Jul 19, 2018

The Role of Shame in Shaping and Undermining Activist Communities

By Prefigurology / prefigurology.blogspot.com
The Role of Shame in Shaping and Undermining Activist Communities

For many marginalized people, social justice communities are an essential form of social and emotional support. They can bring the oppressed and isolated together and help keep them afloat in a world that is at turns indifferent and cruel. While these communities often aim to challenge unjust power structures, they are not immune to reproducing social dynamics that perpetuate suffering and worsen harm. 

Many have already written about callout culture (tending to focus on online activist communities) — a pattern of behavior that normalizes public confrontation over transgressions against our identities and our persons. Some essays are insightful and sensitive to the plight of marginalized people, while others ubiquitously denounce callout culture without acknowledging its function or history. In one critique that falls into the former category, Asam Ahmed identified a parallel between callout culture and the prison-industrial complex (PIC).

Though it might seem disingenuous to compare a type of discourse on the internet to the well-oiled machine of disenfranchisement that is our nation’s corrections system- there is something of the indictment that resonates. The corrections system in the United States is largely characterized by its retributive principles — with our prisons functioning as socially sanctioned trauma dispensaries. While the economic, psychological, and social impact on marginalized people by the PIC is demonstrably more severe, the consequences of being shunned and rejected in yet another venue can be devastating for some of our most vulnerable people.

As evidenced by its high recidivism rates, we’ve seen that the retributive model of justice does not do much to address the causes of crime, and instead, there is evidence to suggest it exacerbates problems. The principles of restorative justice are a necessary antidote to the systemic violence of the PIC, and I intend to draw on Ahmed’s parallel to show the ways in which these principles can benefit our activist communities as well. Specifically, I turn to psychological research and the restorative justice literature to reflect on the role that shame plays in maintaining or discouraging abusive and oppressive behaviors.

The following questions guide my thinking:

  1. What is the social function of shame?
  2. How does shame contribute to oppression?
  3. In what ways can shame be transformative?
  4. How can these insights better inform our political goals and how we build our communities?

Shame as a Social Emotion

Like pride or guilt, shame is a self-evaluative emotion: felt by individuals, but inherently relational in nature. Similar to guilt, it is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by an awareness of having done something harmful or foolish. While guilt confines itself to the feeling of embarrassment or to regret for harm, shame asks questions about what those behaviors mean about who we are. It operates on a deeper level, threatening our feelings of intrinsic worth or belongingness — or worsening feelings of worthlessness or alienation. Subsequently, shame is more disorienting and difficult to cope with than guilt, and often provokes more destructive responses.


The Unacknowledged Ubiquity of Shame

Shame is omnipresent in our lives. It permeates our personal interactions and institutions, yet it is seldom acknowledged. Even admitting to experiencing shame is unthinkable for many, much less acknowledging the specific contents of that shame. It’s one of the most powerful and ever-involved homunculi in our mind, helping us navigate through sometimes treacherous social landscapes. Our interactions are profoundly contoured by efforts to avoid experiencing shame, yet these processes are rarely exposed to the air.

Although shame is such an integral aspect of our social landscape- and perhaps because of its silently ubiquitous nature- shame can be impossibly difficult to confront. Our difficulties in experiencing and managing shame manifest in a wide range of social ills. Structural violence, interpersonal violence, bigotry, mental illness, and substance abuse issues all have complex hosts of material and psychological contributors, but shame plays a fundamental role in all of them.

Despite how often it is misused it is important to acknowledge that shame, like any other human emotion, is not inherently bad. Shame serves a crucial prosocial function in society- it signals threat to social bonds which can potentially motivate us to reflect on our values, identities, and actions. It can move us to change how we interact with others and to make amends when we’ve caused harm.

While shame’s social function is not inherently bad, our relationships with it are often muddied and strained. For better or worse, the difficulty handling shame can incite a wide range of conscious and unconscious psychological defenses to kick in and defend our egos. Alternatively, if it overtakes us, it can fester. This particular form of shame is referred to in the psychological literature as unresolved shame. It can be astonishingly toxic for the possessor of that shame, and for those with whom they interact.


Unresolved Shame and its Harm

Psychological research illuminates the deleterious nature of unresolved shame in a wide range of behavioral and psychological pathology. Relationships between unresolved shame with PTSD, depression, body-image related disorders, and substance abuse issues have been firmly established. These insights are not new for social justice movements; many have recognized the role that shame plays in further punishing those whom have already been traumatized and disenfranchised, and how it has been weaponized to silence, disempower, and maintain the status quo.

Understanding shame’s role in the perpetuation of abuse can help us to build more effective preventative interventions, inform our efforts to help victims heal, and to transform how we interact and shape our communities. It can also help us identify and lessen lateral violence — displaced violence we direct at our peers rather than our true adversaries. Building a sustainable social justice movement requires understanding how shame gets weaponized against us from above, within our communities, and within ourselves.


The Psychological Roots of Violence

Shame is a social emotion with physical consequences, which is why looking at its role in violence is illustrative. Gilligan (1996)[i], a prison psychiatrist and prominent scholar in the social and emotional origin of violence, proposed that the emotion of shame was the ultimate cause of violence. Gilligan suggested that shame was necessary, but not sufficient, to cause violence, and that there are three preconditions under which shame leads to violence. The first precondition he described is that the shame is a secret, painful, and overwhelming — analogous to what is described above as unresolved shame.

The second precondition for shame to convert into violence is that the individual has no nonviolent means of warding off or diminishing those feelings of shame (e.g. elevated social status, economic reward, sense of achievement, etc.). The fewer psychological and social resources that people have to deal with the pain of feeling shame, the more readily they become aggressive towards themselves and others. To make someone hopeless is to make them dangerous. And as is the nature of belonging to a marginalized group, many have fewer material or social resources that can be counted upon to help dissipate those feelings of shame.

The third precondition is that the person lacks feelings that inhibit the violent impulse (e.g. love, guilt, or fear for the self). Appealing to and acknowledging bonds, even in the process of calling someone out, can invoke feelings of empathy and concern. Bringing those positive feelings more toward the forefront of their consciousness lubricates the ability to resolve shame in a more constructive manner. (Johnson’s aforementioned guide provides a good source for thinking about how to approach framing interventions in an accessible, non-stigmatizing manner.)


The Transformative Power of Shame

With every social interaction we engage in, we can ask of ourselves “what is the hope, and what is the risk?” When we speak to someone’s shame, this question should be central. Even with all the risks of invoking shame in others documented above, we cannot ignore the hopes. Invoking shame invites someone to ask deeper questions about the implications of their beliefs and behaviors that can lead to transformation. While the risks of invoking such shame are high, the risks of not doing so may be higher.

In many ways, the callout has emerged as a tactic for responding to the psychological defenses (such as described in the concept of white fragility) that many in dominant rolesdisplay when faced with charges of oppressive behaviors or beliefs to deflect criticism and avoid experiencing shame. Dealing with deflection and facing further invalidation can be exhausting and harmful. Some do not always have the luxury to respond to subtle and overt threats to their well-being in non-violent, non-aggressive ways. Like physical violence and rioting — aggressive language, stigmatizing shaming, and ostracism seen in callout culture can be legitimate forms of self-defense. However, if our emotional well-being is not in imminent danger and we have the psychological resources to do so, responding with compassion can help someone see the world in a different way.


How Restorative Justice Can Guide Us

One of the most insightful resources we can turn to in order to think more holistically and compassionately about dealing with misconduct comes from the literature on restorative justice (RJ). Briefly, the growing RJ movement offers an alternative model for justice from that of our dominant criminal correctional system that is hinged on retribution (i.e. the Prison Industrial Complex). It is a cooperative process that focuses on the harm caused by criminal behavior that takes into account the needs of all parties involved: victim, offender, and wider community. (More information can be found at http://www.restorativejustice.org/ )

While by no means a perfect solution, the evidence for the efficacy of restorative justice is strong. Compared to more traditional forms of criminal justice (i.e. punitive/retributive), outcome studies for restorative justice have demonstrated significant decreases in offender recidivism, greater satisfaction in the process and outcome for both victims and perpetrators, reduced levels of PTSD from victims, and higher levels of empathy for victims and willingness to accept responsibility for the harm done from offenders. In no small part, these improvements are gained because the process involves taking into consideration the needs of all parties, rather than rigidly resorting to purely punitive responses to a crime.


Reintegrative Shaming

Reintegrative Shame Theory provides a framework for understanding the value of shame in shaping and enforcing social norms, while also offering tools for facilitating the management of the internal experience of shame. Braithwaite, a prominent restorative justice scholar, defines reintegrative shaming as “disapproval that is respectful of the person, is terminated by forgiveness, does not label the person as evil, nor allows condemnation to result in a master status trait.” Conversely then, stigmatizing shaming is disrespectful of the person, does not terminate with forgiveness, labels the person as evil or bad, and positions the one doing the shaming in a dominant status.

With reintegrative shaming, the process for managing shame is built into the language, allowing for the separation of the act the offender committed from their inherent value as a person. Rather than incentivizing the offender to invest their emotional energies into defending their worth as a person, their integrity or status, reintegrative shaming provides more emotional space from the threat of ultimate social rejection. The possibility to reintegrate into a community, restore integrity and status, and to be forgiven, provides an important emotional buffer. This space better allows for the offender to consider the implications of their behaviors and beliefs, and to acknowledge and resolves their shame.

Stigmatizing shame, on the other hand, has been found to more likely result in unresolved shame[iii]. This has strong implication for social justice movements, especially in regards to the American criminal justice system. Those caught in the system deal with dangerous amounts of state-prescribed stigmatization , contributing to further subjugation for certain populations (e.g. people of color, transgender people, poor and homeless, etc.).

Our criminal justice system is devoid of any mechanisms to help either the victim, the offender, or the wider community in psychologically dealing with the impact of crime. When a crime gets reported, the state takes ownership of the conflict and the victim has little to no say over what happens; it becomes offender vs. the state, and the objective is to establish guilt and deliver punishment. The victims and communities are deprived of the opportunity to express their disapproval, and offenders are denied the opportunity to truly acknowledge the harm done. The victims’ traumatic narratives are subjected to hostile interrogation, and the offender has a vested material interest in denying culpability. Communities are deprived of the opportunity to reflect on the structural inequalities that contribute to criminal behavior, and robbed of the power/responsibility to come together and address them. The structural problems don’t get addressed, neither the victim nor the offender gets a chance to express their stories in a constructive manner, and the wider community is exposed to a partial picture with which to form their judgments. Our criminal justice system, in a sense, is the ultimate unresolved shame producing machine.


Reflecting on our Use of Shame in Callout Culture

While the harsh tactics of callout culture are both rational and even necessary in some circumstances, they are not without negative consequences — especially when applied uncritically, and even more so when applied within marginalized communities. On the other hand, we should also be very careful in our critique of those in marginalized identities employing those tactics to defend themselves. It is no coincidence that many of us with marginalized identities wrestle with unresolved shame ourselves; shame and trauma go hand in hand, and trauma is disproportionately distributed. In spite of this fact — and because of this fact — there exists a moral and political imperative for social justice communities to strive to develop more mature relationships with shame.

This struggle will not be easy, nor graceful. Some of us might not currently have the necessary psychological resources to devote to such a task, and some might need considerably more help in the process. But when or if we can, we owe it to ourselves and to the communities we fight for to do so. The biggest obstacle for social justice movements working toward dealing compassionately and justly when conflict arises, is that we’re all caught in this cycle to varying degrees. Collectively, we have not yet assembled the resources needed to navigate these problems justly, and our efforts to pursue this goal are strained. Failures in this capacity can be directly traced to the conditions we’re stuck working in, and are not due to inherent inadequacies or malevolence. It’s important to remember that striving to be compassionate towards ourselves in this process is also crucial.


Incorporating Compassion into Callout Culture


The Risks of Empathizing

While it is imperative for us to collectively work towards compassionately holding others accountable for their harmful behaviors or beliefs, there are also real risks in undertaking this work. There is a subtle yet fundamental difference between empathizing with someone who has abused us and rationalizing their behavior — and it is inherent to the nature of abuse to try to blur that distinction. Many abusers rely upon their target’s (and third parties’) capacity for empathy to evade culpability for their harmful actions. Historically, the default position for third parties is to believe the abuser- to believe there was never any abuse, or that the abused party was deserving of the mistreatment. Without a political environment that empowers and trusts the abused party’s narrative, our empathy can be easily manipulated.

When faced with the task of addressing our own abuse, we are not obligated to empathize with our oppressors. When confronted with violence and degradation directed towards us, the expectation for empathy is oppressive in itself. We must consider whether we are safe or ready to engage in the process of empathizing or forgiving those whom have harmed us, or whom have harmed others in ways that mirror our own trauma histories. In those circumstances, we must prioritize our own needs, and the needs of those most directly harmed. Our anxieties and concerns about empathizing with abusers are legitimate, and attending to them is crucial.


The Challenge and Necessity of Compassionate Intervention

When we’re acutely aware of the suffering inflicted on marginalized people, and the dangers they continue to face, it’s easy to dismiss the suffering the offender experiences that contributes to abuse. Further, taking into consideration the substantial emotional toll empathizing can take on us, not everybody is in a position to do so. However, in thinking more holistically and systemically about how to deal effectively with violence and oppression, we cannot stop the analysis with the needs of the oppressed. Compassionate methods must be collectively incorporated into a holistic strategy for dealing with oppression.

In order to better refine our methods of intervention and creating social change, those of us who can psychologically afford to empathize and consider the emotional needs of those who transgress — especially if they are marginalized on other axes — owe it to those who cannot afford to do so. As Florez points out in her analysis of callout culture: in order to break these cycles of violence and oppression, some of us must take calculated risks of vulnerability.

It might feel threatening to empathize with someone accused of mistreatment, or someone espousing bigoted views- like we’re betraying those whom they harm or betraying our values. It might feel like by empathizing with them is to excuse or justify their abuse or bigotry. We might feel that that by considering their emotional needs we are enabling them or supporting those structures of oppression. Or, in the context of a society that doesn’t take bigotry and systemic oppression as seriously as it should, it might feel like being unforgiving makes up for those inequalities.

To venture into the psyche of those whom we fear, resent, or even those we hate (when/if we are in a position to do so) is both courageous and righteous. It comes with risks, and demands caution. However, showing compassion for those whom we might traditionally deem unworthy fosters an environment where it is socially acceptable to acknowledge and explore our own flaws, mistakes, and internalized oppression and domination. It allows us to acknowledge a more complex understanding of the human experience.

Nobody was born aware of how systems of oppression and domination operate, and none of us are ideologically pure. Many of us have been abused, and are still searching for different models for how to be in this world. We are all still in the process of learning and unlearning, and many of us got to be where we are because someone else compassionately educated us and helped us to manage our own shame.

How often are our call-outs back-firing and driving someone to deny their actions or double down on their bigoted beliefs? How are we incentivizing people to defend their egos and reputations, rather than helping them better empathize with the people that their actions/views harm (assuming that they are themselves not subjected to that same harm)? Are we utilizing shame in a way that makes room for the possibility of its resolution? By not asking these questions, we risk alienating people who might otherwise be able and willing to listen and change. Worse yet, we risk providing yet another platform by which someone with a marginalized identity faces further threat of social ostracization. Finally, we miss a crucial piece of analysis in what drives effective social change.

Because of the ubiquity of shame, its potential for damage, and its power to help us create more equitable and respectful social institutions- cultivating more mature relationships with shame can be revolutionary. This emotional piece is too often neglected in our political analyses. Our ability to reconcile and prioritize respectful relationships with one another whom have largely similar objectives is critical for building movements and establishing solidarity. Ultimately, our efforts to embrace the full complexity of human emotional experiences should fundamentally inform the policies and political restructuring that we fight for, and how we fight for them.


[i] Gilligan, James. Violence: Our deadly epidemic and its causes. New York: GP Putnam, 1996.

[ii] Braithwaite, John. Crime, shame and reintegration. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[iii] Harris, Nathan. “Reintegrative shaming, shame, and criminal justice.” Journal of Social Issues 62.2 (2006): 327–346.

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