Of Shame and Embarrassment


Have you no shame?

Shame on you for suggesting that!

Take the walk of shame down the hall of shame.

I can’t, I am beyond shame.

What a shame — you’re naked;

cover your shame!

But, I have no shame.

Well, it is a bit small, but nothing to be ashamed of.

Adam and Eve left the garden, ashamed.

Ain’t that a shame?

A low-down dirty shame!

The strong-arm enforcer of our own psychological behavior is “shame.” It is a great tool of conscience to protect our own standards of virtue. We may be prewired for it, but the specifics of shame are learned from our home life and society. Those rules become deeply embedded within our core.

Embarrassment is the emotional reaction when someone has, or is seen as having broken a convention of their group or society such as walking into a room with a fly zipper down. It’s intimately tied to shame and guilt but not as profound: toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Shame is internalized. It is the emotion of knowing yourself to be flawed. It is personal. Those who feel shame know that they are bad. An embarrassing moment passes by. Shame lives within.

I know of a person who is a master of preemptive shame. He tends to speak in ‘lectures’ when he wants someone to know what the rules are. His lectures are structured to include an experience of preemptive shame so that the listener will truly feel the shame of the violation during the lecture. He means to instruct the listener thoroughly by using this technique, so he wants the lesson to be experiential. As children his offspring would walk away from one of these lectures feeling guilty for something they hadn’t ever done nor considered doing. The extra gut-punch of preemptive shaming was effective, I mean his lesson was learned, but it also had an effect that wasn’t beneficial. Shame lives within, so the build-up of unearned and undeserved shame became psychologically problematic. The repeated implication of fault at an emotional level of this magnitude destroys self confidence regardless of its cautionary intent.

Guilt is the product of shame. If you violate the laws of a group or society you must pay the penalty.  If the violation is small the punishment is embarrassment alone. When the severity of the offense grows, guilt is added to embarrassment. Additional shame is required to produce that guilt. It’s a simple progression. Problems arise when people start thinking for themselves instead of following the existing rules.  Rational thought often invalidates older codes and the chimera of theology. Rational thought voids shame as a mechanism for conformity and control.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself” is the older person’s cry to the young “offender.” If the response is “Why?” there had better be a good reason. Rational thought is the foundation of social rebellion. The emotionalism of both racism and civil rights were put into rational context by Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963  Letter from Birmingham Jail. He was publicly shamed by the police, but it was five white religious leaders who tried to shame him with a letter published in the local paper. He turned around in the adverse discomfort of a jail cell and rationally and emotionally tore down their bigotry and made the rational case for action. It provided an extraordinary moment of clarity in a charged environment of conflicting values. His document is now a standard text for college freshmen across the country. All because he stood up and said this is why you can’t shame me. He gave reasons. Among the multitude of lessons available from his letter is the assertion that reason can be a tool to defeat irrational shame and guilt.

So when does sex become shameful? Religions have always made it so, but to the enlightened rational mind, where should the line be drawn?  Well, child rape by Priests or other adults is obviously on the bad side. Any rape for that matter, or perhaps we could say unwanted, harmful or involuntary sex is wrong. Incest that leads to psychological problems, or genetically mutated offspring is wrong. There is some concern for keeping sexual relations out of public view.  That just about covers it.

Those who would support only conventional sex may use ‘possibilities’ as a rational argument against the full range of sexual expression such as, possibly, acquiring a disease, or getting pregnant, or some other unintended consequence. That risk is as fundamental a risk as can be found in any other activity, depending upon its form, so the “possibility” argument is not persuasive. When the religious argument is used the debate shifts away from rationality making it irrelevant. Moral standards of the society on the topic of sex tend to be based in religion not rationality. All that is left is the ‘ick’ factor: ‘it doesn’t feel right,’ ‘that’s just icky,’ ‘I would never even think of doing that!’ Some may wish to keep their children ignorant of sexual variety. The non-participating public’s icky feelings are not a rationally persuasive argument. There is no rational argument outside the question of harm against any sexual expression. So, why be ashamed?

When I came out of the closet to my parents I preemptively eliminated the possibility of them shaming me. I spent several years coming up with a strategy that used personal confidence and absolute surety. I’d read most of the limited available literature in 1979 and anticipated their response. They had no knowledge of what being gay means, so they argued from their built-in prejudice with its theological underpinnings.  By eliminating the option of shame from their arsenal of argument it was easier to show them their own ignorance of the topic. This was the healthiest way for me to share my identity with them.

Shame is the glue that binds moral societies together. Unfortunately, it becomes a useful tool for adult bullies. They thrive on destroying reputations. They often remain anonymous while manipulating others to achieve their goals. Adult bullies are usually smart and enjoy playing out strategies that undermine a person’s credibility. They choose their targets capriciously. They manipulate the target’s need to avoid shame. Adult bullies are patient and covert, their strategy plays out over time. If reputation weren’t such a valued part of identity, and shame so devastating, especially in the workplace, the bully’s play toys would disappear.

I don’t mean to imply my parents are bullies by saying this, but by removing the potency of shame when I came out to them I removed their ability to use the bullying tactics inherent in the manipulation of shame to “fix” me for being gay. There is no easy mechanism to fight an adult bully. They are secretive and plotting and evil in their intent. In the workplace 70% of targets leave their job. Only 10% of bullies are found out and fewer are punished. Fighting a bully demands that you lower yourself to their moral level (assuming you can discover who they are). This action alone is devastating to reputation. You end up using the bully’s tactics to fight; that is humiliating. The bully has the advantage of being psychologically driven to do harm while the target is forced into uncharacteristic and abusive behaviors for their own defense. They become a bully to fight the bully, but there is never a winner. The choice to compete in this battle itself destroys reputations.

Ain’t that a low-down dirty shame?

Comments

  1. says

    Outstanding post! I was stuck in catholic school for eight years, trapped by masters in the art of inducing shame and guilt. Ah, mortification of the flesh, it’s a good thing! So many people have a great deal to answer for.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    My system is somewhat different.
    Shame is internalised. You feel bad because the transgression violates your own rules. (where the rules came from is not relevant)
    Guilt is external. You broke someone else’s rule and you know it
    but you probably have an excuse.
    Embarrassment is what you feel when you get caught.

Thoughts?