Thursday, February 19, 2009

What If They Threw a Shame Culture and Nobody Came?

I've been having a long and glorious seizure over the blogosphere's recent interest in shame—how could I be anything but ecstatic that Douthat, Dreher, Serwer, McArdle, and Friedersdorf have all taken up my favorite topic?

Yet it seems, sadly enough, that shame needs defending from its defenders, who have the right general idea but miss some important particulars. Rather than fisk the whole lot of ya, here's a defense of shame culture written in a form that suits the blogosphere: a top ten list, in this case the Top Ten Reasons to Love "Shame Culture." I've written about most of these ideas before, so follow the links in parentheses if any of these items is unclear.
1. There can be no humility without humiliation. I can't repeat this too often.

2. Evil is sexy and exciting, but there is very little frisson to behavior that's "beneath you."

3. Guilt, unlike shame, is something a person can feel proud of. Piling self-congratulation onto sin adds insult to injury. (More, more.)

4. Shame reinforces the postmodern concept of "mutual implicatedness," which used to be called the Brotherhood of Man. This one is tough to understand, so I'll quote myself (a lazy shortcut for which I feel appropriate shame):
Virginia Burrus writes that "shame arises where we humans both honor and overflow our limits, where we recognize the limits of autonomy—where we observe, with no little alarm, the spreading stain of our mutual implicatedness."

To de-pomo-ify that sentence: We only feel shame before people because we think that we’ve somehow harmed them, even though the only harm we’ve done is to have put a little more sin into the world. If we truly believe that putting sin into the world is a meaningful kind of harm, then we’ve come to terms with one of the most difficult implications of the brotherhood of man.
5. I am inclined to be forgiving of my own faults—more so than I ought to be—whereas the public is not. With guilt, I always get less emotional punishment than I deserve. (More.)

6. Body-related shame tends to get the worst rap of all, but "a sense of shame is what safeguards the bodily privacy necessary to civility" (Jean Bethke Elshtain). If you want a culture that respects privacy and personal space, you need shame.

7. Consider this Navajo insult: "He behaves like one who has no family"—that is to say, shamelessly. Shame reinforces our "little platoon"-sized loyalties. (More.)

8. There is an important kind of courage that comes with a willingness to undergo humiliation; when shame disappears, so does this kind of courage. This is especially bad since this special courage is the virtue that philosophers, bloggers, and other truth-seekers need to have. (More, more, more.)

9. Shame is visceral and involuntary, which makes it ideal for enforcing your moral code on people who don't agree with it, and doing so in a way that doesn't involve coercion or the state. This is a feature, not a bug. (More.)

10. Guilt allows us to stay safely within our comfort zones, but shame pushes us beyond our limits. This is because shame is unforgiving, while guilt reinforces the fallacy that "to understand all is to forgive all." (This is similar to #5, but focuses less on feeling bad than on doing better. See here, especially the part about punk traditionalism forcing people to excel.)
The first and most obvious caveat is that we should take care to shame people for the right things. Good shame cultures are good and bad shame cultures are bad, obviously, although for my money either one is preferable to no shame culture.

Secondly, I'd like to point out (as I did here) that the cruelty of a shame culture can be mitigated by insisting that there should always be exceptions to it—i.e. if a girl has a child out of wedlock, she should get dirty looks on the street from strangers but never from her mother. Or, if it isn't her mother who refuses to be part of the Shame Brigade, let it be her aunt, her godmother, her best friend's family, or her pastor who takes her in. Or all of them. I want to keep shame alive, but I also want to be humane; I can eat my cake and have it by making clear that a person should have a handful of people in his life that love him unconditionally.

For an illustration of what I mean, watch this video from 5:30. (It's a scene from Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night.) I know that some people think that a person should support his friends only when he agrees with them or approves of what they've done, so I should admit that those people upset the picture of shame culture that I've drawn, as the Sports Night clip will make clear. If you don't have a robust understanding of loyalty, I can't imagine that you'll be on board with shame.

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