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How We Use Shame (and Why We Should)

It's part of life, but the way most of us use it has greatly shifted.

Source: Stokkete/Shutterstock

After Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that seemingly authorized discrimination against gays and lesbians, social media erupted in outrage. Men and women who decades earlier would have been publicly shamed for their sexuality now began shaming the opponents of gay marriage, calling them bigots and homophobes. The media and business worlds largely mobilized in opposition to the bill.

Forty or fifty years ago, a politician could label homosexuality as "a shameful abomination" without fear of repercussion for his or her reputation. A majority of Americans would have agreed with the pol. Now, Americans increasingly recognize and expose such views as discriminatory, heaping shame and opprobrium upon those who want to assign legislation to such positions. As support for gay rights and same-sex marriage has shifted from a minority to a majority position, attitudes about what we view as shameful behavior are also flipping sides.

Over the last hundred years, shame has gotten an increasingly bad name, but as it turns out, sometimes shame is beneficial.

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During the 20th century, Western society rebelled against shame-based taboos concerning sex, giving rise to the sexual revolution. In the early years of this century, advocacy groups have arisen to champion individuals with autism, Down Syndrome, dwarfism, schizophrenia and transgender identity, all of them working to cast off any remaining stigma of shame.

Modern parenting manuals reject shame as a tool and encourage the use of praise to build lasting self-esteem. And John Bradshaw’s unexpected bestseller, Healing the Shame that Binds You, captured the anti-shame zeitgeist: Shame is toxic.

At the same time, however, shame is inevitable. In his 1872 survey of the emotional lives of humans, Darwin found that expressions of shame were universal: In every one of the cultures and civilizations he surveyed worldwide, he found that people displayed shame in exactly the same way—eyes downcast, gaze averted, slack posture, head lowered, and confusion of mind.

Modern affect theory, pioneered by Sylvan Tompkins, posits that shame is one of nine innate, genetically predetermined “affects”—the biological components of emotion—that spontaneously appear without experience-based learning. Shame doesn’t need to be taught; it is in our genes.

Why did our evolutionary history endow us with the capacity to feel shame? How does it help to promote survival of the species?

Human children are voracious explorers of their world, eager for interaction with others, but sometimes it’s dangerous to be curious about an unknown situation, or to engage with an unfamiliar person. Shame can interrupt the unbridled urge to explore and engage, instead imposing restraint or caution. Essentially, affect theory holds that shame acts as a brake, a kind of circuit breaker for other positive affects like excitement, joy or curiosity.

As the psychoanalyst Donald Nathanson describes it, the shame affect encoded in our genes is like the firmware on a computer, pre-written and immutable. The way parents activate and make use of shame in their child-rearing practices could be analogous to the software, with its myriad forms and applications. So would social shame, where society at large activates and makes use of shame to communicate its values.

Some shaming is gentle and constructive; simply saying the word No is a mild form of shame (interruption of positive affect), and most parents say it often. But as John Bradshaw explained it, other forms of shame are severe and toxic. Shame can devastate the soul and cripple the psyche. It can forever preclude the experience of joy, interest, or excitement. Sometimes it drives the true self underground and into a closet. In large part due to the influence of Bradshaw’s book, shame and toxic shame have become largely synonymous. Most people think of shame as entirely bad.

Whenever I’m asked whether shame has any value, I often give the following, rather extreme example: Would we really prefer that pedophiles feel no shame about their sexual attractions? They obviously take great interest in the bodies of young children and would enjoy making sexual contact with them; wouldn’t it be a good thing if shame, imposed and enforced by society at large, acted as a brake on those impulses?

While it seems unlikely that our views on pedophilia will change, social attitudes about what is and is not shameful behavior do vary over time, often dramatically. Pre-marital sex, or even bearing a child out of wedlock, no longer carries the stigma here that it once did. Not long ago, most Americans felt that homosexuals ought to be publicly shamed in order to discourage others from engaging in such "degenerate" activity.

Now, the cultural pendulum has swung: The majority of people in this country no longer view same-sex attraction as shameful; in fact, many believe it's appropriate to consecrate it with a marriage ceremony and celebration. Further, a great many of us have come to view legislators who propose laws that authorize discrimination as bigots and homophobes. We go to our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to denounce them in the virtual public square; we intend to shame them for their acts of intolerance.

Is that a good thing? Would it be better to remove shame from our discourse and try to, say, persuade Indiana legislators to our point of view with rational argument? Which would be a more effective deterrent to behaviors of which we disapprove?

At the end of the day, perhaps the most we can hope for is to drive intolerance into the closet.

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