Shame is back in the news. Or, so it seems. One would be more correct to say that it has never left. Bringing our attention back to the sanction is Shelby Steele’s new book, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.
In a thoughtful and comprehensive review of Steele’s book and America’s relationship with shame, Prof. Wilfred McClay explains that in the hands of culture warriors and other assorted radicals, shame has become “weaponized.”
If you disagree with the prevailing radical dogmas or commit a thought crime, you will be publicly shamed, thus attacked and exposed in public. What is the purpose? In part it expresses grievances. But it also wants to extort concessions. The threat of shaming is less about shaming and more about guilt-tripping. It is used to accuse people of a crime and to demand that they do penance and offer reparations.
I have written a great deal about shame, and especially in relation to guilt. (See my books: SavingFace: America and the Politics of Shame and The Last Psychoanalyst.) These two moral sanctions define two different kinds of cultures.
Effectively distinct, the cultures overlap. Even in individual cases a criminal who is convicted of a crime is found guilty and pays a penalty. But he ought also to experience shame for his dereliction. The embezzler is guilty for stealing but he should feel shame for having failed his fiduciary responsibilities. The guilt is his alone; the shame adheres to those who are associated with him.
One notes, with McClay, that those who use shame as a weapon often work for totalitarian regimes. Stalinist self-criticism sessions; Maoist brainwashing... Communist dictatorships taxed individuals with shameful behavior, often forcing them to betray friends and family. The purpose was clear: to detach them from their communities and their culture. This would make them into "individuals," but it would also produce so much anomie that they would then be especially vulnerable to any offer of acceptance.
Once they lose their dignity and self-respect, their moral sense, they are indoctrinated in the ways and means of guilt. Then they will be set loose to punish the capitalists and counterrevolutionaries that are preventing the arrival of the Workers’ Paradise.
Note that during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, officials who were publicly humiliated were not merely publicly humiliated. They were condemned to prison and sometimes to death. Their belongings were destroyed and sometimes their bodies were cannibalized. Stalin sent people to his Gulag.
When you remove someone’s sense of shame you detach him from polite and respectable society. At that point he will likely seek out a subculture where shamelessness is not looked down on.
For example, we know that many young woman who take up stripping and prostitution have previously been sexually abused. We understand that they have felt so humiliated by the experience, so pained by the fact that their privacy was made into public property, so stigmatized that they no longer believe that they can ever live respectably, that they believe they have nothing more to lose. Feeling worthless they engage in activities whereby they entice other people pay for what was done to them.
This to say that true shame cultures do not weaponize shame. Guilt cultures do. Shame cultures are about avoiding shame, not seeking to shame. They prescribe propriety and decorum, temperance and probity. They and set down rules that each individual should follow in order to be a member in good standing of the culture.
Those who deviate, by using, for example, bad table manners or by not showing up on time or even by failing at a task receive a mild rebuke. They are offered an opportunity to apologize and to resign or even withdraw from social interaction for a time. The apology and withdrawal should be voluntary.
Otherwise you are dealing with an effort to diminish the impact of shaming by using it within a structure that defines a guilt culture. Then, an apology does not count and the sin is defined by the jury or judge. You will bear the punishment whether you like it or not.
A shame culture like Japan or like Great Britain will be organized around a uniform code of good conduct. It wants to produce social harmony, cooperation, comity and polite behavior. Shame cultures abhor drama and especially public drama. They do not make a habit of shaming people because they believe that people should be given the opportunity to recognize their own failures and to correct them by themselves.
Those who are using shame to gain certain political ends on college campuses are not promoting social harmony. They are not working to show people how best to get along with each other. They are looking to produce permanent struggle and public drama in order to force everyone to feel so guilty for their sins that they will feel obliged to make concessions, as a way to do penance.
How did we get to where we are now? McClay correctly sees the influence of therapy. He does not mention Freud, but Freud initiated the war against shame:
Thanks to the blessings of the therapeutic revolution, which has replaced the imperatives of personal morality with those of personal health, we are beyond all that now. Shame is now to be understood less as an imperative moral force than as a superfluous psychological burden, the disabling and pleasure-squelching product of punitive childrearing and ignorant religious beliefs. We have liberated ourselves from these ancient curses, vanquished the lingering effects of original sin, taken control of our own narratives, and stepped out of the shadows, into the broad, sunlit uplands of a new level of consciousness: a world beyond shame. Call it The Higher Shamelessness.
A world beyond shame is a world where people feel free to make fools of themselves in public, where they emulate celebrities, where they are happy to exchange photos of their private parts with whomever, and where they can defy the old rules and customs.
Freud believed that people who overcome their sense of shame will find sexual liberation. He believed that more open and honest discussion of sexual matters would lead to more, better sex. In truth, he was trying to double down on anomie, detaching people from their families and communities, the better to make them into supernormal individuals.
As McClay notes, they do so by making heroes out of the shameless:
But, following in the pattern that morally stained figures like Ted Kennedy and Richard Nixon had successfully pioneered, Clinton has simply brazened it out, thus demonstrating two things. First, that beyond a certain point, the force of shame can have no effect on a person who is immune to it, and refuses to yield to its power; and second, that the aura of celebrity and charm, if applied with sufficient persistence, will cause much of the amnesiac American public to release its moral reservations, and overlook things it would never have overlooked in the past.
In this way, the codes of conduct that promote and encourage good behavior break down. Once you destigmatize bad behavior, you will inevitably get more of it. McClay continues:
Cheating on one’s spouse, lying about one’s past, consorting with underage interns, conceiving children out of wedlock, embellishing one’s curriculum vitae, uttering patent falsehoods—these are all now excusable offenses, if they are done with sufficient panache and entertainment value. Which is to say, with sufficient brazenness. And for those who lack the shamelessness gene, the very idea of entering into public service, particularly when it involves electoral politics, may have simply become unthinkable and unendurable. We may have come to the point where, when we speak of the thorough “vetting” of candidates, what we really mean is that they have become so thoroughly familiar to us, foibles and all, and so thoroughly compromised, that nothing is left that can surprise us about them. They have shown themselves energetically immune to any of the shaming mechanisms that might be thrown in their paths.
But, McClay notes, shame has not really been overcome. Its power has not really been mitigated. It has been transformed into something else. It has been weaponized. This means that it has become an instrument of punishment, not the kind the affirms one’s moral sense, but the kind that corresponds to what happens when one is found guilty by a kangaroo court:
Perhaps what has happened is that shame has not disappeared at all, but has instead been reshaped, redirected, repurposed. After all, cultures change, and often find themselves renegotiating what is considered shameful. Perhaps shame in our times has merely changed its colors rather than gone away. Perhaps the general weakening of moral authority, accompanied by the declining importance of marriage, family, kinship networks, communities, places of worship, and other morally formative institutions, along with the rise of an anomic individualism, has left a moral vacuum that begs to be filled by alternative forces.
In the absence of formal courtship, young people inevitably seek to organize courtship behaviors by using prohibitions and taboos. As Confucius noted, when you try to regulate behavior with taboos people tend to lose their sense of shame, their moral sense. They come to believe that it’s every man for himself and that they should dedicate their lives to what they can get away with.
McClay recounts an amazing scene that took place at the Aspen Institute. When Shelby Steele was asked to tell the audience his fondest wish he replied that he wished that white people would get over their white guilt.
McClay tells what happened:
Steele said that “what I wanted most for America was an end to white guilt,” to “the terror of being seen as racist,” a terror which had led to “a benevolent paternalism” that had “injured the self-esteem, if not the souls, of minorities in ways that the malevolent paternalism of white racism never had.” The policies enacted since the 1960s had led “minorities to make an identity and a politics out of grievance and inferiority,” and to believe that “their collective grievance was their entitlement and that protest politics was the best way to cash in on that entitlement.” It was ironic, he concluded, that this should have taken hold at the very moment when America was at last beginning to free minorities to pursue their well-being as individual citizens. White guilt had become a “smothering and distracting kindness that enmeshed minorities more in the struggle for white redemption than in their own struggle to develop as individuals capable of competing with all others.”
But then, a white man got up in the audience and denounced Steele for his views. He accused Steele of letting white people off too easily, for relieving them of their guilt for racism.
It was a remarkable scene:
Thus the bizarre spectacle of a callow but earnest white man shaming a mature and accomplished black man, in front of an affluent white audience, all for the sake of racial justice. He thought he was “speaking truth to power,” when in fact, he was playing out a ritual that symbolized liberal white America’s tortured way of pursuing moral redemption.