How shame makes us better people

Critics say critical race theory makes people feel bad. Maybe that's okay?

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

What's wrong with feeling bad once in awhile?

Plenty, if you're asking America's conservatives. As they tell it, the crusade against critical race theory (CRT) in the country's schools is really a fight for the self-esteem of the country's youth. Take a few examples from the last week: In Texas, a lawmaker is investigating school districts for possibly owning books that "contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex." In Virginia, the governor's race has in its final days centered around a former student — now a Republican lawyer — whose in-class reading of Toni Morrison's Beloved in 2013 gave him nightmares. And in Kansas, a state legislative committee on mental health baselessly speculated that feelings "of shame, depression, and anxiety" among teens might be linked to classroom lessons about the history of racism in the United States.

"What happens to children and teens when they are classified as oppressors and others are classified as victims?" Kansas Rep. Kristey Williams (R) asked in written testimony to her colleagues. "Do we fan the flames of self-loathing for some and encourage feelings of victimhood in others? What happened to love conquers all?"

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I don't want to make too much light of these critiques — mental health is health, and adolescence can be a fraught and fragile time for many. Still, it is striking to see conservatives put such an emphasis on the importance of emotions as they criticize CRT. This is, after all, the same crowd that has spent decades mocking participation trophies, and whose thinkers often like to tell us, aggressively, that "facts don't care about your feelings."

Still, since it keeps coming up, this seems like a good moment to speak in defense of shame.

We've become used to thinking about shame as bad, even toxic. Taken to excess, that can be true. But shame can also be useful. Some researchers argue that shame evolved to help humans learn to live better together — that it's a "neurocognitive architecture" that helps us refrain from taking actions that can harm the group, and to limit how much others learn about and spread details of your bad behavior.

"The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them," Daniel Sznycer of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology said in 2016.

Thought about this way, shame isn't just an after-the-fact reaction to one's own wrongdoing, but is forward-looking as well, an instinct that helps us avoid damaging both our communities and our standing within them. When racism enters the picture, it becomes obvious that the shame instinct is one we cultivate and shape: Behavior — like using racial slurs — that might have been widely acceptable 70 years ago is now considered pretty much off-limits, both because we collectively care more about the harm it will cause the victims of those slurs and also, obviously, because we individually don't want the opprobrium such actions will bring. To the extent that reading Beloved causes feelings of shame or discomfort, that can be a good thing if it helps train us to avoid doing terrible, racist things in the future.

Shame, when understood correctly and done right, guides us to be decent to each other — or at least to be seen as decent, which functionally can be the same thing.

Admittedly, it doesn't feel so good. And it's not always done right. In an era of constantly evolving mores on race and sexuality, where the possibility of stumbling into shame seems ever more likely, it can even be wearying for some folks. Perhaps it goes without saying, but wallowing in shame to the exclusion of all other emotions — even about our national history — probably isn't helpful for anybody.

If unleavened shame is sometimes a problem, so is unfettered pride unanchored by some sense of humility and an understanding of the tragic, horrific dimensions of our country and its history. Conservative critics of CRT will allow that America has sometimes been "imperfect" or "flawed," but mostly they tend to prefer an almost pure utopianism in their telling of the national story. "To be an American means something noble and good," President Trump's "1776 Commission" declared last January, just a couple of weeks after an insurrection that should have suggested those words aren't always or automatically true. So despite what conservatives are saying, a little shame can probably be healthy. These days, we might even need a bit more of it.

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