The Shame Game

A Pueblo shame clown by Roxanne Swentzell. (via Flickr)





Shame!” I hiss, lost for any other word as strong. The dog has loped two neighbors’ yards away and looped back just before hitting the alley, where he could have gotten hit. “Shame on you.”

I do not deal in shame, as a rule. Was not reared with it, do not understand it; do not approve its use. But when I feel out of control or at a loss, guess what pops up. The meaner nuns at my grade school would be so proud.

A friend from grad school, John Samuel Tieman, once found himself shaming his new, wildly misbehaving students. “My classes were on the verge of chaos,” he explains. “I became desperate.” And so he shamed, as a disciplinary tactic. And it did not work. Later, he wrote about it, trying to understand the impulse. “As we were humiliated,” he remarks, “so do we humiliate.”

The poet and essayist Ross Gay used to coach high school basketball. “Beratement was still in my bag of tricks,” he admits, describing how he would grab kids who were failing a class or two and scream at them so loud the nearby adults looked twice, or make a kid who showed up late to practice watch while his teammates ran themselves sick. “The ones whom I was sometimes berating, the kids in my care, they were not even men,” Gay says. “They were just boys.”

So why do we do it? Why do all of us do it, and why has shame been part of every culture since time began?

Because we are social beings. Were I the last human alive, I might still be able to feel goofy or embarrassed by some misstep, but I would feel no shame, because nobody was watching. Our shame lives in the opinion of others. And we lather shame onto others when they must be made presentable, reformed to meet the herd’s standards. We know no better way to shove them into compliance.

In sum, we shame when we feel helpless. Hence all the recent mask-shaming, aimed in both directions. Hence all the woke shaming, in the face of raw public hatred of anyone not White and heterosexual. Hence McCarthyism, back when Communism looked likely to overrun red-white-and-blue values.

When a scammer tried to persuade an elderly friend to let him into her supposedly infected computer, I snatched the phone and snapped, “You should be ashamed of yourself! Does your mother know what you do for a living?”

He told me to fuck off.

Nonetheless, I felt better, blazing with righteousness. I had invoked the standards of a civilized society. Shame is how we do that. Unfortunately, it often backfires and only causes the person we are shaming to pull back from society altogether. Or it works, but by eating into their sense of self. Years later, when various embarrassments and guilt pangs have faded, the shame still burns bright. Why? Because shame is about us. Not the one thing we did, but our entire being.

We cancel people, not what they did last Wednesday.

Well into the second millennium, we ought to have moved miles from our Puritan days, with their scarlet letters and public-square pillory. Yet shaming is more prevalent than ever. We call out, we cancel, we feign being scandalized by political opponents’ behavior. As public spectacle, shaming is more theatrical than ever (and only slightly less barbaric). All too often, its purpose is to elevate the shamer rather than deter the behavior of the shamed. Either way, the shaming thrills the audience. It “flatters our sense of power,” notes Charlie Tyson, “making us feel superior to the person we are shaming.”

Shame only reinforces whatever behavior we are ashamed of. We feel criticized, unworthy, socially rejected—so we hide, go underground, or get defensive and angrily resolve to do more of whatever it was that shamed us.

In The Shame of Poverty, Robert Walker notes the popular notion that shame is the glue that holds society together. The individual consequences, though? “Social isolation, loss of agency, depression, and even suicide.”

Surely there is a less toxic binding agent?

At an institutional level, shaming can be creative. Public announcements of which banks and corporations participate in apartheid or environmental destruction, reminders of the earlier behavior of political figures who now preach the opposite—these forms tempt me. But as much as I have enjoyed the latitude of our libel laws when writing about public figures, I think any defamation should have to be proven. Imagine how that alone would raise the tone of our political campaigns, not to mention quieting shrieks of “Fake news!”

Shaming individuals because they used a word just pronounced offensive last week, though? Or made a blunt statement that contradicted the current microclimate in which they live? In “Theater of Shame,” Tyson points out the craziness and destructiveness of these petty semantic attacks. They only distract from “the failure of online shaming to address people or institutions with real power.”

Online shaming is doing exactly what Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned that theatrical spectacle would do: distance other human beings rather than bringing them closer. We are an audience, rather than a society.

What could we do instead? The Hopi use shame clowns to mock certain kinds of behavior, but they are coaxing rather than bullying, Cathy O’Neil notes. The clowns are as funny as celebrities roasting one another, or brothers teasing, or comedians picking on audience members, and the ritual ends with forgiveness all round. What redeems that sort of shaming is how light the tone is, how temporary the label, how affectionate the intent. No one is being branded and shut out of the group.

For perhaps the first and last time, Roman Catholic teachings about homosexuality might have something to offer: hate the sin and not the sinner. Shame ways of thinking and ways of speaking without shaming individuals. Let the bloodlust subside, gulp back the saliva, and pass up the chance to skewer a living, breathing being. Good teachers have known this trick forever. They will spend an entire recess period talking about the damage done by a certain act without once pointing a finger or calling a name. (Granted, this is usually because they do not yet know the culprit.) Often as not, the guilty party will find a quiet moment to slink forward, admit their sin, and save the others from further confinement and lecturing. But it is all done behind the scenes, tactfully, without cruelty.

Can we be good without being shamed into it? Is a calm, detailed explanation of pros and cons strong enough to motivate us? Here I freeze, because moral choices involve competing values. When I am worried about money, it is mighty hard to reason me into philanthropy. Nor can I be reasoned into a jog and a celery stick when I am exhausted and sad. Human behavior is so often irrational that shame dances before us as the fastest, easiest solution.

Maybe the crueler sorts of shame are having a resurgence not just because we have the technology but because we feel out of control. Maybe we are desperately hoping there is still a common moral standard to which others can be held. Or maybe we still believe, deep in our gut, that shame works, no matter how much pain it causes.

We use shame on others and justify it to ourselves. That leaves us shameless—the only state worse than being shamed.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.