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Righteous Bullying: How Online Harassment Corrodes the Soul

Contempt, social validation, and sadistic pleasure can be potent narcotics.

Key points

  • Common patterns of behavior emerge whenever a community singles out one of its members for online shaming and expulsion.
  • The intrinsic and external rewards that come with public shaming can tempt a person with powerful gratification.
  • The pleasure of rhetorical violence is addictive and degrading. Bullying because it's pleasurable forfeits one's moral authority.
Wikimedia Commons/allibug14. Creative Commons Share Alike 4.0.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/allibug14. Creative Commons Share Alike 4.0.

In the age of social media, ordinary people have unprecedented power to hold public figures accountable for their actions. The infraction could be a poorly phrased tweet, or a serious accusation of criminal misconduct. On the internet, any crime can be brought to trial in the court of public opinion.

And while we deal harshly with our enemies, the most severe punishments are reserved for the people who we think are supposed to be on our side. When the right decides that a centrist Republican has expressed dissent against the far-right establishment; when the left discovers a celebrity has made a bigoted remark; when any group discovers that one of its members has betrayed their shared ideology—no matter the group, no matter their ideology—the emergent pattern of online harassment is always the same. Our judgment is swiftest and most severe when we are called to “cancel” one of our own.

“They had it coming.” Right?

Online Shaming

This post touches on volatile subject matter, so I want to make clear: I am not here to talk about who should be “canceled,” or for what action, or how they should be treated. I have seen cases where cancellation has brought justice to monsters, and cases where it has ruined undeserving people’s lives, and every ambiguity between these two extremes. Neither am I interested in defending celebrity “victims” of cancel culture; anyone who is too wealthy and powerful to be more than mildly inconvenienced by mass online aggression isn’t really part of this conversation. Instead, I hope to explore some common patterns of behavior that emerge whenever a community singles out one of its members for online shaming and expulsion.

Because these behaviors are remarkably consistent. I’m sure you’ve seen them. There is always an escalation of the invective against the accused, from the specific criticism of a specific action, to personal attacks, to obscenity and threats of violence. There is always righteous self-posturing by the accuser, meant to categorically devalue the target and invalidate their defenders. There is always bad-faith scrutiny of online history, a painstaking search to dig up prior violations and usually disclose private information. I believe that the consistency of these behaviors, across cultural and political lines, suggests underlying psychological and sociological motivators.

Why Is Online Shaming So Satisfying?

So, what makes chastising a stranger over the internet so satisfying? Unfortunately, the answers here are ugly and primitive: subjecting others to cruelty and scorn produces powerful neurological rewards. In Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman writes: “Contempt can be quite an enjoyable emotion.” Gershen Kaufman elaborates in his book The Psychology of Shame: “By distancing the self from whatever arouses that contempt, it also elevates the self above others. The object of contempt, be it self or other, is found offensive, something to be repudiated. Contempt adds punishing anger to distancing dissmell… an intense punitive quality (via anger) with a total and permanent repudiation of the offending other.” It’s a potent cocktail of emotions that can quickly become intoxicating.

Contempt is a powerful motivator, but crucially, it’s not something you can enjoy when you’re alone; there must be a second party, a target for you to elevate yourself above. The arrangement is comparable to bullying among schoolchildren, defined as “a range of behaviors that result in an imbalance of power between the aggressor and the victim” (Juvonen et al.). The social component of bullying, as a means of obtaining status, explains why we can be so vicious in rejecting former allies, while barely acknowledging an enemy who commits similar crimes. You can’t socially exclude an enemy, because they’re already outside your social circle by choice, and they don’t care what you think. And while dunking on the other team will earn respect and admiration, tearing down a teammate is simply more efficient; you simultaneously build yourself up and minimize a competitor for prestige in your social hierarchy.

This also explains why the shaming of major public figures is never as personal or purely vindictive as that directed at minor celebrities, content creators, and ordinary people. There is less social incentive to harass a major celebrity or politician because they are outside your sphere of influence. Bullies give up bullying the kids who ignore them.

The combination of intrinsic and external rewards that come with public shaming tempts us with powerful, even sadistic gratification. While sadism is often associated with specific personality disorders, it can motivate ordinary people in everyday life.

Theodore Millon describes one particular personality profile, the “enforcing sadist,” that perfectly matches online policing and shaming behaviors: “Cloaked within socially sanctioned rules, they mete out condemnation in the name of justice with such extraordinary force that their deeper motives are clear. Ever seeking to make themselves seem important, these sticklers for rules search out those guilty of some minor trespass, make them cower before the power of their position, and then punish them with a righteous indignation that reeks of repressed anger and personal malice.” The punishment presupposes justification, not the other way around.

Contempt, social validation, and sadistic pleasure can be potent narcotics. And as with any addiction, you are required to go to greater and greater lengths to recapture the initial emotional high, to the exclusion of healthier and more meaningful activities.

Next Time, Try This

So the next time you’re preparing to eviscerate someone on the internet, for the sake of your mental health and that of others, stop and ask yourself:

Am I enjoying this?

I’m not asking if your target deserves to be publicly shamed. I’m not asking if doing so promotes an important issue or cause. All I ask is that, for your own wellbeing, you take a moment to reflect on how you engage with individuals online. Ask yourself:

Am I enjoying this?

If you’re tempted to lash out over the internet, please stop yourself, just for a minute. Copy what you’ve written from the screen to a scrap of paper, and then read it to yourself, out loud. Really pay attention to the language. And ask yourself:

Am I enjoying this?

Because if the answer is yes, then you need to recognize that you are about to commit psychological violence—not only against your intended target but against our public discourse, against your own sense of self—at least partially for your own gratification. It is a complex form of gratification, with elements of revenge, self-righteousness, reassurance, catharsis, and petty cruelty, but it is gratification nonetheless. And if that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter if your cause is just, your target deserving. The pleasures of rhetorical violence are addictive and degrading; and when you inflict punishment because it is pleasurable, you forfeit your moral authority.

Basically, you need to sit this one out. We all need to pick our battles and this isn’t your fight. Your mental wellbeing is so much more important than your marginal contribution to the chastisement of a stranger. And I promise you, there are many other people already fighting in your stead—many, many, many other people.

Refusing to engage in public shaming and cancellation is not about forgiving the accused, nor avoiding infighting to maintain solidarity. It is about respecting your own intrinsic dignity as a human being. To dehumanize the other is to dehumanize the self. It doesn’t matter if they had it coming. They just aren’t worth it.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2021.


Ekman, Paul. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. 2nd edition. Holt Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2007. P. 58.

Juvonen, J., Graham, S., and Schuster, M. Bullying among young adolescents: the strong, the weak, and the troubled. Pediatrics. Dec., 2003, 112 (6 Pt. 1). p. 1231-7.

Kaufman, Gershen. The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes. Springer Publishing Co., New York, NY, 1989. p. 108.

Millon, T., and Grossman, S., Millon, C., Meagher, S., and Ramnath, R. Personality Disorders in Modern Life. Wiley, Hoboken, N.J., 2004.