Often when we say “shaming”, we mean “humiliating.” That is, when one person tries to force a feeling of shame on another person as a way to harm them or coerce them. This is an unfortunate change in the meaning of the word, because shame is good, and crucial to social and emotional life. A healthy relationship with shame is just like a healthy relationship with anger or fear or happiness, in that it does its job. But what is shame’s job?
I go with the work of Paul Ekman and others here in the area of discussing a handful of core emotions that serve social and evolutionary purposes, each of which one can find in every society all over the world. One of those core emotions is shame. (For a rough course in this theory, watch the film Inside Out. Seriously. It’s amazing, and they did their homework) Shame’s job is to acknowledge wrongdoing and remorse as a way to reconnect a person with their community. This is the face of shame (sometimes feigned, but consistent and recognizable):
Ironically, in some cases we see this expression on the face of a person who is denying wrongdoing, but that’s what indicates that shame is a deeply-rooted and universal expression – it comes up unconsciously in one’s face when the emotion is present, and it looks similar cross-culturally.
In brief, shame says “Yeah, I screwed up.” And in our evolutionary past, when being ostracized could easily mean starving to death or being eaten, it was crucial to allow people to acknowledge wrongdoing and seek reconciliation in order for them to survive.
Shame is not a popular feeling – this whole post came from an ongoing conversation with a friend of mine (more than one friend, but one in particular), wherein he says that shame is the root of evil and should be rooted out. The thing is, when I talk to him about what he means by “shame”, he doesn’t talk about the universal emotion described above and unconsciously expressed in our faces. Rather, he is talking about humiliation, or shaming, which is completely different in my opinion.
Shame is an acknowledgement; shaming is an assault. But we confuse the two, and I think it’s a significant problem. This problem is exemplified by Donald Trump.
I think that the core element of Trump’s personality, which as driven his rise to power, his persistence despite massive moral, financial, and professional failures that would have sunk anyone else long ago, is his utter inability to experience shame. He is pathologically shameless, and I think this lies behind everything else about him – the grandstanding, the weird obsession with gold and his hand size, picking fights randomly, punching down, cheating everyone in his life, betraying allies at the slightest sign of disloyalty, and constant lying.
If Donald Trump were capable of shame, he would be an entirely different person. A far more tolerable person. He’s exactly the kind of person who would be ostracized in order to be devoured by wild animals 20,000 years ago, but in a media-driven age of radical capitalism, he instead becomes a brand. He becomes unavoidable, irresistible for some. He becomes President, because why not? His image is that he is untouchable, the “Teflon Don”, because nothing can bring him down, and the key to that untouchability is his apparent inability to experience shame.
What Do We Do With Shame?
This is a key question as we continue to reorient society to be a place where more people are heard and their concerns taken seriously. Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and others are, in fits and starts, over decades of conflict and struggle, making a place for themselves in our white supremacist, patriarchal, hetero-normative, etc. culture. Nobody knows how to do this. We have to dismantle some things, and build up some new things, and unlearn a lot of deeply ingrained habits, and learn new life-giving habits, all at once, in public, while the world burns around us. A non-trivial challenge, one might say.
The purpose of shame is to visibly acknowledge wrongdoing, that a transgression has occurred, and to prompt one to make amends and be re-integrated into the community. But how do we do that in a way that is fair?
In the past, there was a “boys will be boys” mentality applied to the wrongdoing of white males in the United States, as well as in the case of institutions that enforced white supremacy like the police. There were never real repercussions for wrongdoing – certainly nothing resembling justice or equity, even less so reconciliation. This mentality still exists everywhere it is not actively being brought to light and rooted out. There is a lot of work to do.
One response has been to burn people down when their wrongdoing is brought to light and acknowledged. People who are critical of this impulse, like most recently Dave Chappelle in Sticks and Stones, call this “cancel culture.” The sense is that if someone is caught in wrongdoing and called out, they are cancelled and that’s it. No more from them in the public sphere, ever. The problem, I think, is that there is no way back. A healthy person who feels appropriate shame and wants to make amends cannot do so, and is treated very similarly to someone who is shameless and spiteful and never admits any wrongdoing. Given this situation, where shame cannot function healthfully, successful people will find that shame is a liability and we will encourage more Trumps and Trump-ism.
Shame is crucial, but for shame to work, there has to be a way back. Otherwise we are punishing healthy shame, and it’s hard to blame people for working hard not to feel that shame if they can avoid it, and keep that shame from moving them to reconcile.
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