June 22, 2013

"The idea that 'shame works' — that stigmatizing behaviors and shaming the people who do them are necessary and honorable tools of public policy..."

"... is a recurring theme in both conservative and more communitarian/paternalistic liberal rhetoric. It’s often based on personal experience, or home truths from one’s mom, and because people do sometimes say that shame worked for them I had a hard time articulating why I rejected this rhetoric so completely."

Writes Eve Tushnet, who figured out the answer from reading "Middlemarch."

What? You're ashamed never to have read "Middlemarch"? I'm not, because I have read it, not that I remember the part about shame.
I remember one thing about the book: Some lady was hugely supportive of her husband's writing, but then — spoiler alert! — after he dies, she gets a good look at his supposed magnum opus and it's no damned good at all. Did I get that right? I read it decades ago, and though I've seen it listed among the top books that you're supposed to read — at least if you want to be considered a reader of serious literature — I don't think you need to read it. You're off the hook — in my book — for not reading it. So no need to approach this discussion with any shame about that. And I'll just leap to what's so bad about shame that reading "Middlemarch" made Eve Tushnet capable of articulating. Then we can discuss what's so bad about shame. (You can also discuss how "Middlemarch," specifically, elucidates things, or how reading serious literature enables us to fathom complex concepts.)

Tushnet looks at "what I was like in the year or two before I quit drinking":
During that time, when I knew that I had a serious drinking problem but hadn’t yet quit, shame completely corroded my moral sense. It isolated me. I felt like there was nobody I could trust or talk to. I had no hope of change and no sense that there was any way out. I was able to imagine taking actions to hide what was going on, but stopping was completely unimaginable....
When people try to shame you, you might "just get[] angry... and totally reject[] their judgment... and decide[] to make [your] way in the world while paying them as little attention as possible."
Shame is closely allied with disgust, and we attach it to things like poverty at least as often as to actual wrongdoing. Few people feel guilty for smelling bad or getting their period in gym class; plenty of people feel ashamed for those things. This makes shame inherently a more suspect tool. It’s also inherently more tied to outside opinion than guilt is. This is part of its usefulness – like I said above, shame forces you to see yourself through other people’s eyes, which can be a powerful corrective – but shame does involve a kind of outsourced or socialized conscience.

43 comments:

betamax3000 said...

"...but shame does involve a kind of outsourced or socialized conscience."

A Sociopath feels No Guilt.

A Narcissist Feels No Shame.

ricpic said...

Paternalistic shame must go
So that the sisterhood may flow
In a great gurgling river of no regret
Along whose banks male skulls are set.

rhhardin said...

Pudendum comes from pudor, shame, consciousness of what is seemly, sense of propriety, restraint, decency, shyness, reserve, self-respect, honor.

A source of these.

exclam. for shame

Oxford Latin Dictionary

Gabriel Hanna said...

@ricpic:In a great gurgling river of no regret

You can't stop this feminine river
No man can stop this red, red river

Freeman Hunt said...

I think that shame is varied and not one monolithic thing. Someone should break down the categories of shame.

edutcher said...

Social approbation was what held society together (the Cheyenne, for example, were legendary for it) before the Lefties and the hippie-dippy crowd started all the "If it feels good, do it" and "Let it all hang out" nonsense.

Shaming was a part of that.

Ostracizing the girl who got pregnant out of wedlock maybe lost one (sometimes), but saved a thousand. Same applied to the guy - somebody who spent his time running around screwing all the girls and not doing any useful work was not welcome in most homes.

Rough sometimes, but it worked.

Funny how the "value-neutral", "non-judgmental" Lefties now use it to enforce their idea of society.

Paco Wové said...

"I think that shame is varied and not one monolithic thing"

When I read pieces like Tushnet's, I am often left with the impression that the writers are using a totally different concept of 'shame' than what I am used to.

The Drill SGT said...

In the greater scheme of things, shame is the method society uses to encourage behaviors that have been determined over time to be pro-society.

The Left rejects shame as a 'conservative artifact'.

YoungHegelian said...

I can understand why a conservatives like Tushnet would want to discuss resurrecting shame, but really what she's talking about is resurrecting shame for the conservative panoply of mortal sins.

The truth is, we live in a horribly judgmental and unforgiving age, much more so than at any other time in my 50+ years. It's just that the mortal sins are the sins chosen by PC liberals, not by conservatives.

Just ask Paula Deen.

Paco Wové said...

I always assumed 'shame' had some sort of moral dimension. I could see being embarrassed for "smelling bad or getting their period in gym class", but not ashamed.

David said...

Well I never got a period in gym class but there were quite a few very inconvenient boners in my youthful days. The shame was transitory.

David said...

It is a judgmental time YH, that's for sure.

And so many of the judgments are such mindless crap.

My personal favorite remains asking classes of draft free war exempt helicopter parented expensively educated teenagers whether Harry Truman was a war criminal. And taking their answers seriously.

traditionalguy said...

Shame is an easy control trigger implanted into toddlers that are being age two.

The misuse of that on trigger adults is a Legalistic religion's bread and butter.

The Gospels accept and affirm people as they are. Shame is never over.

When someone wants to make you feel ashamed, ask yourself why the are doing it. It is always to weaken you, just like the two year old's parents used it for. Just reach up and pull the half nelson of guilt off your neck , spit in their eye and get rid of them.



edutcher said...

The Drill SGT said...

In the greater scheme of things, shame is the method society uses to encourage behaviors that have been determined over time to be pro-society.

The Left rejects shame as a 'conservative artifact'.


They may not use the word, but they sure love the concept.

edutcher said...

PS Nobody, however, loves it more than the feminazis when they find somebody who doesn't tow their line.

Ann Althouse said...

"Social approbation was what held society together (the Cheyenne, for example, were legendary for it) before the Lefties and the hippie-dippy crowd started all the "If it feels good, do it" and "Let it all hang out" nonsense."

Hippies shamed each other. I need to make a list of things hippies shamed other hippies about:

1. You'd be shamed for feeling shame about the things the straights wanted to shame you about.

2. Being selfish about keeping your body for yourself and not willingly giving it.

3. Doing anything commercial or for profit.

4. Not sharing, fully and completely, especially all you material goods.

5. Being materialistic.

6. Caring about what's legal and illegal.

7. Being anything but completely nonviolent.

etc. etc.

Ann Althouse said...

8. Judging.

rhhardin said...

Goffman takes embarrassment as central, not shame.

The threat of it reaches deep in every social interaction in every culture, so he took it as pan-cultural and a good thing to study.

After Goffman's death, various friends commented what a bitch it was to go out to dinner with Goffman. He'd always be doing some experiment.

Ambrose said...

So many people just love telling others what to do. Seems much more common these days.

Ann Althouse said...

"Well I never got a period in gym class but there were quite a few very inconvenient boners in my youthful days. The shame was transitory."

This may account for the difference between males and females. These are 2 completely physical things that you need to deal with. I assume the feelings that attach to these 2 phenomena are very different, even if there's a shame aspect and a need to conceal. That might make males much less susceptible to shame, much bolder.

edutcher said...

Ann Althouse said...

Social approbation was what held society together (the Cheyenne, for example, were legendary for it) before the Lefties and the hippie-dippy crowd started all the "If it feels good, do it" and "Let it all hang out" nonsense.

Hippies shamed each other. I need to make a list of things hippies shamed other hippies about:

etc. etc.


That was all about self-gratification, not the good of the community.

Leit Bart said...

@annalthouse said

"8. Judging."

Speaking of judging and shame, Reason has a good piece on judges and shame.

http://reason.com/archives/2013/06/22/the-shame-of-public-shaming

wyo sis said...

Shame can be internal. I think a lot of what people do in brazenly flouting whatever rules they decide are wrong is a sort of whistling in the graveyard defiance because they're aware at some level that they are morally wrong. There are absolute moral wrongs and however deeply we bury them they still have an effect on us.

creeley23 said...

Hippies shamed each other. I need to make a list of things hippies shamed other hippies about...

Only to a degree and a fairly mild degree at that.

At one commune meeting I remember an attempt at shaming resulted in the rejoinder: "Don't pin your trip on me!" The matter was dropped and thereafter "Don't pin your trip on me" became a standard joking reply to almost any attempt to get cooperation.

I suppose you could call that counter-shaming, but really it was all so low-key and unserious. Nothing like the red-hot piercing shame I knew from family and school settings.

As a means of social control, shame really didn't work in hippiedom except for the quasi-cult groups. That's one reason why hippies didn't last as a coherent social force.

William said...

I feel guilty about being so easily shamed.

William said...

I'm not ashamed to admit that I read Middlemarch and thought it was a pretty good book. Not Tolstoy like some claimed, but pretty good. I can't remember much about it. I think that's Elliot's fault and not mine. So I'm not ashamed of my low Middlemarch retention rate. I remember more stuff from Dickens and Tolstoy than I do from Eliot. So maybe I'm some kind of subliminal sexist. Maybe I should be ashamed of that. However I remember less of Trollope than I do of Eliot so maybe those who accuse me (I.e. myself) should be ashamed of themselves for recklessly throwing around charges of sexism,

creeley23 said...

I'm not ashamed to admit that I read the first hundred pages of Middlemarch (over a thousand pages long) then switched to the Cliff's Notes in order to pass the test.

Assigning Middlemarch to fifteen year-old boys seemed to me a high water mark of bad English Lit teaching and still does.

Writ Small said...

Reading through the comments, it occurs that shame only works when one aspires to be a member in good standing of a particular group.

We're so balkanized, there's little agreement on what is shameful, and so shame seems outdated.

Lots of good could done if there was cultural alignment on such things as hard work, faithfulness, and being respectful of inherent racial differences. It's too late and that's a, er, unfortunate.

dbp said...

I think that when shame "works" it does so only because the one doing the shaming has moral authority. So this might happen if someone you respect like a parent, priest or other respected person expresses disapproval at some action you have done.

The mistake the left makes in the shaming they attempted at the Walker protests was that the only people who respect the left are the left themselves. In a case like that (and Wright falls right into this category too) the shamers just look like clowns.

eddie willers said...

I'm ashamed I never even heard of Middlemarch.

That being said, I think I'll check out that new book by Harold Robbins wife.

Synova said...

It's sort of weird that she thinks that being embarrassed is the same as feeling ashamed. Who is ashamed of getting your period in gym class or realizing you've had really bad BO all day? No. That's feeling embarrassed.

Ambrose said...

I never read Middlemarch, but I remember a time about 35 years ago when I was chatting up a lovely girl and she asked me if I liked George Eliot. Of course, I said, I've read all his books. I realized my error about 5 years later. Oh well.

Bob Ellison said...

I'm sorry. Am I the only one laughing at the name "Eve Tushnet"? Maybe my name is funny in another way. I'm sorry. This is very childish. I'm sorry.

Achilles said...

Shame is still prevelent, it is virtue that is being destroyed. The hippies were trying to remove virtue from society and used shame to do it. Progressives have been trying to destroy personal virtue forever because that is the basis of a free society.

Besides Who needs shame when the average citizen commits several felonies every day? Between the FBI, NSA, and IRS the government should be able to take care of everything.

PonyIsland said...

Actually the shame Dorethea felt in Middlemarch was due to realizing - while her much older and idolised-for-his-supposed-brilliance husband was alive - that his life's work was stupid and pointless. (It was a work attempting to tie together all religions but all the good work at the time was being done in German and he did not know German, so his work was hopelessly out of date and useless, even before it was finished.) She just worshipped him, and he was cold to her. Her job was to help him, though. She realized the complete pointlessness of the work just before he asked her to continue this work after he died and make sure it was published. She hesitated and asked to think about it. Angry and disappointed, he agreed to let her go think. He sits in the garden. She goes off and decides to waste her life doing this. She comes back to tell him and there he is, stone dead. So - is she ashamed of the feeling of relief? Probably.
I read this at 17 as a college freshman - I had a really good lit professor though.

Balfegor said...

I think what you've excerpted there explains one of the limitations of shame. It doesn't work when people can run away, either by disappearing into the atomised anonymity of urban life, or by becoming a hikikomori or something. It's painful -- that's the point -- and some people prefer to hide.

Another limitation is that it doesn't really work when the target doesn't actually care what you think, e.g. because he's from a different culture and your norms have no authority over him. It would be hard to preserve social order in a truly multucultural environment without coercive/punitive force (law).

Mitchell the Bat said...

I seem to recall a scene in Easy Rider with commune hippies that had something to do with not trading hashish for rice or something like that.

There's probably a word for my reaction. Some combination of revulsion, embarrassment and fear. Some mild form of social horror, maybe.

Frankly, the nostalgia for it all seems more like stupidity.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

Shaming is mainly appropriate when a person is not behaving according to her natural tendencies. As I define it, shaming is for changing behavior into something other than what the potentially shamed would feel like doing if not shamed. If the reason to change behavior has to do with a mistaken viewpoint the person to be changed has made, change can be affected merely by showing the person to be changed her mistaken assumptions or reasonings, and the reasons they are mistaken—shame is irrelevant in such a case. Feelings not based on reason can not be directly changed by arguments or pointing out mistaken reasonings, since it is not mistaken reasonings that are directly causing the feelings. Either the feelings not arising directly from reasoning are caused by natural tendencies, or the feelings are a result of artificial chemicals directly causing the feelings. People naturally want their tendencies to be natural and not caused by artificial chemicals (as opposed to feelings that naturally occur as a result of the brain being stimulated by chemicals created naturally in the body from (artificial) nutrients in response to how the brain views life). Accordingly, if trusted people around you are suggesting you are behaving unnaturally, the natural emotion to feel shame under such circumstances will tend to make you believe them and to make you stop what it is that they suggest is causing you to feel unnaturally.

Since being addicted tends to cause one to hurt others and behave inefficiently, guilt, a sense that one has done things wrong or poorly, may cause the addicted to see the unnaturalness that has caused the addiction. But guilt is a response to failures, and so requires (undesirable) failures and a sense that one could have done better (which may not exist, especially if the addictions were from early date).

People with selfish interests, e.g., many evangelical religions or groups taking pride in scientific or upper-class airs, will tend to use shame to try to make people view things other than addictions as shameful, which is bad. Mostly people should be at liberty to behave according to their natural tendencies when they aren't hurting others.

True, there is a stronger sense in which it can be appropriate to force someone to be otherwise than her natural self. Most importantly, a male might naturally try to force a girl to use her own brain and feelings when making judgments as opposed to her blindly accepting standard opinion. He can just lessen his loving feelings for her when she be excessively conformist (except perhaps from fears that can make such conformity appropriate even if annoying). But the latter is really an entirely different phenomenon from "forcing" a girl to be free of addiction. A girl can naturally desire to be a conformist, just as I or someone else could naturally want to force her to not be that. But by definition, a girl can not naturally be unnatural. Shame applied against an addiction gives freedom to the addicted since it's power is to free the addicted from the addiction that is forcing her to behave unnaturally.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

As a practical matter, shame often doesn't work because the person won't accept being shamed. I'm sure there are good people I'd probably like to be around who are addicted to alcohol, addictive drugs (whether prescribed by a venal quite possibly illustrious doctor or bought illegally), even to food (gut and teeth bacteria that prefer to live in overreaters probably emit chemicals that produce unnatural hungers; also, some foods may be directly addictive--personally I am particularly suspicious of white walnuts, chocolate and vanilla, and am somewhat suspicious of bread and bananas). But if someone is particularly addicted and stubborn in it, I'm sure that they'd find being around me quite a shaming experience even if I am not trying to make them shamed--they couldn't help but notice my contempt for whatever it is they are doing unnaturally, in more-or-less proportion to how unnatural I view it. Sometimes when I'm in restaurants around bars, I don't feel comfortable. Even though I am not trying to shame the drinkers, they sometimes know I think they are behaving stupidly, and they don't want to be reminded.

If I really like someone who suffers from addiction that I doubt I could presently overcome, it may be that it is best not to be too close to that person presently, not because it can be a great sacrifice for me in living with the addicted (which potentially could be relevant, as in some Somerset Maugham novel with a skank woman engaging in depravity as if she's addicted to sodomy), but also because the person could push me away forever, destroying whatever future I might have with that person, even that future I might could use to vanquish the unnatural for her rescue. Oftentimes when encountering females, I feel like holding back for a while. Especially do I feel that way when dealing with dramatic girls who would look to be the type to ban you for life when angry. I suppose some of the time a feeling she might be addicted to something might be responsibile for my hesitance. But not always--a girl can be so snow-like I suppose one should think twice before making footprints in the uniform snow scene, even if there are snow fun improvements that can be made best before much of the snow melts. I'm not quite as perfectly snow as snow and tend to be slow and slothlike about things. And possibly a girl could ban me for life just because I'm weird and likely unsupportive or merely tolerant of whatever conformity she might happen to believe is sufficient for her.

Adina said...

I think that the societal shame in Middlemarch is directed toward Mr. Bulstrode and anyone associated with him because everyone discovers that Mr. Self Righteous is actually Mr. Hypocrite. The family leaves Middlemarch to go abroad because the people in town won't have anything to do with them. I don't see how this is an example of how shame could cause people to change behaviors. It is an example of how society excludes people who have done what's wrong. However, innocent people are also excluded.

Adina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ken in sc said...

A boner in a pair of new stiff jeans in 7th grade science class is very uncomfortable, also embarrassing. Enough so that I still remember it 50 years later.

Carl said...

Tushnet sounds like a graduate of a 12-step program, which does indeed ask you (and your family -- i.e. most loved authority) to sidestep shame and focus on hope.

So that's nice for her. What she may forget is that her prior experience of deep and hopeless shame may very well be exactly what made her seize on the thread of hope her successful program offered.

I'm reminded of the Austrian school comment on economic downturns, which is that to understand them you need to look at what happened well before the downturn, during the previous boom. Rather than assume the crash came out of nowhere, or due to any random collection of strange one-offs, a more likely theory is that there was something deeply wrong in the boom and that's what caused the crash.

In the same sense, Tushnet may focus on what happened during her recovery, and credit it 100% with becoming better, but she is very likely wrong. It is very likely something was going right during her crash, which set the stage for her subsequent boom. And perhaps shame was one of those things that were right about that otherwise evil part of her life.

I can understand why the hypothesis rankles. Like any modern narcissist, she wants to credit only the positive people around her with the positive aspects of her life. The idea of handing any credit to people who said things she found painful, or who seemed unsympathetic, would be humiliating.