Halsey Frank: Shame has been getting a bad name


Shame used to be a relatively simple thing. You did something wrong. You knew it. It was a self-evident truth: something you wouldn’t want done to yourself. You felt bad.

(There is some reason to believe that emotions, psychological phenomena that help in behavioral control, like embarrassment and shame, are elemental and that animals feel them.)

Or someone, most likely a parent or a teacher, a person of greater authority, who was motivated at least in part by a desire to see you do better, pointed out that you had done something wrong, hopefully in an effort to teach you not to do something.

And the things that were the source of and cause for shame were relatively simple, straightforward and self-evident, too. You took something that wasn’t yours. You hurt someone. You didn’t really try your hardest or mean what you said. You lied about it.

You lied about it because you were proud. You liked yourself, and you liked the things you did, the accomplishments you achieved, and the qualities and characteristics you possessed. Maybe that was because somebody praised you or maybe it was because it too was self-evident, or maybe both. Like taking your first steps.

It’s gotten so much more serious and complicated.

On the set, movie star Alec Baldwin shoots and kills his cinematographer and seems to go on with his life as if nothing happened. On late night television, hosts have long featured a lot of shaming and blaming, albeit in the name of comedy. On Twitter for years, George Conway relentlessly criticized his wife Kellyanne’s employer, the president of the United States.

In politics, each party decries the use of shame and blame on themselves, their allies and their causes, while generously applying it to their opposition. Democrats shame Republicans as racists, science deniers, xenophobes and misogynists. Republicans shame Democrats as election thieves, corrupters of youth, America-hating communists and adherents of intellectually dishonest wokeism.

Shame is the painful feeling caused by the consciousness of having failed or done wrong or done something foolish. It is also the action of making someone feel shame. Other words used to describe the same feelings and actions include guilt, remorse, embarrassment, humiliation, blame and stigma.

In the social context, critics say shame doesn’t motivate prosocial behaviors but rather fuels withdrawal and low esteem. In the context of drug abuseaddiction experts and counselors say shaming drug abusers is misguided and doesn’t work because drug addiction is a brain disease. In the criminal context, critics say that it doesn’t rehabilitate but instead affixes criminals to a deviant identity. It is harmful, demeaning and unfairly administered. At worse, it may be illegal and counterproductive.

I think that they are being critical of blame more than shame. More specifically, I think that they are being critical of wrongly assigning responsibility for fault. Who could disagree with that?

But we’ve been grappling with shame for a long time.

In “The Scarlett Letter” Nathaniel Hawthorne explored shame and hypocrisy in Puritan Massachusetts. There, Boston colonists shamed Hester Prynne for having a daughter as a result of a secret, adulterous affair with Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. She refused to identify him and was stigmatized but bore it with dignity. He kept it secret and suffered.

The ancient Greeks physically excluded from their polis people of whom they disapproved. They practiced exile, ostracism and scapegoating. The procedure varied. At times, oligarchs decided who was in and who was out. At other times, the process was more democratic. In any event, it was harsh punishment at a time when there wasn’t necessarily a city-state nearby to which the outcast could move.

In a new book entitled The Shame Machine, authors Cathy O’Neil and Stephen Baker criticize what they call the modern “shame industrial complex” that profits from our collective desire to look down on others. Social media platforms on which groups criticize each other are the epitome of this profiteering. The authors particularly disapprove the practice of the privileged “punching down” on the vulnerable, such as those in poverty and drug addicts. On the other hand, they approve of shame when victims use it to “punch up” and bring to justice their abusers.

In more traditional terms, shame, or more properly, blame, is a force that groups try to use to control others. It is among the more basic, informal, and democratic ones. It is difficult, if not impossible, to control, but it can be a force for both good and evil. It probably works better in smaller, simpler, more homogeneous and stable communities like the small city states of ancient Greece than in larger, more diverse and dynamic communities like our country.

How effectively it works depends on the relationships between the community exercising the control, the person who is the object of the control, the feature of the person that the community is trying to control, and the person’s, the feature’s, and the shaming community’s relationships with any other community of importance to the person.

Aside from whether it is effective, whether it is a force for good depends on the value and behavior being suppressed. Whether it’s fair depends, among other things, on whether we think the behavior is one within the person’s control. And we don’t share a lot of agreement about those issues these days either.

But it is a mistake to categorically reject shame and blame in favor of government programs and treatments. The fact that they may be misused or that they may negatively affect some people is not a good reason to reject them. Informal social controls can serve the general public. When employed judiciously in service of good goals, they can be positive forces. We want to discourage people from abusing drugs and committing crimes. Shame, blame and self-control have a legitimate role to play in that effort.

I don’t expect that we are going to resolve our conflicting feelings about shame any time soon.


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