For most of its history psychotherapy has been at war with shame. This makes some sense. If you are in the feel-good business, you don’t want to appear to be making people feel bad.
But what happens when feeling bad is a necessary step on the road to change? In that case, you change your business model: you want to help people to feel better about not changing..
It also makes sense to be at war with shame if you are trying to promote free sexual and emotional expression.
Shame makes us modest and decorous. It tells us not to show off our sexuality and our private feelings in public.
Strangely, this pretends that shamelessness is the key to sexual fulfillment. In truth, modesty will do more for your libido and sexual enjoyment than will shamelessness.
As readers of this blog and my last book know, I am an unabashed fan of shame. Because I want to help my clients to affect substantive change.
Of course, it is not necessarily a bad thing to feel bad. When you have done something wrong you ought to feel bad. If you feel good after having done wrong, then clearly you have a different problem, one that is probably intractable.
A sense of shame causes you to cover up your intimacy. Therefore, it makes you into a social being.
Social beings conform to norms. They do as others do, habitually. The trouble arises when the norm is a bad habit, or even depraved.
Whether the habit is bigotry, as I discussed a few days ago, or the ancient Chinese custom of foot-binding, when a bad habit become the norm, it can only be broken when the people who practice it start to find it shameful.
In the matter of foot binding, Kenneth Anthony Appiah explained the situation well in a recent New York Times article, adapted from his book:The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. See the Times article here.
In his words: “And you can’t overstate the force of convention: Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet because that was the normal thing to do.”
Appiah offers two different ways for cultural change to take place. Thus, two different ways for a culture to overcome aberrant and depraved habits.
In one, a feeling of having indulged in shameful behavior leads to this behavior being replaced by institutionalized good habits.
In the other, bad habits and evil customs are suppressed by force. Those who have been practiced them do not have any choice. They must stop what they are doing… be it foot-binding or female genital mutilation.
While we have no qualms about stopping these evil habits by force, Appiah shows that the first shame-based way is more effective in the long run.
Foot-binding had existed for nearly a millennium before it was stopped over the period of a generation beginning at the end of the 19th century. How did China suddenly come to the realization that it was indulging a barbaric practice?
It started concerning itself with how it looked to other people. In a self-contained community, you only need worry about manipulating the people in that community. But, once the community is opened to the outside world, once its culture is subjected to outside scrutiny, what once was seen as a point of pride can become a disgrace.
Appiah emphasizes the words of Confucian scholar Kang Youwei: “In 1898, Kang sent a memorandum to the emperor. 'All countries have international relations, and they compare their political institutions with one another,' he began, 'so that if one commits the slightest error, the others ridicule and look down upon it.' And he added, 'There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as foot-binding.'”
As Appiah points out, Kang does not condemn the practice, though it is certainly condemnable. He does not criticize it or become contentious and self-righteous about it. He does not express moral outrage.
He simply introduces a new fact into the cultural equation. He informs the Emperor that the practice is making the Chinese look ridiculous in the eyes of the world.
Kang does not tell the Emperor what to do. He leaves it to the Emperor and the Chinese people to choose to end the practice, of their own free will.
He does not recommend force, but employs moral suasion.
If you want to change bad habits, think about how you look to other people when you are doing them. If the therapy culture tells you to ignore what other people think of you, that culture will never be able to help you to overcome your bad habits, except by teaching you how to force yourself to stop them.
The second aspect of the reform campaign involved replacing foot-binding with new social institutions that valued women with unbound feet.
In Appiah’s words: "A second essential reason for the campaign’s success was that it created institutions; it didn’t content itself with rhetoric. In particular, it created organizations whose members publicly pledged two things: not to bind their daughters’ feet and not to allow their sons to marry women whose feet were bound. The genius of this strategy was that it created both unbound women and men who would marry them. To reform tradition, you had to change the shared commitments of a community."
No one would have any difficulties with the idea of banning aberrant cultural practices through force of arms. Yet, as Appiah notes in the case of efforts to ban female genital mutilation in Kenya, if you ban something through force, as soon as the threat of force is lifted, the practice will come back.
Using shame involves allowing people to change their own minds based on new evidence, the evidence of how the practice looks to the world. Strangely, it shows respect… in relation to practices that do not deserve respect. And it allows them a measure of freedom.
This assumes that even when people are visiting unspeakable brutalities on their wives, their neighbors, or their friends, they are still moral beings, albeit overtaken by a pathological habit that has come to be a societal norm.
The alternative point of view, one that you will probably recognize, says that when people bind feet or keep slaves or enter into other forms of depravity they are revealing the truth about their natures. And if this is their truth, then their moral sense cannot be trusted to end it. They must be condemned, punished, and suppressed… or at least, strictly regulated.
Are we moral beings whose moral sense can be counted on to correct our depraved practices or are we immoral beings who will only stop being depraved when an outside force compels us to?
That is the question.
Appiah has offered a strong argument in favor of shame and its culture, and against guilt and its culture. I concur.