There is an instinctive push away from even the word, “shame”. Shame is bad. Shaming is bad. Or is it? What is shame, how does it function, and why is it broken?
Shame is the feeling you get when you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing – and you’re embarrassed about it. Shaming is the action of pointing out that another person is not doing what they ought to be doing. But shame and shaming are a soft form of enforcement… the entire experience can be nonverbal, and shame carries no judicial consequences.
Shame requires a common idea about behaviors that one should and should not display. In the year of our Lord 2017, ones mind immediately goes to sex or body issues – we ‘fat shame’ and ‘slut shame’. And our society (the World) has decided that shaming people for their sex lives or their waistlines is bad. But our society does continue to shame people into behaving as it wishes they would…
- What do you say of someone who lets their dog run loose, habitually?
- How about litterbugs?
- People who behave disrespectfully to others (and there’s a whole ‘nother conversation)?
- People who tailgate, or drive slowly in the fast lane?
I’m sure the reader can continue to think of a long list of things that we shame ourselves or others for…
We pre-shame others by our common talk, the way we tell our stories. “Well that man just put a penny down for the waitress… and here she was working so hard!” This kind of speech develops common expectations of “decent behavior” – it’s how we as a group know what decent behavior *is*.
So, shame has a function. Without involving the authorities, we have a soft system of policing behavior.
Why is it broken?
- Because it can easily be overused and misused. Shame can be used as a weapon not just against those who misbehave, but against those who are simply unlike us, who don’t know the unspoken rules yet, or can’t abide by them.
- Because we no longer have a common system of agreed-upon values. “Don’t you speak that into my life, you don’t know where I’ve been!” “I’m a proud —” We are a society of microcultures, and our society has very little that it agrees as universal values. (That said, holding one standard for your microgroup and another for the surrounding society is a polite way of saying that surrounding society is too weak to live up to your standards).
- Shame IS a weapon, and can result in those who shame themselves or have been shamed in taking extreme measures – cutting, eating disorders, festering piles of secrets, suicide – to deal with their hurt. It is difficult to gauge how much one is shaming someone, and nearly impossible to gauge how they’ll take the reprimand.
Shame is best used as the stick to the carrot of compassion, and it is best used within a community. You have to want to live up to certain values for your failure to do so to matter, you have to want someone’s good opinion (you have to respect that person) in order to make their condescension upsetting. Respect is a requirement of shame – if I don’t respect your opinion, I’m not going to care if you don’t like what I’m doing.
But our society is, again, a society of microcultures. If my behavior doesn’t please you – I can find someone whom it does please. I don’t have to allow myself to feel ashamed of my actions, I can defy that group and find people for whom my behavior is normal. I can scream and reverse-shame, publicly calling for the repentance of the person who dared to raise an eyebrow at my choices.
Just to sum up: Yes, shame has a function. Yes, our society still uses shame, even though the word itself is in disrepute. Yes, you have to keep up with what the World considers shameable offenses, because otherwise your attempts at soft-policing others will fail, spectacularly.
And a last word: Shame used to be a primary weapon in the quiver of Respectable Matrons (of which I am one). Respectable Matrons aren’t, however, given all that much respect anymore, so although traditionally I ought to be able to shame someone with a raised eyebrow, it doesn’t work that way in practice. Again, this requires common values – and we don’t have a lot of those these days.
This was just something I was thinking about, that came up in conversation with a friend the other day, I wanted to write it out. Hope it helps you think about where we are, and why things that ‘should work’ don’t.