The swing tag said they were made in New Zealand when they weren't. But from the vitriol online you could be forgiven for thinking she had drowned some kittens or was a war criminal. "People are gonna have fun with this. I might even feel sympathetic towards her after the public evisceration," salivated a charming person called NewZealanders4Trump in a post online when this major story broke.

Okay, so, then a random Invercargill teenage girl with issues did actually throw stones at a kitten. She received death threats after the video was shared by Paw Justice online and she was so brutally shamed and threatened she needed police protection.

The thing is, you don't have to be famous or torture animals to be shamed online. The online pitchfork mob can come for anyone. Telling an insensitive joke, sitting with your legs too wide on public transport, taking a silly picture in front of a monument. No one had ever heard of New York woman Justine Sacco until she tweeted an offensive joke about Aids on a flight to South Africa and blew up her life. An Auckland woman was shamed for reading a book at the traffic lights. A Mount Maunganui beach-goer was shamed for having the audacity to wear a bikini with a puku. I've been shamed online for saying something that was provocative - I didn't like Clarke Gayford – fair enough, I got a kicking. But I've also got in trouble for simply being honest about how often I give my kids chicken nuggets.

Deborah Hill Cone was shamed for admitting she wasn't a fan of Clarke Gayford. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
Deborah Hill Cone was shamed for admitting she wasn't a fan of Clarke Gayford. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

And don't think you'll be safe if you live an exemplary life from now on. Now that with the click of a keyboard people can "search and shame", a slip-up made 10 years ago could turn the outrage machine on you if it's dug up later. No wonder we are all so scared to put our heads above the parapet.

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It doesn't take much to become the repository of our society's collective loathing and the target of the baying mob's rage. Although it seems this one powerful and incontrovertible truth – that the shit that rained down on L'Estrange Corbet could just as easily fall on you - is still too pungent for us to admit.

On some level we must know the logic: there is no one who has not done some ill-advised or embarrassing thing that would be deeply humiliating if revealed under the full glare of public scrutiny. So every time we see someone being pilloried, our unconscious mind knows: "That could be me." So whether we are aware of it or not, we become a little more terrified. And it's that terror that drives us to carry on doing it to others: "Not me man!" So we are perpetuating the very thing we are most afraid of. It's all a bit of a muddle really.

There are two apparently contradictory things going on here. On the one hand, our supposedly enlightened age is characterised by an anti-shame zeitgeist. If you go online there will be no shortage of people declaring they are not ashamed about being fat, hairy, gay, divorced, depressed, spotty, introverted, perverted. It's agreed: social shame is a thing of the past. Public relations expert Deborah Pead, who helps major corporate clients stay out of trouble, notes this contradiction. "In my mother's day being unmarried and pregnant would be very shaming but now it's nothing."

But this is only half the story. Renowned psychologist Joseph Burgo has just written a book on shame. As part of his research, he set a Google alert for the word "shame". He found many people who proudly declared they were not ashamed but was unprepared for the far larger number of hits insisting that other people ought to be ashamed. "Day after day Google Alerts sent me links to authors pointing an angry finger at bigots, misogynists, xenophobes, doctors who fat-shame their patients, greedy industrialists, shameless tax evaders, uncaring politicians, criminals without remorse, neglectful parents, and so on."

It seems we have taken all the pious-chintzy-churchy shame of yesteryear and now we are projecting it on everyone else, like a game of dark object hot potato. As my mother used to say, when you point at someone else, three fingers are pointing at you. (Not sure where your thumb goes. Mum?)

"In medieval times they used to put people in stocks and throw things. Now we have digital stocks. It can be terrifying, "Pead says.

Perversely, by shaming others we often seem to be trying to express our support for the values of tolerance, compassion and fairness. We don't seem to realise the result is quite the opposite. I know, right? The people who do that are morons. Damn! See what I did there? The very thing I am criticising. That's why this is so hard. It all comes from our unconscious.

Ultimately, we need a new social norm against online publicly shaming, one not enforced by shaming. Because we think the monster is not inside us, it's in "them", we have found ourselves in what seems to be a new sort of Dark Ages. Back in medieval times there was severe punishment and public humiliation for crimes that today would seem trivial.  People lived in a state of fear thinking they would be the next victim. These days we don't literally chop people's hands off, but public shaming can be just as wounding, psychologically. As shame scholar Gershen Kaufman writes, "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

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Shame can be experienced as such a negative, intense emotion of self-loathing that it can lead us to disown it and give it away by evoking that emotion in others. Kids who bully figure out what makes other kids ashamed and they are highly skilled at triggering the emotion of shame in peers. And this makes shame a contagious emotion.

"On feedback forums there is a huge amount of outrage and chest-beating and wailing and renting of garments and then there is the lone brave voice that says, 'Well, maybe there is another way to see it.' The attack on that voice is worse than the original," Pead says. "It's like an episode of Black Mirror. Social media has turned into social control. It really is something we need to think about."

We tend to think about it only when it happens to us. Andy Warhol said we would all be famous for 15 minutes but maybe what he really meant was we're all going to be shamed, and for many of us it will last a lot longer. It's still going on for Dame Denise. I thought she might let me interview her for this article because normally she's very open. In 2015 when her daughter, Pebbles Hooper (whom I have never met), was being brutally shamed for making a cruel comment on Twitter about a mother who had lost her children, I was worried about her mental health and sent her some messages of support. But Dame Denise, seemingly so ballsy, said the label scandal had been so painful she did not want to talk. "In 30 years I had never experienced savagery like it from certain NZ media, so I am sorry, I just cannot do it."

I understand, chook. Even being shame-adjacent makes many of us fearful. It takes a staunch person, like crisis consultant Glenda Hughes, to deal with it. Hughes is a former police officer, sits on the parole board and has acted for some of our highest profile sports people when they have been in trouble, including Mark Todd and Tony Veitch. She believes shaming is becoming more vicious.

"I worry about the most serious thing that can happen, which is suicide. I have seen people completely devastated."

Hughes says sometimes time is the answer, but not always.

"I worry we are losing a huge amount of talented people … someone made a mistake and they are shamed on Facebook and social media and it affects their ability and they can no longer contribute."

The figures back up Hughes' view that it is getting worse. Netsafe's 2018 annual report showed reports of harmful digital communications were up 23 per cent on the previous year. Nearly one in 10 New Zealanders had experienced an unwanted digital communication that had a negative impact on their daily activities. One of the most common consequences was being unable to sleep or eat properly. That sounds serious. Yet strangely, the report does not once use the word "shame" or "shaming" or talk about how to stop the phenomenon as a whole.

Netsafe's director of education and engagement, Sean Lyons, says the Harmful Communications Act, which came into force in July 2015 , is focused on supporting individuals who may have been harmed. Netsafe is now governed by this new-ish law, which focuses on supporting individuals rather than wider social harm.

He likens the law change - trying to stop online abuse - to laws introducing seatbelts, which took time to change behaviour. "But I take your point about King Canute [who tried, and failed, to hold back the tide]. For some people it hasn't touched them yet." Social norms around mental health stigma and smoking have benefited from big investments in public campaigns but there has been nothing on this scale for online abuse.

The world's most famous victim of online shaming might agree. Monica Lewinsky's affair with then-President Bill Clinton was outed on the blog The Drudge Report 21 years ago. In her 2015 TED talk "The Price of Shame", she argued the antidote to shaming was empathy. "I've seen some very dark days in my life and it was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends, professionals and sometimes even strangers that saved me. Even empathy from one person can make a difference."

 Monica Lewinsky has spoken out on her experience of being publicly shamed. Photo / Getty
Monica Lewinsky has spoken out on her experience of being publicly shamed. Photo / Getty

I'm not sure it is that simple. Empathy is everywhere: on fridge magnets, school noticeboards and my waiter, wearing a T-shirt that said "Be Kind" yesterday as he delivered my coffee – but none of this seems to have stopped the online shaming epidemic. To labour the seatbelt analogy, we might be buckling up but we are still crashing.

Could there be something deeper, even unconscious, going on? Auckland psychotherapist Joanne Emmens has investigated how our culture has a particularly strong and harsh "super-ego" or self-critical conscience, which perpetuates shame. "We are in obeyance to something, this invisible authority that we don't even consciously know we are obeying. Every culture and country has its own Super-ego and I think New Zealand has a particularly strong super-ego and it's quite shaming, it's quite shutting down, sort of quietening people, telling people to tone [themselves] down."

Emmens says in public shaming, something gets projected out very ferociously and aggressively on to the victim making it hard for the person to get back to the truth. "We would look at the structure of what happened and help the person to give the projections back, differentiating out what is me and what is you, and give it back." Fully faced, shame may become not something to be covered [up], but a positive experience of revelation. Sociologist Helena Merrell Lynd says something similar: that it is possible that experiences of shame if confronted full in the face may throw an unexpected light on who one is and point the way toward who one may become.

That can confer superpowers. We admire those who, unlike most of us, are brave enough to take on the pitchfork mob. Columnist Damien Grant said L'Estrange Corbet was the most courageous business person of the year for refusing to apologise for the labelling snafu. "Being part of a baying mob, for that is what much of our modern commentary has been reduced to, isn't brave and nor is it radical. Standing up to them is." Grant, like Dame Denise, has had his own shaming experience. Last year he talked publicly about his time in prison. The shame club might be a group you don't want to join but if membership comes for you, I can guarantee it will offer you a sweet, secret gift. You will no longer be able to deny this truth: the superpower is you are no better - and no worse - than anyone else.