John Oliver examines the complex world of public shaming on Last Week Tonight


Is public shaming all bad, good, or something in between? John Oliver explores this intricate problem on Last Week Tonight.

Everything’s complicated. It’s easy enough to pretend that there is a clear and righteous division between “good” and “bad.” Of course, that’s almost never the case. In a world that is growing increasingly connected and where information has become its own massive economy, that much is obvious.

That concept should stay on your mind as John Oliver dives into the matter of public shaming on the latest episode of Last Week Tonight. Shaming has become incredibly easy thanks to the internet. There, viral videos, blind items, and half-informed posts feed into the churning outrage. “This is a golden age of internet shaming,” said Oliver.

This isn’t to say that public shaming is all bad. The flip side of all this is accountability. An “outrage machine” could bring people to account for genuinely terrible things they have done and said. Would predators like Harvey Weinstein have faced any justice at all if it weren’t for the online #MeToo movement? Is it that bad to be outraged at the actions of people like Bill Cosby and professional yeller-at-things Tucker Carlson? Tucker Carlson, by the way, has referred to women as dogs and thinks that Warren Jeffs might be an okay dude.

There are some important things to consider when drawing this line. Carlson, for instance, is a public figure. His awful comments are made in a public forum, uttered on his television show, in an interview, or typed into a text box.

But what about “ordinary” people who are unwillingly taken up into the angry internet? Take the aunt who sued her nephew. Upon greeting her, the boy hugged her so hard that she broke her wrist. Many commentators saw the headlines and took her to be the “worst aunt ever.” After all, who could sue their innocent nephew who was only happy to see them?

Except, that wasn’t the whole truth. Actually, she was compelled to name someone in a lawsuit in order to pay for medical costs. Her nephew and his family were fine with it and wouldn’t have to even pay any costs. It was really a matter of legal details and circumstance. Yet, the consequences of her becoming the “worst aunt ever” included failed job interviews, threats, and the need to redo her entire identity.

So, when it comes to shaming someone in the public arena, there are no easy answers. However, there are a few guiding principles that might keep up from going too off course and fully submerging ourselves in a rage swamp.

“At some point, it’s incumbent on everyone to consider the context and the consequences” of a situation, Oliver maintained. We have to remain thoughtful and aware of the details that could tip a situation one way or the other.

Oliver acknowledged that Last Week Tonight is based on making fun of people, though he argued that the process in the writing room is more thoughtful than you might think. That includes considering the use of someone’s name, their power, and the kind of facial hair they might sport (a soul patch might make you fair game).

College admissions

What about someone like Olivia Jade Giannulli, a college student involved in the recent admissions scandal? She is a public figure, after all. Her Instagram is rife with sponcon and tone deaf comments, and that’s before we learned that Full House’s Aunt Becky tried to get her daughter onto a USC rowing team with fudged credentials.

That doesn’t mean minors and young adults like Olivia Jade should be defined by this forever. It certainly doesn’t merit death threats. But, perhaps her status as a public figure involved in an ethically corrupt scandal merits a couple of jokes. Right? It’s complicated.

For another example, Oliver turned to Monica Lewinsky. In 1997 and 1998, Lewinsky went from a low-level White House intern, to President Bill Clinton’s paramour, to someone embroiled in a deeply negative scandal.

“Bill Clinton didn’t have to change his name. Nobody’s ever asked him if he has to change his name.”

Graphic details of her affair with the President were made public in the Starr Report. She became fodder for jokes, tabloids, and late night monologues. Jay Leno had a field day with quips about her activities with Clinton.

Oh, and meanwhile, how many jokes of the same caliber were made about Bill Clinton himself? Lewinsky is only just returning to the public arena within recent years, while Clinton has been sitting fairly pretty as an elder statesman.

Imagine one of the stupidest, most destructive things you have ever done, regardless of whether or not you were caught. Now, imagine being confronted with that, by strangers, every day for the rest of your life.

Monica Lewinsky

At the end of the show, Oliver sat down for an interview with Lewinsky. Since the days of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, she has become an outspoken opponent of public shaming and bullying.

Lewinsky argued that public shaming has grown worse in recent years, thanks in large part to the anonymity of the internet. Online personas can release someone’s shadow self, magnifying the monstrous parts of a human being and dehumanizing the other people involved.

Is there a positive side to public shaming? asked Oliver. Yes, but it’s hard to parse. “I do think there’s a spectrum of behavior,” she said. But it’s a tool that can be misused easily, Lewinsky maintained. “Is this where shaming is effective to change social behavior, or is it damaging?”

She’s certainly familiar with the damaging side of public shame, given that she was made into the butt of jokes for years and suffered consequences in her personal and professional lives. “It was an avalanche of pain and humiliation,” she said.

For Lewinsky, the pain wasn’t just involved in the shaming, but having a close relationship that was made grossly public. “It was also about my looks,” she said. Her appearance and weight weren’t off limits for many commentators and comedians at the time.


She watched what must have been a surreal interrogation and reconstruction of her persona, of “Monica Lewinsky” as a figure or concept rather than a living human being. Even now, she can’t quite escape the legacy of this reconstructed persona.

Lewinsky says that she never really considered changing her name. First, she didn’t think it would really work – people would almost certainly recognize her regardless.

“It was also a principle,” she said. “Bill Clinton didn’t have to change his name. Nobody’s ever asked him if he has to change his name.”

What if social media had been around back then? It’s easy to see how it could have magnified the worst of Lewinsky’s experiences, made every stupid joke into a repetitive torture device. But, if public shaming is complicated, so, too, is this. Lewinsky wondered if she would have felt so alone, as she must have when she was in the aftermath of the scandal.

Related Story. Why Captain Marvel’s new look points to a problem with representation. light

“One of the things that happens with these kinds of experiences is that you start to disappear,” she said. It’s easy to start believing that the cardboard representation of yourself is the real thing. People reaching out in support, perhaps over the internet, can make a difference simply by acknowledging someone’s humanity.

“You can get through it,” she said. “You can move past something like this.”