The Shame of It All

What we used to call shame is being shamed out of existence. We are not supposed to feel it, and we are certainly not supposed to inflict it. But what else do we lose when we dispense with a sense of shame?

To define the word is to understand why the current culture reviles it. While the entire apparatus of modern life – our entertainments, our modes of communication, the motivations of our commerce – is oriented toward the fulfillment of the self at the expense of essentially everything else, shame involves a sense of self-revulsion, self-denial, self-diminishment. It arises out of an awareness that we have done something seriously wrong, and the need not to do it again. Eventually it heals into regret, but as first felt, the self-wound is shame.

Looking back, I realize that I lived most of my childhood in a nearly perpetual state of shame. I was constantly doing things that my parents told me not to do (trampoline on the bed, climb dangerous trees, swear, beat up my brother) or that I couldn’t help doing but were regarded by the grade school ecosystem as inherently shameful (be short and skinny, bad at sports, and shy). When I reached adulthood, and had done a great many more things that my parents would have told me not to do and that I knew to be inherently shameful, much of the psychotherapy I intermittently underwent was focused on excavating the sources of what one sweet old counselor called my “extreme sensitivity to shame.”

Mothers, our first disciplinarians, tend to be blamed for a lot of the shame we carry around like hidden tattoos, but I think this is unfair. Shame is a deeply ingrained, pre-social reflex, without which the species would never have advanced beyond the tidepools. At least some of our remote ancestors felt a stab of this awful, unfamiliar feeling when they’d stolen their neighbor’s food or mate or left him for dead after a disagreement. The eventual result was what we loosely call civilization.

Religion is all about shame, the internalization of human insufficiency coupled with the externalization, in the deity, of what we should aspire to. All those “shalt nots” presuppose that, alas, we shall, and feel bad about it, perhaps eternally. It’s only by accepting the correctness of our sense of shame that we can achieve a level of humility that can save us.

Shame is the handmaiden to duty, that sense of obligation to others that transcends self-interest. It’s partly our shame at having inadequately repaid our debts to our families or our communities or our country that leads millions of us into military service, philanthropy, faith-based charity, or years of simple inter-generational caregiving.

But we live in shameless times. Our last president was and is the embodiment of a current extreme brand of shamelessness where no deed need ever be regretted, no negligence repented, no careless word recanted. Just double down. “Have you no shame?” has become a completely rhetorical question, one that Trump couldn’t begin to comprehend. Narcissism has been his career as well as his pathology, and in this he both reflects the culture and, to a frightening degree, legitimizes it.

What we refer to as shame (the noun) has become rare, but to shame (the verb) has undergone a strange negative renaissance. We must not “fat-shame,” for instance,  but rather practice “body inclusivity,” lest we perpetuate a negative social bias that might inflict the kind of humiliation I experienced when I was skinny and small. I have chronically high blood pressure and excess cholesterol, and I suppose I should feel empowered, next time I see my doctor, to tell him to stop cholesterol-shaming and blood-pressure-shaming me, and practice better health problem inclusivity, but somehow I think he’d just ignore my precious sensitivities and keep right on prescribing me corrective drugs and diets. Meanwhile, obesity prematurely kills untold millions of Americans every year and contributes mightily to the dysfunctionality and expense of our health-care system (as a quick visit to the nearest orthopedic clinic will confirm), but we’re admonished to embrace it as just another emblem of human diversity, no different from gray hair or black skin.

On the other hand, it seems to be perfectly okay to mercilessly shame people who fail to strictly observe the baroque linguistic semaphore now required for any discussion of body types, sex, race, gender, or, for that matter, most of American history. Having abandoned moral suasion and small-d democratic politics as levers of effective social change – too slow, too difficult – some we used to call liberals have become the new fascists, extorting prescribed speech and behavior from the bewildered citizenry on pain of shaming, ostracism, even job loss. We can blame social media for this all we want, but no one is forced to join a mob of online thugs. The fault – the shame – is in ourselves.

Not that there aren’t more subtle forms of cultural norm-shaming going on. Not long ago I was urged by an editor of my novel to remove a word from a descriptive passage because it shares a first syllable with a racial slur (the word was – trigger warning – niggardly). At first I was incredulous, because this well-educated person of course knew that the word means stingy or selfish, has no etymological connection to the n-word, and anyone who made it that far in my book would know that too. But God forbid that the printed page should include even a syllable that might remind someone of another word that might make them uncomfortable. I was suitably shamed for my insensitivity and deleted the word, though I felt like a traitor to my native tongue. Is the world better off for my capitulation? I would argue not a bit, and perhaps poorer, for in shrinking my working vocabulary over nothing, I’d participated in the trivialization of a real problem and enabled the sort of – dare I say? – niggardly moral absolutism that leads, ultimately, backwards, reducing our freedoms and shrinking our spirits.

“Shame not, lest you be shamed” might be the modern formulation of the old biblical injunction. We shame others at our peril, but I’d argue that we need a bit more self-directed shame in our daily lives, a bit more self-criticism, a bit more contrition, maybe even the occasional twinge of self-loathing. It’s in that upwelling of shame that our sense of right and wrong most honestly expresses itself, and we should listen, and respond.

Too often we don’t, and that’s a real shame.

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