Our political obsession with shame
Why is "shameful" such a hard knock? Why does it feel like a particularly powerful condemnation — and why this condemnation, and why now?
When we in the chattering class want our audience to know something or someone is Very Bad Indeed, we increasingly brand them with a severe one-word anathema: shameful.
Here at The Week, I've written of "Democrats' shameful double standard on abuse of power," while my colleagues have dubbed shameful everything from "America's history of border cruelty" to the "roar of the new masculinists," from the "hypocrisy of our double standards on religion" to the "insubordination of John Bolton."
And we are far from the only employers of this censure. It appears regularly as a headline convention at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Nor is "shameful" a partisan epithet: Writers at The American Conservative and The Federalist disseminate charges of shame alongside Slate and The Daily Beast. Google Trends data for news outlet usage shows an upward course for "shame" and "shameful" over the last five years.
So why is "shameful" such a hard knock? Why does it feel like a particularly powerful condemnation — and why this condemnation, and why now?
My first vivid memory of shame is not about my own experience of it. In 1997, my mother and I were living in China, and once, on the way home from our friend's restaurant, we saw a small crowd gathered at a street corner. At its center was a young woman wearing a sandwich board. Her head hung low, her eyes firmly fixed on the pavement. Our Mandarin was limited, but we gathered from bystanders that she'd been accused of petty theft and punished with a day of public shame.
There was much about China I'd found strange as a grade school transplant from North Carolina, but this sight unsettled me as nothing else had. The disquiet I felt was the dissonance of observing what cultural anthropologists label a "shame culture" from the lens of a "guilt culture" — and I suspect that same dissonance explains much of our present obsession with shame. It feels like a strong judgment because it is relatively unfamiliar.
The United States, like most of the modern West, has typically functioned as a guilt culture. That is not to say we don't understand or speak of shame, but our attention is tuned more to a dichotomy of guilt vs. innocence than shame vs. honor. The difference between the two is substantial. Guilt is about what you did; shame is about who you are. Guilt also tends to be more individual, while shame is more communal.
"In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels," explains The New York Times' David Brooks. "In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad."
Shame cultures today tend to be more prevalent in Asia — thus, for example, travel guides for Westerners which take pains to explain the concept and importance of "saving face." But historically, shame culture is no stranger in the West, where medieval conceptions of honor and order fit easily into this category. Our transition to guilt culture is in no small part a product of the Enlightenment's focus on the rights and responsibility of the individual and the legal system that created.
The punishment of petty theft with public shame was not uncomfortable to me because it was objectively harsher than the weeks or months in jail or on probation the young woman might have received for the same offense here in the States; it was because of the social nature of the penalty. The sandwich board made use of her reputation and that of her family in a way our more private, individualized punishments do not. Her penalty seemed strong to me because I found it unusual, not because it was cruel.
The way political commentators and other public figures now use "shameful" is not guilt culture in action. It is a throwback to our older shame culture — or, more likely, the vanguard of a new era of shame. "Shameful" in this usage usually is not a careless synonym for "guilty." It is "shameful" in its true sense, deliberately chosen to communicate something about the nature of the person targeted.
We want to say the subjects of our condemnation are bad people, not simply that they did a bad thing. This shame language creates a distinct social category, one in which we are not included and which is very difficult to exit.
Brené Brown, a social work researcher at the University of Houston with a popular TED Talk on shame, explains this contrast in therapeutic terms. "Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders," she says, while guilt is "inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we've done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive." Determining or being told you have done a bad thing can be an impetus for positive change in a way that determining or being told you are an inherently bad person generally will not.
This can hold true in political and social discourse, too, as evidenced in our struggle to appropriately grapple with nasty revelations from public figures' pasts. It makes a difference whether we evaluate, say, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh or Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in light of guilt or shame. For the sake of argument, assume the allegations against each are true. Do we say Kavanaugh is guilty of a sexual assault for which he could repent, apologize, and thus perhaps be forgiven — or do we brand him an inherently shameful sexual assaulter? Did Northam participate in a gross act of racism — or is he an inherently shameful racist?
Of course, the taint of either act may remain to the present day. The guilt framework does not grant a free pass for past misdeeds; the repudiation of wrongdoing that comes with repentance is still required. But the possibility of moving on from these old sins exists. Sometimes we may rightfully reject an apology as inadequate or insincere, but there is at least a plausible route to redemption and restoration to society's good graces. (To be clear, that does not mean continuance in power, as Conor Friedersdorf persuasively argues about Northam. Old actions may yet demand new consequences.)
The shame framework, by contrast, makes such a route all but impossible by requiring public proof of internal transformation. And since that may never be provided to a critic's satisfaction — and understandably so — we are at an impasse. The shame cannot be removed because it is inextricable from identity.
Think, for instance, of Hillary Clinton's infamous "basket of deplorables" remark. If you are in that basket, how can you get out? A guilt framework would permit you to exit with sufficient repudiation of and action in opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, to use Clinton's list. With the shame framework Clinton employed, "people like that" are just "irredeemable."
Notice also that if you deplore those in the basket (or whatever group you'd label shameful), you can safely presume you are not among their number. That reassurance is important, because we justifiably fear being subjected to shame, and our new shame culture retains much of the Enlightenment's individualism. Shaming is still a communal activity, but being shamed is very lonely indeed.
"In a traditional [shame] culture, when someone experiences shame, a web of people will try to restore lost 'face,'" writes Andy Crouch at Christianity Today in an examination of social media's role in this new paradigm of shame. "Indeed, many honor–shame cultures strive to prevent the loss of face in the first place," he continues. "But our [new shame] culture has few broad norms enforcing politeness or concern for the 'face' of others … [so] people yearn to feel included in the group, a state constantly endangered, fragile, and desperately in need of protection."
What Crouch describes — a shame culture without traditional communal safeguards against the incurrence of shame — is a frightening thing. It encourages self-protective concealment of wrongdoing instead of disclosure and repentance, because once the wrong is exposed, the shame it brings is likely permanent and rehabilitation unachievable. It also incentivizes the proactive shaming of others, because while shame is directed at those unlike us, it probably will not flow our way.
This is not to say "shameful" is never a more fitting condemnation than "guilty," or that guilt is always the preferable paradigm. But it is to say that especially where evaluating public figures is concerned, our new, individualistic shame culture has serious downfalls. It is surely a major contributing factor to the frustration and dysfunction we experience around public confession, apology, and forgiveness. It feeds both into and off of our growing political polarization by permitting us to ostracize those we those we deem worthy of shame.
"Shameful" strikes us as a particularly powerful condemnation because it is a condemnation we do not really know how to undo. Once we are sullied with shame, we are not sure whether or how we can get clean.