Shame is a negative self-conscious emotion that encompasses the feeling that something is terribly wrong with the self as a human being. Feelings of shame are a prominent factor in suicidal thoughts, behaviors, and self-harm (Hastings et al., 2002; Gilbert et al., 2010). Lately I've encountered several articles saying that shame really isn't that bad for you, after all. The first theme of these commentaries is the spectacle of public shaming, and the second theme concerns private shame as a means of social control.
The Futility of Public Shaming
One news article bemoaned the end of shame in American politics. Sex scandals, drug use, and other egregious mistakes just don't have the same permanently negative consequences they used to. If you're a powerful male politician, that is.
Where’s the shame? Scandals may no longer end political careers
WASHINGTON — Sex. Drugs. Cheating on a spouse.
Those words used to add up to shame. Put them in the same sentence as a politician’s name, and they ended careers.
Not anymore. The latest batch of unlikely back-from-the-swamp hopefuls are Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer. Weiner resigned his New York City congressional seat two years ago after revelations that he’d tweeted a sexually suggestive picture of himself to a woman who was following him on Twitter. Spitzer left the state’s governorship in 2008 after reports surfaced that federal investigators had tagged him as “Client 9,” soliciting high-end prostitutes.
Here's the list of prominent male politicians from the article:
- Anthony Weiner - sent lewd twitpics
- Eliot Spitzer - prostitution scandal
- Mark Sanford - disappearance and extramarital affair
- Newt Gingrich - serial cheater; dumper of a wife with cancer; Christian
- Marion Barry - smoking crack
- Bill Clinton - Monica Lewinsky affair resulted in impeachment of sitting President
- Larry Craig - arrested for lewd conduct in a men's restroom
- Mark Foley - sent sexually suggestive messages to teenaged male pages
- David Vitter - D.C. Madam scandal
- Scott DesJarlais - pro-life doctor who had multiple affairs with patients, pushed them to have abortions
The lesson from all this: Wind up on the ever-increasing roll of tainted celebrities and re-emerge as the friendly, professional politician that vaulted you into office in the first place, and you’ll probably be OK.
"You'll probably be OK"... if you're a man. Has a female politician ever emerged intact from a federal sex scandal? Or has even been involved in such a scandal? If so, the double standard of slut shaming would likely put an end to her career. One of the few women on the state and local list is:
- Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R)... The married mother of one resigned from her leadership position and announced that she would not be seeking reelection shortly before four fellow Republicans indicated that she had been engaged in an "inappropriate" relationship with a male staffer. (2011).
Shaming on the Internet
How about for obnoxious offenders in the general public? Does the public shaming of those who spew idiotic sexist, racist, and homophobic comments on social media do any good?
The Public Shaming Tumblr aims to draw attention to bad actors on Twitter. Matt Binder says:
I started retweeting people complaining about welfare, food stamps, etc. and then following it up with a previous tweet of theirs that makes them look hypocritical/dumb/etc.
I discovered that as I would retweet these, my followers would start @replying these people and let them know they were idiots. They would then delete their offending tweet.
Well, I couldn’t let that happen. So, I screenshot away.
One continuous stream of vile sexist hatred was directed at Women's Wimbledon champion, Marion Bartoli. Why? Because she's not a blond model. Even BBC presenter John Inverdale took part in the insults, saying she "never going to be a looker"... to which Bartoli responded:
"It doesn't matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes."
This is the bottom line. She won Wimbledon, and her detractors will never accomplish anything that monumental. Does shaming the immature little boys for their pathetic cries for attention help anyone?
Serious cretins:@Danwatt8 @Willshow95 @LadiesLove_BigD @maxbateman20 @rrruditaylor @Kwikz @EllisKeddie @sumandutta of http://t.co/PkDXbHnfuG
— Carl Gelderloos (@CGelderloos) July 9, 2013
Some of those dudes deleted their accounts (to perhaps reappear another day), but others just go on their merry way with earth-shattering pronouncements like, "I have to untangle my earphones at least 3 times a day" and "Playstation is better than Xbox."
Public shaming doesn't seem to cause any lasting change. Does it?
Shaming: it’s a bit crap for everyone
It’s no surprise to anyone that Twitter and Facebook are filled with vile, racist, homophobic, bigoted awfulness. Because humanity is filled with vile, racist, homophobic bigots.
. . .
The consequence of these shaming sites, is that us “enlightened” folk then pile in on the bigots and abuse them and tell them how awful they are. And I’m willing to bet that the number of individuals who have rescinded what is probably years’ of built up bigotry is the same number of terrorist attacks that the Wellington airport security screeners have stopped: Zero.
. . .
That’s not to say we should let people get away with awfulness, but when we publicly name and shame and by proxy invite the internet to start tormenting these people, we are becoming them. No better than they are because we now have a figure to poke a stick at.
The shame sweepstakes become more costly and damaging once we enter the world of mental illness, addiction, and difference. Yet some still argue in favor of shaming.
Has there been a resurgence of shame as a means of social control?
1. Shame is good for you! Shame is biological, so it's inevitable that those who are different or disabled will feel it. That was the premise of an article in the Atlantic, which in my opinion was complete and utter bullshit.
Challenging the Anti-Shame Zeitgeist
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.
. . .
Everywhere we look, pride is on the march, and shame is on the run.
. . .
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.
Is there any scientific evidence that shaming deadbeat dads causes them to pay child support?
But it gets worse, with justifications for the biological and social inevitability of shame. Disabled children, little people, LGBT folks - be ashamed of yourselves! and stay in the closet.
While the efforts of all the parents in Solomon's book [Far From the Tree] to promote healthy self-esteem in their children are worthy and admirable, here is the unfortunate reality: those afflicted with a major disability will inevitably experience a sense of shame for the ways in which they are different, regardless of whether they have been shunned or actively shamed by their peers. Shame spontaneously arises from the perception of unfavorable difference, whether or not society inflicts it upon the person.
Shame springs from the knowledge that your development didn't unfold as might have been expected under normal conditions.
So here it is, according to: if you're different in any way, you should feel ashamed for who you are. For simply existing in a less than perfect state. Because you are "pre-programmed" to feel that way.
Here's what I think: shame is a toxic social construction. It's used by religions to control the sexual behavior of their congregations. It's used by bullies to promote their social standing over the weak. It's used by parents to ostensibly make their children into high achievers, but they end up depressed, anxious, eating disordered. It's used by the media to make women (and men) so ashamed of their bodies that they go out and buy products to lose weight, improve their looks, enhance their private parts. Shame seems to hold a central role in the perception of an adverse self-image in young women with eating disorders (Franzoni et al., 2013).
2. Shame is good for you! Addiction is a choice, so those who have a substance use disorder should be shamed into getting clean and sober. That was the territory covered in a 2007 Slate article by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, authors of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. An old blog post by Dirk Hanson at Addiction Inbox pointed me to their essay, which took exception to the notion that addiction is a brain disease:
Addiction isn't a brain disease, Congress.
A full-scale campaign is under way to change the public perception of drug addiction, from a moral failing to a brain disease. Last spring, HBO aired an ambitious series that touted addiction as a "chronic and relapsing brain disease." In early July, a Time magazine cover story suggested that addiction is the doing of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which courses through the brain's reward circuits. And now Congress is weighing in.
They're opposed to the NIDA definition of drug addiction:
Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.
Satel and Lilienfeld continue:
Characterizing addiction as a brain disease misappropriates language more properly used to describe conditions such as multiple sclerosis or schizophrenia—afflictions that are neither brought on by sufferers themselves nor modifiable by their desire to be well. Also, the brain disease rhetoric is fatalistic, implying that users can never fully free themselves of their drug or alcohol problems. Finally, and most important, it threatens to obscure the vast role personal agency plays in perpetuating the cycle of use and relapse to drugs and alcohol.
And now we get to their justification for shaming:
Finally, dare we ask: Why is stigma bad? It is surely unfortunate if it keeps people from getting help (although we believe the real issue is not embarrassment but fear of a breach of confidentiality). The push to destigmatize overlooks the healthy role that shame can play, by motivating many otherwise reluctant people to seek treatment in the first place and jolting others into quitting before they spiral down too far.
Really??? There is absolutely no evidence that shame motivates an addicted person to seek help. Quite the contrary, shame prevents people from getting the treatment they need (Wiechelt, 2007). Note that shame is different from guilt - with shame you're a bad person, and with guilt you did a bad thing. Why would shaming someone already filled with shame about their own undesirable behaviors be a motivating force for change?
Here's a straight answer from @maiasz:
Being Ashamed of Drinking Prompts Relapse, Not Recovery
Embarrassment over an excessive-drinking session doesn’t necessarily lead to more sobriety.
In a study of alcoholics and relapse rates, researchers found that the more shame-ridden a drinker looked when talking about drinking — interpreted through body language like hunched shoulders — the more likely he or she was to relapse and the more drinks he or she downed during that relapse.
. . .
The results add to a body of literature suggesting that widely used shaming and humiliating methods of treating alcohol and other drug problems — such as those seen on shows like Celebrity Rehab — are not only ineffective but also may be counterproductive.
For example, a review of the research on the use of humiliating, confrontational tactics, which attempt to induce shame, found that none of the studies done in four decades supported this approach. In one study included in the analysis, the more the counselor confronted the client with past mistakes or other shaming information about his problem, the more the client drank.
So let's not challenge the anti-shame zeitgeist or encourage public shaming of those with addictions, mental illnesses, disabilities, or differences of any sort.
Franzoni E, Gualandi S, Caretti V, Schimmenti A, Di Pietro E, Pellegrini G, Craparo G, Franchi A, Verrotti A, Pellicciari A. (2013). The relationship between alexithymia, shame, trauma, and body image disorders: investigation over a large clinical sample. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 9:185-93.
Gilbert P, McEwan K, Irons C, Bhundia R, Christie R, Broomhead C, & Rockliff H (2010). Self-harm in a mixed clinical population: the roles of self-criticism, shame, and social rank. The British journal of clinical psychology / the British Psychological Society, 49 (Pt 4), 563-76 PMID: 20109278
Hastings ME, Northman LM, Tangney JP (2002). Shame, Guilt, and Suicide. Suicide Science, 67-79 DOI: 10.1007/0-306-47233-3_6
Wiechelt SA (2007). The specter of shame in substance misuse. Substance use & misuse, 42 (2-3), 399-409 PMID: 17558937
To find out you exist
Don't look for shame
Your better off without it
Life is unkind
For other critiques of the "addiction is a brain disease" view, see Why Addiction is NOT a Brain Disease by Marc Lewis and Why the New Definition of Addiction, as ‘Brain Disease,’ Falls Short by Maia Szalavitz.1
But note that Lewis holds more nuanced views than his categorical statement indicates (e.g., "it's accurate in some ways"),2 and Szalavitz has reported on predispositions towards addiction that are based on pre-existing differences in brain structure.
Arguing that addiction is either completely a matter of choice or entirely caused by a faulty brain misses the complexity of a person with a brain in a social environment.
1 Szalavitz also says:
Like depression, addiction is a real medical disorder that affects the brain. But if we want to reduce the stigma associated with it, emphasizing recovery and resilience is probably more useful than focusing on definitions of brain disease.
2 The entire paragraph from Lewis is worth quoting:
What’s wrong with this definition?
It’s accurate in some ways. It accounts for the neurobiology of addiction better than the “choice” model and other contenders. It explains the helplessness addicts feel: they are in the grip of a disease, and so they can’t get better by themselves. It also helps alleviate guilt, shame, and blame, and it gets people on track to seek treatment. Moreover, addiction is indeed like a disease, and a good metaphor and a good model may not be so different.
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