Monday, March 18, 2013

How Useful is Shame?

As a teacher, I have always been keenly aware that many of my students had experienced ridicule or some form of shaming in their earlier education, and so I went out of my way to avoid ridicule, reassuring them that there is no such thing as a dumb question--that is, if they did not understand a term or idea, they must ask without risking laughter or sarcasm.

We have progressed, thank God, from the days when the dummies wore dunce caps and sat in the corner. Today, I hope, they are given encouragement and help since everyone learns at a different pace.  And when I hear about bullying in schools, I react with empathic understanding: it is the teachers and coaches and schoolyard bullies who should be ashamed of themselves.

So when I came upon an article by Richard V. Reeves in the New York Times (3-15-13) on the value of shaming as a weapon to combat teenage pregnancy, I was shocked.  He contends that shaming is "an essential ingredient in a healthy society," and that shaming has worked well in curbing smoking.  He says that drunken drivers should be shamed into mending their ways.

If smokers now feel bad because of societal pressure, the result is good but they have experienced guilt rather than shame, it seems to me. Guilt cultures are very different from shame cultures.

If I want to get a friend to stop smoking or drinking excessively, I should use facts and reason, presented in a gentle, logical way to convince them, for their own good, to change. I would do all I could to encourage them to give up the bad habit. I would not want to shame them. I would not want to harm their inner lives.

Reeves believes that when people make bad choices, "they ought to feel bad about them."  He cites John Stuart Mill as advocating the kind of moral disapproval we call shame.  Does this mean Reeves wants us to mock and shame the obese smoker by laughing or name-calling--or bullying? He doesn't specify what form the shaming should take.

He clearly does not appreciate the psychological damage done by shaming. As one who was shamed as a child and still has the scars, I have to reject the argument of Reeves that a powerful emotion like shame is more effective than calm reasoning or gentle persuasion. I much prefer the kind of love that leads to caring about the person in need of reform.  The unwed teenage mother is not helped by my calling her names and driving her, as some victims of bullies have done, to despair and suicide.

Reeves concludes by saying that, although shame can be a negative force, he still believes that "we need a sense of shame to live well together." I wonder how he would react to Shirley Jackson's chilling story, "The Lottery," in which the villagers in a small community annually stone one citizen to death because they are afraid of changing their tradition.  They exorcize their own shame in a primitive ritual of savagery with Biblical overtones. No one there has the courage to speak up and change things.

And what did Jesus say to those men about to stone the woman caught in adultery? The men in that account had done everything possible to shame the woman, dragging her to the temple and throwing her down to the ground; and they wanted to complete the shaming process, like the villagers in Jackson's story, ignoring the man who was equally responsible and ignoring the lesson of love and gentle forgiveness.

I hope Reeves re-thinks his argument about the value of shaming. I can't think of any situation in which I would recommend it. It may get results, but at what cost?  I am happy that people have been persuaded to stop smoking, but I don't think they were shamed into doing so.

1 comment:

Chris Parmentier said...

Yes. . . I think of Hester's scarlet A, too. Shaming allows a group of people to separate out a scapegoat and to feel separate and superior to that person, which contributes to the "us and them" mentality too prevalent in a violent world. Developing compassion and seeing our oneness may be difficult, but who can argue with the results?