By R.L. Stephens
Feb 10, 2015
Perhaps the most redeeming aspect of my father’s ministry was his tireless work to help people heal from guilt and shame. I saw the transformative impact that his efforts had on people’s lives as they built the strength to lay down years of resentment and bitterness, and learned to truly forgive themselves and others.
To my dismay, I’ve found myself in the midst of a social justice world that not only encourages shame, but uses it as a weapon. Shame is so often at the root of personal dysfunction, and here we have a left dedicated to its perpetual transference. Shame is ultimately self-destructive, and in no way can such a sentiment be a foundation for healthy community.
We confuse shaming for justice, and I’ve had enough.
What Is Shame?
Gershen Kaufman, a clinical psychologist and author of The Psychology of Shame , defines shame as “the affect that is the source of inferiority… To feel shame is to feel inherently bad, fundamentally flawed as a person.” Robert Stolorow, another professor and author, expands on this definition by pointing out that shame occurs “before the gaze of a viewing, judging other. (Sometimes, we, ourselves, can be our viewing other.)” Additionally, shame has a number of layers and often operates in combination with other emotions. According to psychiatrist and author Donald Nathanson, after shame is triggered, a person typically responds in four ways: withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, and attack others.
The Shame Cycle by Thomas Scheff
Alon Blum, writing for the psychological journal Traumatology, finds that shame can express itself in feelings of “helplessness, incompetence, inferiority, and powerlessness and generates a desire to escape or avoid contact with others as well as conceal deficiencies.” What makes shame so debilitating is that it so often goes unacknowledged. Shame involves feelings of worthlessness, which is very difficult for people to admit; thus, according to Thomas Scheff, “we tend to hide shame, then, because its presence creates more shame” — resulting in a shame-rage spiral.
Shame has accompanying emotions, the most important of which is anger. Because of shame, we become angry at our self for getting us into the situation, or we might feel anger at the situation, or we might be angry with the other person for instigating or pointing out the issue that brought us shame in the first place. But shame doesn’t stop with anger: anger destroys social bonds, even the social bond with our self, and so we feel further shame. We tend to hide shame, then, because its presence creates more shame. Thomas Scheff, When Shame Gets Out of Hand
While some theorists and practitioners argue that shame is necessary for social awareness and moral development, Stolorow argues that shame has no positive relationship to human growth — saying “I don’t think that shame, which fosters only compliance and pathological accommodation, has any positive developmental implications at all“. Though theorists like Stolorow find a theoretical difference between guilt and shame by arguing that shame condemns the whole person while guilt targets specific behaviors, Blum reminds us that “guilt and shame often occur together” and it is virtually impossible to truly separate the two in practice.
In a Huffpost Live segment from fall 2012, a number of theorists pushed back against the use of shaming punishments in the criminal justice system — reminding us that shame does not lead to rehabilitation, is easily transferred to those around the individual, and often leads to unintended consequences.
Shame and Oppression
One of oppression’s principal effects is shame. Oppressive power systems confer a status of inferiority onto select groups, which is then internalized and taken for granted — thus strengthening the dominant group’s stranglehold on power. Carter G. Woodson described this dynamic in his book, The Miseducation of the Negro.
If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one. Carter G. Woodson, The Miseducation of the Negro.
In the past, many social movements dedicated much of their energy to confronting shame. Black consciousness, an effort to reverse the psychological impacts of internalized racial inferiority, was a popular anti-shame philosophy embraced by activists like Steve Biko.
Any changes which are to come can only come as a result of a program worked out by black people. And for black people to be able to work out a program they need to defeat the one main element in politics which was working against them and this was a psychological feeling of inferiority, which was deliberately cultivated by the system. Steve Biko, 1977 Interview
Shame & The Left: Call Out Culture as Unacknowledged Shame
Activists like Steven Biko attempted to acknowledge the shame inherent in living under oppressive power structures. By acknowledging these feelings, they hoped to overcome them and have the ability to build a dynamic political movement. It is the unacknowledged/bypassed shame that is most destructive and leads to the shame-rage spiral (attacking others) so for communities committed to justice, acknowledging the impact of shame is a crucial step towards liberation.
Unfortunately, in the modern left we don’t combat shame, we worship it. Perhaps the most obvious expression of the Left’s present obsession with shame and shaming can be seen in what has been dubbed “call out culture”. The “call out” is a form of shaming — which intentionally labels an individual as fundamentally bad — and is a deeply toxic tendency in the Left. Flavia Dzodan, writing for Tiger Beatdown, describes this dynamic.
[Call out culture] works more or less like this: I say something ignorant… Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness… The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person”. Flavia Dzodan, Come one, come all! Feminist and Social Justice Blogging as Performance and Bloodshed
At a personal level, perfectionism is understood as being a product of unacknowledged shame — and the same is true for puritanism in group settings. The call out performance reeks of puritanism, and thus shame. Recall that after shame is triggered, a person typically responds in four ways: withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, and attack others. The “call out” is an example of attacking others in response to unacknowledged shame, which then triggers shame in the target as well.
Though Dzodan focuses on the use of shaming online, these call out performances are not limited to the internet. Facing Reality Collective describes how this form of shaming occurs within real world organizing settings, ultimately leading to a self-destructive spiral.
At leftist events and protests, POC militants sometimes establish status and legitimacy by wailing on the white kids who say ignorant crap, some of it severe, but most of it relatively banal. They posture about how much they hate white people and decry how many are in the room, but fail to develop strategies for organizing in proletarian communities of color, fail to build revolutionary organizations, and fail to develop bonds with working class militants of color in a manner that is any more effective than the white leftists.
At the same time, multiracial organizing projects also often foster a reciprocal process of white guilt and POC resentment. Whether in separate groups or multiracial ones, the white left and the POC left are locked in an unhealthy relationship.This can turn sadomasochistic: white leftists joyfully submit to scoldings from POC militants, in order to feel legitimated by them. At the same time, POC leftists seek individual satisfaction by wailing on white people. The compulsion of POC and white militants to wail and be wailed upon, and thereby somehow purify themselves of internal racism, limits their ability to fundamentally challenge the capitalist system. Facing Reality Collective, Towards a Revolutionary Left: A Critique and a Proposal
The sadomasochistic downward spiral that the Facing Reality Collective describes is an expression of both attacking others (the POC) and attacking the self (White guilt) in response to shame. This trend is present in Flavia Dzodan’s characterization of call out culture as well, and both situations are also similar to Retzinger & Scheff’s observations of unacknowledged shame in restorative justice conferences.
Retzinger & Scheff find that after a victim is attacked/violated, they inevitably experience feelings of shame (helplessness, impotence, betrayal, etc.). Neither the victim nor the community around them is likely to acknowledge this initial shame, and so it is instead expressed more visibly as anger. This anger then triggers shame in the offender, who then responds negatively and is unlikely to actually change the behavior. In both Retzinger & Scheff’s study and the Facing Reality Collective’s observations, the shame and anger are traded back and forth with no end in sight.
Shame & The Left: Shaming as a Distraction
Shaming is such an integral part of the Left’s DNA that it’s our default response to almost any situation. Take police brutality for example. I’ve been to leftist events where the police have started beating one of us, and the crowd suddenly breaks out their cell phones and starts chanting “Shame, Shame, Shame” or “The Whole World is Watching” — statements designed to trigger shame.
We shame the police officer — making the beating an issue of the cop’s moral character — which relieves us of having to develop political and practical solutions to police brutality. Shaming individuals as a substitute for concerted political effort and substantive analysis cannot yield dynamic movements capable of remedying the material effects of oppression.
Shaming does not just occur in cases of direct conflict. Jamilah Lemieux, an editor at Ebony.com, created the “Black Power is for Black Men” twitter campaign. The campaign was a space for people (mainly Black women) to critique gaps in our understanding of gendered racism, a laudable goal. However, when attempting to discuss the politics of interracial dating, Lemieux’s campaign became an exercise in shaming.
She tweeted “Black Power is for Black men because you can be the most righteous Black man ever and not have a single sister in your dating history. Not one.” — the underlying assumption being that sexual relationships with Black women was a prerequisite for political legitimacy (set aside the heterosexism for a moment). First, dating Black women is not necessarily indicative of the person’s political validity — rabid racists Strom Thurmond, Paul Ryan, and Allen West have all had relationships with Black women. Second, if she’s trying to claim that Black men are not stigmatized for dating non-Black women (and so her tweet seeks to even the odds), there are plenty of examples showing that claim is certainly not true.
Instead of opening up space to have a serious discussion about whether interracial dating, by default, perpetuates Black female inferiority, tweets like Lemieux’s antagonize the legitimacy and character of Black men. Black women are marked as inferior throughout society, both by the forces of structural oppression and the attitudes and actions of individuals, but interracial dating is hardly a significant contributor to this reality.
Misleading statistics about Black female marriage rates — designed to induce feelings of Black female inferiority — appear frequently in media outlets and are just one example of how shame is targeted at Black women. However, according to Prof. Ivory Toldson’s article, New Research Shatters Myths and Provides New Hope for Black Love and Marriage, “Eighty-eight percent of all married black men are married to black women, a figure that changes less than five percentage points with more education and income.”
Shaming Black men for their dating choices (real or imagined) allows us to sidestep the more difficult struggle to identify and remedy the forces and behaviors that actually create and perpetuate Black female inferiority. Furthermore, it’s a needless attack that seeks to bypass the feelings of shame that are inevitably caused by the systemic subjugation of Black women, and attempts to transfer that shame onto others (in this case Black men) — a manifestation of the shame-rage tendency. In the cases where Black men perceive Black women as inferior and undesirable, shaming these men does not open up the space for acknowledging and overcoming their shame — and is instead likely to result in a shame-rage spiral.
How Can We Acknowledge & Discharge Shame?
Creating a political climate based on shame is an impediment to justice. Shaming is about control, not justice. The shame-rage spiral is an unsustainable burden that ensures that we are unable to mount substantive challenges to oppression. Unacknowledged feelings of shame will destroy us as individuals and as movements. Honestly, I don’t have a strong idea for how we can overcome the shame dynamic in our political spaces. Thus far, Ngọc Loan Trần’s concept “calling in” offers the most hope.
The first part of calling each other in is allowing mistakes to happen. Mistakes in communities seeking justice and freedom may not hurt any less but they also have possibility for transforming the ways we build with each other for a new, better world. We have got to believe that we can transform… I start “call in” conversations by identifying the behavior and defining why I am choosing to engage with them. I prioritize my values and invite them to think about theirs and where we share them. And then… we talk about it together, like people who genuinely care about each other. We offer patience and compassion to each other and also keep it real, ending the conversation when we need to and know that it wasn’t a loss to give it a try. Because when I see problematic behavior from someone who is connected to me, who is committed to some of the things I am, I want to believe that it’s possible for us to move through and beyond whatever mistake was committed. Ngọc Loan Trần, Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable
By focusing on relationships, specific behaviors, and a real value for one another, Ngọc Loan Trần, offers a way to go about setting and maintaining boundaries that does not rely on shame. What other ways can we create accountability, tactics, and critiques without resorting to shaming? Additionally, shame is also an internalized effect of oppression, what are ways that we can begin to collectively and personally acknowledge it before conflict arises?