Challenging the Anti-Shame Zeitgeist

Despite a culture organizing to oppose shaming, it remains inevitable. But it doesn't have to ruin lives.
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In response to a spate of teen suicides last year, a number of celebrities (Anne Hathaway, Justin Timberlake, Ellen DeGeneres, among others) used their visibility to castigate people who bully others. When public figures denounce bullying, they draw attention to the power of shame: A victim's experience at the hands of a bully can be so excruciating that life becomes unendurable.

Bullying used to be more or less acceptable behavior, a part of "kids being kids," but in recent years our culture has grown increasingly intolerant of those who shame others for their differences. The recent celebrity crusade against bullying reflects this anti-shame zeitgeist, as does Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." As she often does, Gaga encourages her audience to embrace self-love and self-acceptance, particularly those who might have been bullied due to their sexual orientation or gender identity: "Don't hide yourself in regret; Just love yourself and you're set."

Noted shame-researcher Dr. Brené Brown similarly exhorts her audience to take arms against the shame that shuts them down. Her immense popularity points to the growing power of the anti-shame zeitgeist: her TED lecture "The Power of Vulnerability" has received nearly 10 million views, with hundreds of appreciative comments. Unlike most experts in the field, Brown doesn't address her readers as a distant authority, but rather as a comrades-in-arms: Everyone has shame. I have my own shame and here is how I fight back.

The consensus within our culture is that shame is the enemy. It drives those individuals who are different into the shadows.

John Bradshaw initiated the modern conversation about shame with the publication of his classic Healing the Shame that Binds You in 1988. He viewed shame as a particularly toxic problem: shaming messages from parents, educators, and other important figures can destroy a growing child's sense of self-worth and lead to a host of mental disorders from alcoholism to depression. Bradshaw wanted to help his readers heal their inner child and escape the shackles of toxic shame. Since then, a great many authors have written books about how to heal, overcome, or escape from shame and develop self-esteem.

Everywhere we look, pride is on the march, and shame is on the run.

Andrew Solomon's powerful new book Far From the Tree is the most recent expression of this anti-shame zeitgeist. He details the often heroic efforts of parents to make sure their children don't suffer from the shame usually associated with a disability or sexual difference. He describes gay men and women, little people, deaf and blind people, transgendered individuals, and other groups who insist that their difference is not a disability or defect. Instead, they view their condition as an equal alternative to "normal," and nothing to be ashamed of. Solomon writes with passion and empathy about their struggles to develop feelings of self-worth by rejecting the shame of social stigma and embracing pride.

Gay Pride movements across the country most visibly embody this revolt against shame, but there are many disability pride movements as well. Little People of America, Inc. educates and advocates on behalf of those living with dwarfism, proclaiming their worth and value as members of society. Mainstreaming students with Down syndrome or autism reflects the belief that they should not be marginalized with "their own kind," as if they were defective, but included in the classroom with other children their own age. Emphasis is placed upon diversity -- variation within a broad spectrum -- rather than a shame-laden departure from the norm.

RTR2OG2Dinset.jpgNicky Loh/Reuters

The consensus within our culture is clear: shame is a uniquely destructive force, and one to be resisted. Movie stars, educators, pop icons, psychologists, and spokespeople for the pride movements will all tell you the same thing -- shame is the enemy. It drives those individuals who are different into the shadows. It causes us to hide our vulnerability, distancing us from those we love. It enforces conformity and stifles the creative or dissident individual. It kills the spirit.

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Writing nearly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin observed that shame reactions -- blushing, looking downward, generally averting the gaze, etc. -- were seen among cultures and civilizations the world over. Silvan Tomkins, the father of affect theory, identified shame as one of nine genetically encoded physical responses to expected stimuli. According to Tompkins, every single human being is pre-programmed to experience shame under certain conditions.

If shame is such a bad thing, why did evolution see fit to program it into our genes? Evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists believe that guilt and shame evolved to promote stable social relationships. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Evolution, "conformity to cultural values, beliefs, and practices makes behavior predictable and allows for the advent of complex coordination and cooperation." While the anti-shame zeitgeist views conformity to norms as oppressive, support for a great many of our social norms and the shame that enforces them is virtually unanimous.

For example, many would agree that fathers who walk out on their families, neglect their offspring, and fail to make child support payments should feel ashamed. Shame is the appropriate emotion for those men to feel: if powerful enough, the experience of shame might help them to fulfill their obligations as fathers and members of society.

To take a more extreme example, adults having coercive sex with minor children are universally deplored in Western culture. We agree that acting on pedophilia is a shameful, abhorrent crime. Nobody would think of encouraging child molesters to organize a pride movement and defy the shame which society imposes upon them, even though they can't help their sexual urges. The social stigma attached to pedophilia helps to keep this deviant behavior in check. Shame can't stop it entirely, but does place a brake on behavior destructive to a well-functioning society.

Cultures differ in the behaviors they deem shameful; over time, individual cultures may change their minds about what should and should not be subject to shame. Not so long ago, for example, homosexuality largely hid in the shadows within Western culture; today, gay men and women can serve openly in the military, and legally marry in many countries as well as in a growing number of the United States. While the debate over the shamefulness of homosexuality has not been settled, we're clearly in transition.

Nobody would think of encouraging child molesters to organize a pride movement and defy the shame which society imposes upon them.

In recent decades, Western attitudes toward a broad range of physical disabilities have also shifted, lessening the shame stigma they previously carried. Most liberal-minded people view this increasing tolerance for diversity as evidence of progress: Western civilization is becoming more enlightened and humane. This shift in tolerance levels depends upon our relative wealth, however, and upon confidence in our own personal safety. As citizens of a wealthy and powerful country, we have the luxury of deploying vast resources so that those individuals born with a genetic defect, or who are blind, deaf or autistic will suffer as little as possible from the consciousness of their difference.

To understand why I use the word luxury, imagine a less affluent country whose citizens are enduring material shortages and the rationing of food during a border war with its neighbor. Imagine that these people are hungry and frightened for their lives. Under those conditions, they would surely devote scarce resources to training their most able-bodied soldiers and fending off starvation rather than hiring extra teaching assistants in order to mainstream autistic children. Under the psychological pressure of wartime, many would become less tolerant of ambiguity and difference, less inclined to spend money in order to make disabled individuals feel better about themselves.

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