How Shame Works

I hope to come back to my conversation with Ta-Nehisi about marriage and all the rest of it soon, but for now I'll just throw out a quick take on the back-and-forth about shame that the discussion has spawned. Here's Adam Serwer:

Conservatives regularly overestimate the beneficial effects of shame. Shame provokes response in the form of impulse, not long term planning. A person who is ashamed isn't going to think, "I'd better get a degree" or "I'd better get married," they're going to think in the short term about what they can do to rectify their sense of self-worth.

How do you see people--men in particular--act when they're ashamed? You rarely see them do something like get married or get a fantastic job; usually they're going to hurt or exploit someone, make them feel as low as they do--this is the lesson learned by the shamed from the shamer, regardless of the lesson the shamer thinks they're teaching the shamed.

I think this overgeneralizes somewhat: The responses to shame are as variable as the human race itself, and the fact that shaming sometimes sets off a self-destructive spiral doesn't mean that in other cases it can't spur repentance, and an amended life. And I think that Megan's response gets at an essential point, which is that shame is useful as a deterrent even when it fails as a corrective. Having your mother kick you out of the house if you get pregnant out of wedlock probably isn't going to improve your life chances, but the fear that your mother might kick you out stands a good chance of deterring you from making a bad decision in the first place. The fact that shame provokes an impulsive response is a feature, not a bug, when you're trying to deter bad behavior that is itself impulsive.

But obviously the destructive cycle Serwer's describing does exist: When people make bad choices, a culture of shame and stigma can make their lot in life worse, not better. Rod Dreher and Peggy Noonan, whose comments on the subject Serwer cites, both make the point that you can strike a balance: "Stigmatize having sex and having babies outside of marriage," as Rod puts it, "while at the same time loving and trying to help those who have babies outside of marriage." This is true in theory, and sometimes true in practice ... but human beings what they are, social stigmas are usually effective precisely because they create suffering, and exclusion, and cautionary tales. Therefore it's not quite right to say, as Rod does, that lifting the stigma on unwed childbearing involved "false compassion." The compassion involved was and is real, and so are its beneficiaries. Many lives really were improved as American society became more tolerant of unwed motherhood - just as many lives were improved when divorce became easier to obtain, and bad marriages easier to walk away from, and so on.

But many other lives were not. And so the battle between social conservatism and social liberalism at the moment isn't a battle between competing utopias, but a battle over which tragic choice is worse: The choice to stigmatize, which can damage and even ruin lives, or the choice to destigmatize, which can damage and ruin countless lives as well. It's a hard enough call that I can safely say I would have sided with the social liberals in a different time and place. But we've come a long way down their road, and I think we know enough about the consequences to say that there would be real gains to human welfare available - for downscale Americans, especially, but not only for them - if we were to go some distance in a more conservative direction.

Whether that's possible, of course, is another question entirely. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth the trying.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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