Taking a Sharp Sword to the word Shame

Face down in the corner, head in hands. The girl is weeping and won’t look up. The teachers can not console her. It won’t be til the next day that other children explain what happened. She’d come out of the bathroom with toilet paper still attached to her dress. And certain kids had a field day of making fun and stirring up dark merriment at her expense. You could not bottle the poison this had been to her little heart. She can tell you what it’s like to be shamed. She can show you why certain shaming is as cruel and cold as an executioner’s blade.

We’ve all seen it. The man at work who has a stutter from childhood he can’t control. The teenager with acne that won’t go away. The Substitute teacher who mispronounces a name she’s never seen. The boy at the dance who has no rhythm.

But is this the total of shame? We most often hear of shame now when speaking of things like “body image”, “sexual orientation”, “cultural background”, etc. If we were to by the definition of it’s pendulum swing of this era, we say shame is something like: The use of influence to put others down for one’s own pleasure and empowerment. But does that capture the whole idea? Let’s think more about shame together.

Shaming has been around for many epochs. It exists in every culture. Some demonstrate it differently, and aim at different target. But dishonorment is a social tool in everyone’s shed. A sharp edge which cuts. It causes certain and acute pain. But is it ever wielded to good outcome? Is there such a thing as good shame?

Even those who hate the event of shaming participate in it to one degree or another. If you think this is not so, then ask yourself if the sport of shaming ought to be done away with. Shouldn’t those who love to shame others then start to feel badly about the endeavor and to give it up? I would argue, this is the purpose of “good shaming”. Proper shame would look like allowing or encourage another to second think their choices or station in life in order to move them away from unnecessary harmful behaviors.

So what are the examples? A child who abuses a cat could be one. Would it not be a useful tool (if nothing else would as easily work) to passionately express the “offness” of treating a pet this way? Definitely? Maybe? Some may argue there is never a good reason to put guilt and embarrassment on such another person. “Simply suggest and teach them a better way” would be their likely admonition. But what if this didn’t work, what if it wasn’t enough? We sometimes tap into people’s sense of “feeling good or alright about themselves” in order to move them away from the worst sort of proclivities. Ostracization, or the threat thereof, is a hefty tool, probably not the first DEFCON to go to. But it is sometimes necessary.

Obviously almost no one will argue than child molestation be exempt from such treatment. The real argument is likely about what sort of conditions in people warrant the use of such psychological social treatment. Should body odor be shamed? It’s a legitimate question. The problem with body odor is that it makes other people very uncomfortable. Is it an act of kindness or modest heroism to put up with someone’s difficult pheromones? Sure. And especially it is if there is little they could even do about it. But what if there was something someone could easily and should be doing about it. What if they just thought it was cool to stink. Or if they were simply to busy to be bothered, and didn’t care that others had to put up with their smell. We would certainly at some point be willing to do something about it.

Sometimes shaming isn’t even the goal, it’s just something we are willing to risk in order to curb a behavior a direction more life-giving.

Consider for a moment the recent #MeToo movement. Hasn’t it been, at least in part, a giant shaming campaign? And some of it rightfully so? Some would argue it’s been even quite a bit harsher than a simple “cast your head down” campaign. Perhaps there are far harsher things than shaming. Such as unadulterated hatred and death-wishing. We are even willing to dash others welfare straight to the ground if we feel the deed warrants the “whipping”.

It’s a lot about the desired outcome. Sometimes shaming has a very good hoped for outcome. We just want the person to reform. To reconsider their actions. To feel sorry for what they’ve done. We’ve lost a bit however about what the idea of sorry means. Many apologies only come because a person is trying to circumvent pain. But even this is sort of an outcome of shaming. Someone merely mouths the words “I’m sorry” to try to get back to what was better than the current pressure they are feeling. But don’t we all know about such a thing as an “authentic apology”. One where we can sense the person is deeply and meaningfully regretful. They wish they’d never done it. They are grieved to the point of doing great work to make sure that the previous sad act never comes out of them again. This could be argued to be the actual goal of good shaming.

So let’s look at some more regular phenomena related to this subject. How about racism? Should a person who thinks their upbringing and culture, their nationality or skin color, make them better than another be caused to reconsider the worldview they hold? What about transgenderism? Should people who insist their biology betrays them, and that they are really other than what they bodies display, should these be allowed to just pick for themselves what is true about themselves? Do we allow this in other regions? Can a 60 year old marry a 14 year old merely because he believes he is really just a teen-ager inside anyways? These are the sort of questions that go into the arena of “shaming.”

If you look back at the picture which started this essay, you will find many words that bring some clarity to the powerful act of guilting another into feeling bad about their present self. There are many words there like deformed, stupid, ugly and retarded. Here we are presented with a significant complexity and problem. Even if we deemed these traits to be an imposition on others (the sort of dynamic for why some may consider shaming another), we would also have to recognize that these conditions are somewhat if not fully unchangeable. That the people manifesting their characteristics have in no way chosen to don these “flaws” or conditions. But what about some of the other words? Words like lazy, boring, selfish, rotten, deficient, evil? Have we stepped, with these, into a different arena? Might not the “selfish” person be coaxed more into considering others? Or the lazy woman prompted to pull her weight?

I am really not arguing that shaming is the social tactic of choice. For we are all psychologically frail beings. Better first actions in response to problematic behavior would be things like: setting a good example yourself, pulling the person aside and having a humble and straightforward talk with them, imploring a person to do you a favor, offering a reward for certain changed actions. But at the end of the day, sometimes these are not enough. Sometimes we will not be budged without stronger carrots and sticks.

You may hate my article. You might disdain that I touched the hot button issue of gender. Chastise me for adding a picture of a person not of my own culture. You might right me a nastygram comment to teach me to think twice the next time I start pounding away at the keyboard. And that would be it’s own form of the sport we are addressing here. I am just asking us to be serious about our judgments. To not swipe too broadly or easily with inerasable paint. What is my goal? To leave a reader feeling heavy and forlorn for having done the opposite in the past. Not really. But if that were the goal, the desired outcome would not be the permanent place in a corner with a “dunce hat”. The goal would rather be to wear it for a spell, and then to take it off, and to return to the classroom, with a different demeanor, a readiness to learn, a posture to be a blessing to each of the others you sit with in the room. And sometimes that blessing means being willing to temporarily cause another such momentary pain. If only in the end it might lead to their healthier self emerging.

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