Friday, March 18, 2016

Weaponizing Shame

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.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: 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.

This distinction seems vital, and endlessly confused, so much that you'd almost have to change terminology to gain wider clarity. Its just too easy to assume the opposite - that shame societies are those which use shame to control people.

And unfortunately Wikipedia seems to promote this focus, at least seeming to claim both shame and guilt cultures are about "control".
In cultural anthropology, a shame society, also called shame culture or honour-shame culture, is a society in which the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism.

A shame society is contrasted with a guilt society, in which control is maintained by creating and continually reinforcing the feeling of guilt (and the expectation of punishment now or in the afterlife) for certain condemned behaviors, and with a fear society, in which control is kept by the fear of retribution.

My own extrapolation considers there are more or less sophisticated ways of working with shame, so it makes sense that guilt-societies might be cruder in their usage of shame, and as you suggest, individuals raised gently within a shame society will be more sensitive to it, and less likely to abuse this emotion to control others, and will instead seek to protect fellow members from undue shame.

A term I don't think I've heard Stuart use is "Toxic shame" which arose in attention with John Bradshaw along with abuse and addiction.
Let's see, Wikipedia has some types:
* Genuine shame: is associated with genuine dishonor, disgrace, or condemnation.

* False shame: is associated with false condemnation as in the double-bind form of false shaming;

* Secret shame: describes the idea of being ashamed to be ashamed, so causing ashamed people to keep their shame a secret.

* Toxic shame: describes false, pathological shame, induced inside children by all forms of abuse.

* Vicarious shame: refers to the experience of shame on behalf of another person.

Anyway, it seems useful to me to ask how Freud considered shame. If he really saw it as a universal expression, then perhaps his work was identifying things more like "toxic shame", the sort that persists in creating a negative self-image, then he might have failed to consider ordinary shame's social utility?

And there's a section on the wiki-page also about Narcassism's relation to shame, that it, seeing it as a defense against shame, which we might ask which sort of shame, but it makes sense that "toxic shame" that persists for years in the unconscious, and requires continal defenses would create unhealthy narcassistic defenses, reinforced as a habit.

Finally, I think back to a TV movie I remembered as a child, with Michael Landon going back to his childhood as a bedwetter, and his mother would try to shame him by hanging his wet bed sheets out his bedroom window for all to see, so his running success started as he tried to run home from school early enough to pull the sheets in before his friends might see.

That might be a clear example of a "guilt society" response of "weaponized shame", as a punishment. But it also shows a "positive" side of shame, regardless of the mother's motives, that we all have deficiencies of some sort, and when we find we can't break through them for whatever reason, we learn the defense mechanism of compensation.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Outstanding post.

I have a number of concerns about our society and where we're headed, but nothing is as infuriating or disgusting to me as the white Aspen Institute attendee who stood up to shame Shelby Steele. This episode seems to capture the craziness of our times. And identifies a great source of our unraveling across a number of social dimensions. One assumes (or perhaps one hopes at very least) that people go to events like Aspen Institute to learn something. McClay's description of the man as "callow but earnest" is the best description of people who -- to my mind -- represent the greatest threat to our social fabric. He is so convinced of his own moral magnificence while displaying a narcissism and level of ignorance that betrays the pretense. So they double-down on pretense. They act like indignant children. They watch TED talks with Brene Brown talking about how terrible shame is, and then dress down a black man in the next breath for the sin of denying the dogma of racial justice...

So we're told "Shame is the enemy here, but not over there." Shame is a problem in this instance, but not in another. One can call this "politics," but I suspect it is something more sinister. We are distinguishing what is politically *correct* and what is not. And I see no demands of courage being made on those who parade around their political correctness and shame those who have "political wrongness." Who is "speaking truth" to power in these monolithic activist groups, colleges, conferences, etc.? We are seeing the weaponization of shame in so many forms, and we don't follow the racketeers who benefit from it. Who at the Aspen Institute was going to challenge this man who challenged Shelby Steele? No one. They will say that prejudice against minorities is bad, and in the next breath condemn white history. So racism, stereotypes and prejudice is not okay over here, but it is over there? That's the glorification of ignorance, cowardice and sloth -- and it produces anomie. That's the racket: you get to ingratiate yourself with your morality, and condemn others for their amorality. That's weaponized shame.

Racism is the Scarlet Letter. The Gulag Archipelago. 1984. Take your pick. It's also the easiest thing to complain about, because it's here and it will always be here. It's part of the human condition, part of original sin. That's why we have the opportunity to be virtuous and look beyond race, and counter our inner demons. But being shamed and condemned by a bunch of kids taking 4 classes a semester, along with a cheerleading crew of guilty white activists is preposterous. Being a raging activist against racism is like being an activist against sleep... you become so self-satisfied with your moral majesty that you forget that you're human, too.

It seems what we have really weaponized is our concept of childhood... that childhood is idealized as this innocent time where you can do whatever you want and be who you really are. Yet childhood is a phase as you become an adult and a contributor to the tribe. Yet the Glowing Box tells us that childhood shame binds you, and you have to be shameless to release the shackles and lead an "authentic" life. Okay, but we're not children anymore. We have a choice. We can each be responsible for our own lives and how we conduct them. If you want to violate social norms or sanctions, knock yourself out. But no one is obligated to celebrate your choice or welcome it into my own life. That's my choice. But if one says that, he is "mean," he is "racist" and an otherwise rotten person. It's narcissism on parade. It's childish. It results in social chaos. It claims to be loving when in fact it is patronizing and condescending. When we tell people that it's okay to be an adult acting like a petulant child, we lose something. Dignity.

Ares Olympus said...

Reading Wilfred M. McClay's article "The Higher Shamelessness" wasn't very enlightening to me. I almost wonder if it is impossible to talk rationally about something like shame while entirely focusing on the behavior of people you don't like.

Like this dramatic assertion "Surely Bill Clinton’s persona and career represented some kind of milestone in this moral transformation. For a sitting president of the United States to do the things he did while in office, and for him to have lied about those deeds brazenly and repeatedly, and authorized his minions to lie about the character of Monica Lewinsky and the other women whose lives he had damaged, would in the past have been permanently disqualifying, and would have ensured that the sight of his name on public buildings and works would have been rarer than that of Benedict Arnold."

So the assertion seems to be "weaponized shame" is valid, but only if your rivals deserve it. If you KNOW your enemy has been naughty that should disqualify him from ever having any power at all, and if this "weaponized shame" fails to have this obvious result, it is because our rivals are "shameless" and beyond our control.

But if Clinton was truly "shameless" he would just have admitted the truth as a matter of fact. Instead the GOP witchtrials got him to "lie", i.e. by lawyering his answers as "depending on what the meaning of "is" is." That doesn't sound like someone who is shameless, but it probably is worthy of the name "Slick willy."

What made Clinton so despicable on the Right comes from an obsessive focus on his character, and whenever they found something that seemed sure evidence of wrong-doing, somehow the case would evaporate in the light of day. It surely is infuriating to be SURE someone else is BAD, and not be able to convince others.

But the whole thing evaporates if the judges are judged. People see in others what they don't want to see in themselves. And you see things like Newt Gingrich and his affairs, and its more sensible to call him shameless. But it shows the nature of scapegoating - people who feel their own guilt and shame can feel better for a short while, when they can project that guilt and shame onto someone else. And this is surely a nonpartisan skill.

Again I go to Jonathan Haidt's review:
A) A Culture of Honor
B) A Culture of Dignity
C) A Culture of Victimhood
The emerging victimhood culture appears to share [dignity culture’s] disdain for risk, but it does condone calling attention to oneself [as in an honor culture] as long as one is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits.

I don't know how useful it is to see three cultures - honor, dignity, and victimhood, at least the third is clearly not honorable or dignified.

But this is also where I find psychology valuable, since it acknowledges the existence of the unconscious, and that we're not really doing what we think we're doing, and in fact much of our judgements of others come from our judgements about ourself, which comes from the internalization of judgements others we cared about made against us.

Or Jung talked about the Shadow, and so if we can't admit what we see in others is also in ourselves, then we are more likely to deny the subjectivity and bias of our judgements.

I try to make my peace via detachment, to try to separate observations, opinions, feelings, at least a chance to slow things down so I don't need to attack or over-react.

I do feel shame when I find I've made false accusations, when I make assumptions and judge people on those assumptions. And I recognize how pride makes it hard to back down on falseness once I commit to a point of view.

I'm sure I would make a poor politician. I too easily withdraw from personal attacks.