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Shame on you!
March 13, 2014 3:23 PM   Subscribe

You should be ashamed -- or maybe not. 'Shame on you. These three simple words can temporarily -- or, when used too often, permanently -- destroy an individual's sense of value and self-worth.' A paper by Thomas Scheff, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Santa Barbara 'The Ubiquity of Hidden Shame in Modernity' explores the danger of hidden emotions: ""In modernity, shame is the most obstructed and hidden emotion, and therefore the most destructive," said Thomas Scheff, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Santa Barbara. '"Emotions are like breathing -- they cause trouble only when obstructed." When hidden, he continued, shame causes serious struggles not only for individuals but also for groups.'

'While some people are more susceptible to the effects of shame, for others the emotion is more manageable. "Those lucky rascals who as children were treated with sympathetic attention from at least one of their caregivers feel more pride -- accepted as they are -- and, therefore, less shame and rejection," Scheff said.'

'In exploring the connection between shame and aggression, Scheff cites research conducted by sociologist Neil Websdale, author of "Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers."'
posted by VikingSword (35 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hey, you tell my brother you don’t wear a dead man’s pants. Shame on him. And you say that to him. You say, you say, “Shame on you.”
posted by neuromodulator at 3:38 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


I liked this bit:
...shame is, in reality, a very useful emotion. "Shame is the basis of morality," Scheff said. "You can't have a moral society without shame. It provides the weight for morality. There are a hundred things in your head about what you should or shouldn't do, but the one that hits you is the one that has shame behind it."
Hidden shame can be troublesome, just like any other repressed emotion. But shame expressed can be a healthy opportunity for personal and relational growth.
posted by carsonb at 3:39 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]


"'Shame is a biological entity like other emotions, but people are more ashamed of it than they are of the others"

What a ridiculous sentence.
posted by knapah at 3:40 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


    SHAME
        IS
     OVER


    If you want it
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:51 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


I posted that before in a different thread but I got the formatting better this time :P
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:52 PM on March 13


"While some people are more susceptible to the effects of shame, for others the emotion is more manageable non-existent."
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:53 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


And if we are going to go all emotionally determinative, how about whether the Iraq war was motivated not by shame stemming from a failure to protect, but by anger - that someone could do this to "us" or that "they" have made "us" look weak?

Never mind that if the US administration was to feel something about the 9/11 attacks, it would probably be guilt for failing to prevent it, rather than shame (which tends to relate to a negative judgement about the self).
posted by knapah at 3:55 PM on March 13


"'Shame is the basis of morality,' Scheff said. 'You can't have a moral society without shame. It provides the weight for morality. There are a hundred things in your head about what you should or shouldn't do, but the one that hits you is the one that has shame behind it.'"

That's interesting. But it's not true for all people and his "you" is assuming more than it ought.

I feel very little shame and, in fact, I deeply resent and am suspicious of the small amount that I do feel. Yet I am very moral and care very deeply about right behavior. I just don't accept that the basis for right behavior is peer pressure and social status. Insofar as I find shame and the question of morality intersecting in my own experience, I resent the presence of shame in my own experience because I believe it distorts my own ability to determine the rightness or wrongness of my actions.

And I don't generally see that it's conducive to other people's internalization of ethical principles. What I see is a near complete equivocation between shame and being morally at fault. Not only does this create a kind of roadblock preventing people from digging deeper into issues of morality and internalizing ethical principles, it creates a conflict when society promulgates an ostensive moral code that, in practice, it undermines. Which is to say, the hypocrisy of nominal public values in conflict with the lives that people actually live. This creates a fair amount of free-floating shame, either because someone understands the social norm to be the ostensive, promulgated values but finds themselves in conflict with them because to live according to them would mean a different kind of social conflict (being out-of-step with how the people around them live); or because they do live according to them and perceive the social conflict that results as a form of social shaming.

None of this is to say, however, that it's not the case that most people, being social creatures, are not inherently inclined to understand morality as social conformity and nonconformity as shameful. That's probably the case and, if so, then we sort of have to accept shame as a given and then work from there.

But it's hard for me to see shame as anything other than a destructive emotion. It is equivalent in some sense to feeling disliked, to feeling like there's something wrong with oneself. It implicitly places the attention on a) how other people perceive you; and b) the sense that there's something wrong with your character, as opposed to behavior (not character) and how that behavior can hurt other people. People can have a morality without shame, a morality where they understand moral wrongness as bad action, and that action as "bad" either with regard to its consequences or its essence. They can feel wrongness, viscerally, without that hinging upon their sense of being socially accepted or outcast. Shame isn't necessary. It may be inevitable as a stage of moral development. But it's not necessarily something to be celebrated or even much accommodated.

Guilt and shame are not the same emotions.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:57 PM on March 13 [15 favorites]


neuromodulator: I'm... I'm probably not gonna say it...
posted by Navelgazer at 4:06 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Shame is still very much a thing in Ireland, thank you very much.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:27 PM on March 13


What I've always heard about differentiating between good and bad shame is:

* If you're ashamed of something you did, that's healthy shame, and is the kind that helps you know you did something wrong so you can fix it.

* If you're ashamed of who you are, or if someone is telling you to be ashamed of who you are, that is unhealthy shame.

Even here there are exceptions (as there are to every rule), but that's the fundamental rule-of-thumb.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:28 PM on March 13 [10 favorites]


Ain't That A Shame.
posted by jonmc at 4:31 PM on March 13


* If you're ashamed of something you did, that's healthy shame, and is the kind that helps you know you did something wrong so you can fix it.

Ironically, the proper term for that is 'guilt', which sounds a lot more scary than shame.
posted by Apocryphon at 4:33 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


This is a venerable idea in working-class studies. I think specifically of Sennett and Cobb's *The Hidden Injuries of Class,* and Lillian Rubin's *Worlds of Pain.*
posted by spitbull at 4:41 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


* If you're ashamed of something you did, that's healthy shame, and is the kind that helps you know you did something wrong so you can fix it.

* If you're ashamed of who you are, or if someone is telling you to be ashamed of who you are, that is unhealthy shame.


If you believe in the Rachel Dawes Theory of Identity, that distinction breaks down, though. If our identity is nothing more than what we do, then your two categories collapse into one. So is all shame good? Or all bad?

Or to put the question another way: what are we actually trying to get at, in concrete terms, by classifying some shame as good and some as bad?
posted by officer_fred at 4:42 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I don't know if I buy into shame being integral to a moral society. I feel shame more intensely about having peed my pants as a child when I was stuck on a ski hill in snowpants than for the petty vandalism I committed as a teenager. Putting shame in the mix can easily get things a little muddled from a morality point of view, because people have some weird hangups.
posted by Hoopo at 4:45 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


"Shame is the basis of morality," Scheff said. "You can't have a moral society without shame. It provides the weight for morality. There are a hundred things in your head about what you should or shouldn't do, but the one that hits you is the one that has shame behind it."

A rather depressing idea, and one which I doubt has much empirical support. It's possible to argue that shamelessness might be problematic without stating that shame is "the basis" for morality.
posted by clockzero at 4:59 PM on March 13


The Genesis of Shame, by the philosopher David Velleman, is one of my favorite scholarly papers. It's so incredibly rich.
posted by painquale at 5:07 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


If our identity is nothing more than what we do, then your two categories collapse into one

Well, this is fair enough as a kind of description and possibly true, but I think the consensus is that we do assert to "ourselves" a thingness and permanence we don't to acts (because of the boundedness of our physical bodies and how we talk about and conceive them, and the seeming unity of conscious experience over time; and there's a lot of evidence to support the idea of stable self-schemas and self-concept(s) - but please don't make me cite it now O_O) .

No, even if appreciating the 'badness' of certain actions or the importance of certain rules is developmentally important, there's surely a way to use good old regular learning to do it without having people internalize the idea that some aspect of themselves is fundamentally unacceptable.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:17 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


If you believe in the Rachel Dawes Theory of Identity, that distinction breaks down, though. If our identity is nothing more than what we do, then your two categories collapse into one. So is all shame good? Or all bad?

At 7'3", Hasheem Thabeet of the OKC Thunder is the tallest active player in the NBA. Playing basketball is what he does (or one thing he does.) 7'3" is what he is (or one thing about him, rather.) The distinction is pretty clear (though in Story, Robert McKee does a whole chapter on it, the difference between Character (who we are as defined by our actions) and Characterization (those other superficial things about us that you could gather from a still photo.)
posted by Navelgazer at 6:31 PM on March 13


* If you're ashamed of something you did, that's healthy shame, and is the kind that helps you know you did something wrong so you can fix it.

Ironically, the proper term for that is 'guilt', which sounds a lot more scary than shame.


There's an interesting topic. I know very little about the subject (cultural anthropology) but the way my friend described it to me:

In Guilt Society the control measure is internal: the individual feels condemned by their own conscience - either directly judging themselves unworthy, or fearing a judgement in the afterlife by a deity. It creates a society based on piety, obedience, and conformity. For example Christianity.

In Shame Society the control measure is external: the individual feels condemned by others, with fear of consequences in the present - being shamed and ostracized by society. It creates a society based on pride and honor. For example China / Japan.

I think the topic came up around the news of the airline crash, where when the Japan Airline's plane crashed and over 500 lives were lost, once the maintenance manager realised it was his fault, his shame was so great he committed suicide to atone for his failure, because the sin was against society, and it was society who would judge him. While such a scenario is unlikely in a Guilt society like Christianity because the condemnation would come internally (conscience) or from God, and committing suicide would not in any way allow them to escape judgement.

Just some musings.
posted by xdvesper at 8:13 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


I usually think of guilt and shame as part of the social immune system. They can generally be useful when they alert you to your own transgressions and ways in which you've disappointed or wronged others around you, but they can also turn on you like allergies or an autoimmune disease. So you can't rely uncritically on those emotions in order to be healthy.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:20 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


The guilt vs. shame stuff was one of the most interesting things I learned about in a college elective. There are lots of ways to contrast them - I like thinking of them as feeling bad about what you did vs. feeling bad about who you are - but it seemed like it was difficult to understand the subtleties of their theories about how this difference plays out in the organization of a culture.
posted by thelonius at 8:46 PM on March 13


Shame is when you go from being someone who has done a bad thing to someone who is bad. Shame kills.

Poor credit ratings are a kind of shame.
posted by Appropriate Username at 9:40 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


I was raised with a lot of guilt and shame, and did not want my kids to have to go through that. However, I adopted older kids first who came with their own complicated personalities and histories and went into that to try and sort of 'garden' them - they were who they were, I could only prune a bit here, fertilise that and try to shape their growth to be the best kind of rose bush they were meant to be. But the toddler and the baby I later on had were very different - there was a moment with both of them when I thought "They need to feel ashamed of what they just did. They should be ashamed of that behaviour" - when they deliberately, with intent and for their own pleasurable outcome to get something they wanted or to be amused, caused harm to another knowingly.

You could either externalise it to fear of consequences, something we didn't want because you want kids to do the right thing regardless of the external rewards/punishment, or internalize it as a disappointment in your self-image as a Good Child or in the hurt you have caused through your behaviour to people you love (or a religious deity, I suppose).

It was just very weird to deliberately try to cause my child to feel ashamed, something I swore I never would do, and yet shame and guilt are not in themselves toxic. Neither are anger or disgust.

I really liked this idea that it is the hidden closed nature that harms - being able to resolve the shame or guilt through some kind of act of repentance or contrition makes it an emotion that leads to growth.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:58 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Guilt: I did something wrong.
Shame: I am something wrong.

Guilt: I made a mistake.
Shame: I am a mistake.

Guilt: I did a really shitty thing.
Shame: I am a piece of shit.

~~~~

Somewhere along the line I've heard it called "interpersonal transfer of shame" when a parent says "Shame on you." or, worse "Shame on you!" That parent is carrying a load of pain around, that child is a sponge, a blank slate without boundaries against what you are laying on them. Which is to say that the parent really, truly is saying it, that they truly are meaning what they say when they say "Shame on you!" They're dumping their shame onto and carving it into this blank slate, who doesn't have a choice but to take it on.

One problem with that is that it doesn't work, not for long anyways: The parent ends up feeling even worse about themselves -- IE not "Damn, I corrected my child in the wrong way." but rather "I am a piece of shit for doing that to my child." So now they have even more shame on them, and they've given their child a wonderful gift, too.

This is a thing of human beauty.

~~~~

I was six of seven kids. Most of my father's real violence had been dumped onto the older kids, by the time I came onto the scene there was still raging, howling, red-in-the-face inanity/insanity, there was still some slapping, some jerking you around by your ear or hair as he raged, etc and etc. Still, it was mostly about shaming. He'd go "Shame on you! Shame on you!" dragging you by the ear, or damn sure you knew it could happen if you fuck up at all, if you look him in the face wrong.

All of that was most painful when in the presence of others, painful for me, painful for them, painful for my father, though not painful for my father until later, looking back. Being shamed in front of your friends or relatives truly blows, it is really a horror show.

I've heard some people say that straight-up violence is better, because you can at least maybe cut that off, when you get into therapy, when you begin The Telling Of The Tale it's easier to see "Jesus, I really got fuct there; that fucker was nuts, kicking me like that!" Whereas shame hides out, it's like it's in the weave of you, or it was in me anyways, and still is in lots of ways.

In any case, I do not agree that straight-up violence is any goddamned easier; I mean, really, what the fuck is that, who dreamed that shit up, and who could believe that jive?" Myself, I think that it's just that it's different to unpack it, if and when you do unpack it, if and when you finally have to look in the mirror straight on and know something's got to change somehow, because this whole life motherfucker maybe isn't supposed to hurt this bad.

~~~~

Adam and Eve entered the world naked and unashamed -- naked and pure-minded; and no descendant of theirs has ever entered it otherwise. All have entered it naked, unashamed, and clean in mind. They have entered it modest. They had to acquire immodesty and the soiled mind; there was no other way to get it. A Christian mother's first duty is to soil her child's mind, and she does not neglect it.
Mark Twain
Letters From The Earth
1909

My mother's methodology was really different than my father's was, some slapping some whipping but that wasn't really where it was at. Where it was at with her was to ruin her childrens sexuality, as hers was ruined; with her it was to dump all of the pain onto us that was dumped onto her and her sisters by their father, and then by an older step-brother. She made sure we all knew in our hearts and in our guts that sex was dirty, nasty, wrong, bad; understandable, really -- to her, sex was indeed dirty, nasty, wrong, bad.

And they didn't have therapists running the streets then as there are now, peeking out from behind every tree almost -- nope, people then didn't have that. They had Jesus, and they had the book of Leviticus in it all somehow, also, and Twain had them pegged, and called it exactly as it is. Twain helped me more than you can imagine -- a writer I respected and loved and trusted completely and he spelled it out, he put it there for me to grab to, and hold to, no idea how I found a copy of that book in my hands in high school but I'm damn sure glad that it did.

~~~~

It was not my father's fault. It was not my mothers fault. They were in something way bigger than they were, they were doing what was dictated by their insides, dictated by what'd been written onto and carved into the blank slates that they once were. Something else I heard somewhere along the line: Families are bloody places. They sure are. It's where the the blood is, and the bone, and the gristle and the meat and all the rest of it, and everyone trying to get through.

I think so often of Aldous Huxley, writing in Brave New World that in our future families will be seen as outlandish, or rather more than outlandish; in Brave New World, if you were raised in a family, rather than by society, it was absolutely something to be ashamed of. If you were a mother, or had a mother, if you were a father, or had a father, you suffered intense shame, and not just in your family (your smaller society) but in the whole of society. And that intense shame, again: Guilt: I did something wrong. Shame: I am something wrong.

In Brave New World, to be involved in a family at all is shameful, very, very shameful.

~~~~

You knew it was coming. It was inevitable. It was part of it all. Fifteen minutes after it was over, twenty minutes maybe, and I'd been sent to my room, crying, after being told again and again that if I didn't stop crying I'd be given more to cry about, him forcing me to look him direct in the eyes, fifteen or twenty minutes after going into that room there would be the slightest of knocks on that door, so light it was barely even there. And the thing to do then is to say "Come in." and he'd come in, looking down, scalded, unbelievably ashamed of himself, asking my forgiveness, saying how sorry he was.

My father had not only all that'd been dumped on him in his blank slate times, he also suffered manic depression, though no one had any words for it and damn sure no medications for it, and it was all just way, way too big for him.

~~~~

I mentor these younger men, five of them, age 29 to maybe 44, I think Scott is 44. Every one of these fine young men were abandoned emotionally, every one of them without a father they could count on, a father they could lean into, a father that could and would calmly and lovingly give them guidance, and direction, none of them had a Ward Cleaver type of father. It's crystal clear to me, from outside of them, and having walked some of it myself already, it's crystal clear what happened to them. And it totally, completely sucks. Again: families are bloody places.

So I love these men, hard as I know how to. How I wish I'd been lucky enough to have been any of these men's father. They know I love them, they even can abuse that some, and they will, sometimes, to jazz me, and it's painful, though more than that it's annoying, once i get onto it, it's annoying getting my string pulled yet again, when I'm trying to stand there still, with my heart open, etc and etc. So anyways, they know where they stand and where I stand in relation to them, or where I try to stand. And regardless it's clear to anyone who watches me with open eyes that I'm a big fkg mess, they love what I give them.

But. One thing I tell them, straight up, no way 'round it, this here is Capital T Truth: Had I been their father, I'd have fucked them over worse than there own father did. I'm 59, I think maybe I could be a decent father, now. Maybe. But had I gone into it young, I'd have destroyed them, and I wouldn't have had a choice, not really. I watched one of my brothers, and his son, and what he put that son through, how he trashed that boy, giving to that boy what'd been given to him. How he shamed that boy, how he made sure that boy felt that he was a piece of shit, deep to his core. I saw it and I know I'd have done that same thing, even if I'd had the eyes to see it, which I didn't, not really, not young.

~~~

This Be The Verse
BY PHILIP LARKIN
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

posted by dancestoblue at 5:12 AM on March 14 [17 favorites]


Reasons to be ashamed —

What I see is a near complete equivocation between shame and being morally at fault.

equivocation

I'd be ashamed if I dropped that one, yet another benefit of my Catholic upbringing. I could tell you that Catholicism encourages joyful release and easeful living, but that might be another cause for shame.

Going to go and lash my back now.
posted by Wolof at 6:01 AM on March 14


I think you'll find that "arguing that the experience of shame is equivalent to experiencing moral fault" is an equivocation. I didn't use the word equation because I wanted to emphasize the promulgation of moral principles; and I didn't use the word synonym because I wanted to imply fallacy. It was a precise and nuanced use of a word.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:55 AM on March 14


Are you going to church this Sunday? I'm ducking out on it.
posted by Wolof at 7:10 AM on March 14


Had a friend who stuck around in the Middle East mainly because he was so interested in the notion of shame. Citing Christopher Ricks, the literary critic, he thought that shame was effectively a woman having a erection. As an uncontrollable rush of blood to the head, resulting in a flushed face, he figured that when a woman is shamed, she is at once at her most vulnerable and at her boldest and most defiant. One can see this, for example, in Jane Eyre:

"There was I, then, mounted aloft; I, who had said I could not bear the shame of standing on my natural feet in the middle of the room, was now exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy. What my sensations were no language can describe; but just as they all rose, stifling my breath and constricting my throat, a girl came up and passed me: in passing, she lifted her eyes. What a strange light inspired them! What an extraordinary sensation that ray sent through me! How the new feeling bore me up! It was as if a martyr, a hero, had passed a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit. I mastered the rising hysteria, lifted up my head, and took a firm stand on the stool."

Later, Jane is described as pulling back from Lord Rochester and standing "erect". My friend thought that this was the reason why, especially in "honour" killings, the girl's throat is often cut, because the male members of the family (excuse the pun!) cannot stand (fnarr, fnarr!) to see such a challenging, defiant "erection" and therefore cut off the blood at source to prevent it rushing to the head.
posted by Tarn at 8:36 AM on March 14


Wow, I think your friend is right that there's something very interesting going on there, but about as wrong as is possible in his interpretation of what it is.

Shame, especially for women, can be paradoxically liberating because shame works best as persuasion but, as its application and subjective experience is increased, it risks the implicit social bonds of shame giving way under excessive strain.

Or, put another way, freedom is having nothing left to lose.

This is especially the case for women and other groups in cultures who have much of their behavior delimited by the possibility for shame, and thus find both the potential and reality of shame to be part of their daily experience. Diffused, the coercion of shame is omnipresent and oppressive, but impossible to resist. Concentrated in the context of an especially proscribed act, and allowing for the simple fact that a shame culture already maintains high levels of potential and activated shame, the ostracization of extreme shame reifies it into something that can be seen as singular and then defied, thus calling into question the irresistibility of larger structure of omnipresent, diffused shame.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:37 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]


The opposite of shame is anger.
posted by semmi at 11:40 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I'd agree that shame is an important part of human society. I think a major side effect of societies is unequal, hierarchical, and stratified relationships between groups. Since shame is about external disapproval based on social values, shame is a good way to take those that more rich, powerful, and influential "down a peg". I don't think it's as easy to make people feel guilty about being rich, powerful, and influential. I think feeling a little shame helps, and it's a starting point to being more self-aware, checking your privilege, being humble, and maybe more.
posted by FJT at 1:03 PM on March 14


> "What I've always heard about differentiating between good and bad shame is: * If you're ashamed of something you did, that's healthy shame ... * If you're ashamed of who you are, or if someone is telling you to be ashamed of who you are, that is unhealthy shame. Even here there are exceptions (as there are to every rule), but that's the fundamental rule-of-thumb."

I don't think it's just exceptions here and there, though. I think that definition breaks down almost immediately.

Is it healthy to be ashamed of masturbating? Having pre-marital sex? Having an orgasm? Wearing a short skirt? Wearing make-up? Not fighting a rapist "enough"?

There are tons of things that people do that they are ashamed of, even if they hurt no one else. Even if they are actually *beneficial*.

For that reason, I don't think shame is or can or even should be the basis of morality. Nor can or should guilt, for that matter. Shame and guilt occur after the fact, after what is decided to be an ethical violation has occurred. They are reactions to what has already been decided about ethics.

Shame and guilt can be reinforcers of ethics, and it can be debated which one, if either, is better for the purpose. But the basics of ethics comes from elsewhere.

Which means that shame is unhealthy if the ethical system it represents is unhealthy. This is obvious -- to us -- when the shame applies to "who you are"; in other words, something about yourself that is impossible to change and no fault of your own. But it can equally apply to shame about "something you did".
posted by kyrademon at 7:26 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


In other news: Spite Is Good. Spite Works.
posted by homunculus at 10:42 PM on April 1


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