Stop Abusing Shame

Date:         Thu, 25 May 1995 12:13:25 -0400
Reply-To:     Queer Studies List <QSTUDY-L@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU>
Sender:       Queer Studies List <QSTUDY-L@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU>
From:         Callan Williams <TheCallan@AOL.COM>
Subject:      Stop Abusing Shame!

For your comments....




Stop Abusing Shame!

Callan Williams  Copyright © 1995

We have a paradox.  Many people in this country are concerned about our national lack of shame, how we seem to be self centered, shameless, with a failing morality that it driving this country into a criminal morass.  Others, like those in the recovery movement,  are concerned with getting rid of shame, an internal feeling that something is wrong with them and they deserve to be punished.  They are working to be more authentic and whole, not shame based.

Shaming people is a powerful weapon.  We, as a human culture, have learned to use shame to stop people from certain behaviors. We want people to feel ashamed of theft, abuse, greed, violence and other behaviors that can be damaging to the fabric of this society.   It is important that we work to  limit these behaviors.

Unfortunately, we have been using shame for other reasons.  We have attempted to use shame to enforce not simply a code of deep, shared morality, but also to enforce compliance with an image of who we should be as Americans.  As we became an itinerant culture, moving from ancestral homes in cities and farms, we became a suburban culture, where our worth was valued not from a deep knowledge of our roots and our inner lives but by our compliance with a set of images.  TV and the media delivered these images, planted deep in our brains, and the vast malls, a homogeneous merchandising structure, gave us a way to look alike.

The pressure to keep up this front was, and is, shame.  We are ashamed of the way we look, ashamed of our parents, ashamed of our kids, ashamed of our pimples, ashamed of out thoughts, ashamed of who we are.  

The problem with this is that it debased the value of shame.  If we live with shame everyday, we can soon become sick -- so sick that we get ill, or so  sick that we become shameless.  Shame loses its sting when we don't have a strong context of pride in who we are to contrast it with.  It is impossible to shame those who have lost their pride, or worse, have learned to take a perverse pride in activities that should be shameful.

We can look at prisons, where shameful acts become a badge of pride, turning the entire moral structure upside down.  If there is no building of pride, even in prison, there is no way to control prisoners with healthy shame about destructive behavior.  Even in finance or politics, the excuse "everybody  does it" signals that people don't feel shame about lining their pockets through behavior that is destructive, illegal, immoral -- behavior that should be shameful.

Kids in inner cities are especially prone to overdosing on shame.  They feel the shame that our moralistic, suburban, materialistic culture imposes, yet they have no way to buy the things that will stop the shame.  They learn to live without pride, hardened to shame.  To complain that they are without  shame is to not understand how they have been abused by shame, forced to become shameless.

Like creating resistant diseases by the overuse of antibiotics, destroying our weapon by overuse, we have created a shame resistant culture by overuse of shame.

This process goes on.  We see people who call themselves Christians pulling out the big guns of shame to stop behavior they don't like, such as birth  control and homosexuality, and who then ask why the big guns don't work on the big crimes, like murder and rape.  They don't acknowledge how the abuse of shame has left them defenseless.

As a culture, we must come to an agreement on a set of core values that we can and must enforce.  These cannot be simple lifestyle issues, or marketing tools.  We cannot try to enforce homogenization, for that is unenforceable.  People understand that the creation of unenforceable laws diminishes the  respect for all laws, and we must also understand that the use of shame to enforce surface similarity will diminish the respect for shame.

We must allow people to find and have pride in their lives, however diverse they may be, and however much they make choices that we find odd or unpleasant.  Only then can we all find ways to enforce destructive acts as the truly shameful things that they are.

Many of us are learning to move away from our legacy of shame, the pain of the constant humiliation that was applied to try to make us conform.  We are trying to heal the hurt and find our true self, figure out what we really  should be ashamed of enough to change, and what is simply an essential part of us that doesn't fit into the images of conformity that were pumped into our brain.

As we do this, we must also keep in mind that all others deserve the same  privilege to be proud of their own unique expression, and that we must be  sparing with our expressions of scorn and humiliation, because they don't  need to be ashamed of themselves.  They -- and we -- simply need a healthy sense of shame.

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