On Private and Public Shame
I possess a photograph of myself that was taken near midnight on New Year’s Eve two decades ago. I’m on the dance floor at a nightclub and my then-girlfriend has an arm around my shoulder. She is speaking directly into my ear in a stern and purposeful way, trying to impress good sense into a self-certain young man with bulging muscles, blond tips in his hair and an obscene amount of alcohol in his system. The expression on my face is blank: I can hear what she tells me, but I’m not listening because I’ve already made up my mind. The guy who casually groped her as he squeezed past us moments before is destined to greet the New Year in an inauspicious way.
I turn to my girlfriend, smiling, and reassure her that I’m not about to do anything stupid. When the next song begins, I indicate that I’m going to get some drinks. I move away in the direction of the bar, just in case she’s watching, then circle around the outer edge of the dance floor. After a minute or two, I locate the man, push through the crowd, and grab him by the shirt. Here, my memory becomes a little vague.
I can’t recall what I said to him, but I suspect that it revealed my deeper motivations. ‘You think you can grab my girlfriend?’ Then I gave him a shove, which was and remains the universal invitation to rumble. When he pushed me back, I knocked him to the ground. Then I turned around, walked to the bar, bought some drinks, and rejoined my girlfriend on the dance floor.
Five or ten minutes later, a bouncer grabbed me firmly by the arm and led me outside, where a small group of the man’s friends were gathered, along with others who had witnessed the assault. My victim was being loaded into an ambulance, his nose smeared across his face.
I was worried, but I wasn’t yet ashamed. I listened intently to what the people around me were saying and sidled close to a group of witnesses who were giving statements to a police officer. From them, I gathered that there was some uncertainty about exactly who had thrown the punch. Some of the witnesses had identified me, while others believed that it was another man, who had also been led from the dance floor and was being questioned a few metres away. I understood that if I denied the charges, and the other man also denied the charges, and if the witnesses persisted with their contradictory accounts, and if there wasn’t any security camera footage of the deed, I would get away with putting into hospital the man who had idly groped my girlfriend. So that’s what I did.
Like many people, I draw a large part of my moral sense from a handful of disgraceful but instructive events, all of which have left a residue of guilt and shame: the occasions when I was mercilessly cruel as a schoolboy, the times when I escaped punishment for misdeeds by brazenly lying, the occasions when I manipulated others into doing risky things against their better instincts, the times when I failed to help someone who dearly needed me, and the many occasions when I treated others as though they were less complex, decent or worthy of respect than I. These memories are painful to contemplate, but they have served, collectively, to direct my understanding of myself, and they’ve prompted me (I hope) to think and behave in more sympathetic and honourable ways.
Curiously, I wasn’t meaningfully punished for any of the shameful acts that I can vividly bring to mind. Something about the experience of doing bad things without enduring serious consequences appears to have made me more hostile to unnecessary violence, cruelty, manipulation and derision than I might otherwise have been. Perhaps it’s because self-directed reckonings are more decisive and transformative than the insights gleaned as a consequence of external penalties or admonitions. Or maybe it’s just a personal quirk.
I doubt that public shame is quite so productive. I’m grateful for the fact that social media wasn’t part of my life when I was a teenager, because I was as capable of combative, egotistical and belligerent derisiveness as anyone. I certainly felt that I was smarter than many of the people I came across, and I was happy to employ dubious rhetorical ploys to win arguments or, at the very least, to humiliate my foe.
It worries me that people now come of age in a world that bears permanent witness to their delinquent errors and insecurities. What if getting away with intellectual, emotional and expressive blunders—even serious ones—is a vital step on the path to overcoming them? It is difficult enough for most people to admit to themselves that they’ve been monolithically wrong about fundamental things. Conceding it in front of a Twitter mob must be unendurable.
But the world may have veered too far off course to recover the potential for fruitful latitude. Surveillance is more universal (that punch would surely be caught on camera if I delivered it today), we give public voice to our worst selves before realising that we have worst selves, and crimes or indiscretions that were once buried in the past are now called out in public forums. There is no ‘getting away with it’, so we need to consider exactly how public shame should function, both from the perspective of those who have reason to be ashamed and those who are compelled to make someone else’s bad behaviour widely known.
My first instinct is to assert that we should reconsider collectively how we feel about our public images. We should allow ourselves to be and seem like the radically flawed humans that we are, and work to ensure that everyone understands that no version of us is final or comprehensive, and that wrongdoing, like hardship, is an opportunity to learn as much as it is evidence of our innate badness or inescapable victimhood. If we engage with each other with those basic preconditions in mind, public shame won’t be too harrowing for us to properly absorb its lessons, and our collective willingness to ‘expose’ people may be similarly tempered. But before setting out such an argument it would be useful to consider exactly what ‘shame’ is and how it typically functions in people’s lives.
The iconic gestures of shame (not making eye contact, isolating or concealing yourself) point to the fact that identifying and integrating shame produces a jolting feeling of double exposure, to the self and others.
In The Widening Scope of Shame (1997), Melvin Lansky and Andrew Morrison note that:
Shame is the affect that signals the threat of danger to the social bond or to a sense of integrity and regard for the self … At some point in development, shaming ceases to be an entirely social emotion and becomes internalised. The watchful eye making the shaming judgment becomes one’s own, potentially independent of a sustaining relationship or the feared loss of social connection. This source of shame becomes failure, a falling short of a cherished ideal …
We initially feel ashamed when we fail to meet other people’s expectations; then we gradually internalise a set of ideal personal standards, which become the main source of our self-scrutiny and inner shame.
In his early writing on the topic, Freud treats shame as a socially useful affect: he believed that our fear of failing to live up to social expectations and internalised ideals, and the painful feelings that attend to such failures, has a civilising function. We don’t punch people in nightclubs because we know how it feels and looks to be someone who punches people in nightclubs.
Shame also has a great deal to do with misalignment, and the sensation of being out of sync with our family, peers and society. Francis Broucek notes that ‘in early development [shame] is elicited by an intersubjective disjunction based on absent affective complementarity or reciprocity that results in a sense of inefficacy, failed intentionality, and rejected affectivity’. In other words, our earliest experiences of shame result from the sudden discovery that what we do, think or feel is not desired or admired by parents or caregivers, who instead indicate that what we are doing, thinking or feeling displeases or disgusts them, combined with a realisation that our intentions have been misunderstood. According to Broucek, shame is also the dominant affective response to ‘various forms of ostracism, such as “the silent treatment”, and … love withdrawal’.
Now consider the dynamics that are in play when someone makes a comment on social media and is suddenly upbraided or ‘critiqued’ by large numbers of people, including those they admire or feel a broad kinship with, many of whom embrace the least charitable interpretation of the comment. Add to that the tendency to mock the author’s claims that they didn’t intend to imply what their comment has been taken to imply.
Even if the many people who reiterate or affirm identical criticisms over and again aren’t deliberately or consciously setting out to shame their target, the collective method—and its very public nature—is perfectly calibrated to induce a shame response.
Shaming strategies are regularly employed against children by parents, teachers and peers, as a method of behavioural control in social settings. This typically involves displays of disgust or contempt, with the use of facial expressions or sounds. So when we publicly declare that X has said or done something that we regard as disgusting (the new word for this is ‘offensive’) and that they should be fired from their job, expelled from an organisation or no-platformed, we partake in one of the most elemental and universal methods of social coercion.
Importantly, it appears that overt hostility is a natural reaction to shame. When young children first register that a parent or other beloved figure is displeased with them, they often act out violently—and some of us carry that instinct into adulthood. Donald Nathanson writes:
There are those moments (for some of us all of the time, for all of us some of the time) when we simply cannot abide the feeling of shame and will do anything to avoid it … Sometimes the moment of shame is associated with a feeling of lowered self-worth that is simply unbearable. In such a situation, we are likely to reduce another person so that we can at least be better than someone else … we reduce, humiliate, abuse, and torture those who come into our path. [my italics]
Given that the target of ‘shaming’ strategies can become more aggressive, destructive and resistant than they might otherwise be—depending on their particular temperament, experiences and ability to integrate shame in healthy ways—when we publicly shame a person or group there is a reasonable chance that it will elicit a counterproductive result. (According to the American psychologist James Gilligan, ‘All violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem.’) Not everyone is equipped to live with or think through the experience of shame, especially in a public forum, because shame is a primary and volatile emotion that is rooted in deeply personal experience.
My initial instinct was to argue that we might usefully disarm the power of public shame by accepting it as an ‘everyday’ occurrence and by highlighting human fallibility. It seemed to me that the practice of public shaming could prove fruitful as long as we retain the capacity to absorb its lessons. But I now suspect that this line of reasoning stems from a shallow understanding of shame and a disqualifying level of personal detachment.
According to Thomas Scheff, those who encounter parental rejection as young children often cut themselves off from conventional experiences of socially induced shame. Instead, they ‘take steps to defend themselves against the pain of further separation’, which typically means embracing a strident individualism. ‘After a lengthy period of futile calling for the missing loved one,’ says Scheff, ‘these children learn their lesson. In effect, they say: “Very well, if you are not coming, then I don’t need you anyway. I am sufficient unto myself. I don’t need anyone.”’
I endured multiple, sustained and acute instances of parental rejection as a child. Perhaps that is why I’m comparatively unaffected by other people’s assessment of me? Or maybe it’s because I’m a twentieth-century dinosaur trapped inside an outdated humanist ethos, according to which our most prized quality—dignity—cannot be undermined by others?
Either way, when I argue that we shouldn’t let public shame overwhelm us, I’m perilously close to saying that everyone should be more like me, which is not a credible solution. Shame is experienced in singular and unpredictable ways, stimulating varied and sometimes extreme responses. It’s only after the full force of shame has faded that we begin to function properly. Even worse: there is no way of knowing whether someone’s behaviour is evidence of a lack of shame, or a surplus of it. Under these circumstances, the practice of large-scale public shaming seems reckless, if not wholly destructive.
Feeling ashamed about what we’ve done, and what we are therefore capable of doing again, can help some of us modify our behaviour and sensibilities in useful ways. But what about the shame we feel for all of those things that we’ve failed to do, and keep failing to do? What role does that play in our daily lives?
In my middle teens, I foolishly rented a small flat. I was earning the minimum wage, which wasn’t enough to cover basic expenses, but I survived for a year. When my lease expired I found less expensive accommodation, which left me with a modest amount of spending money, so I resolved to sponsor a needy child from Bangladesh.
The following year, everything changed again. I wanted to finish high school, but in order to do that I had to give up my day job and live off a small Centrelink allowance, which put an end to spending money. When the time came to pay the sponsorship fee, my bank account was empty, so I cancelled it. I was confronted with a stark moral dilemma, and I made a clear decision. The life of a desperately vulnerable person was worth less to me than my own desire for fulfilment.
Most people have made something like that decision and accepted a version of that bargain. Perhaps they made it so long ago that they’ve forgotten it, or they repressed it before it fully reached their consciousness. More than 10 per cent of the world’s population goes hungry, but few of us talk about it, especially in the context of inequality and ‘privilege’. The stakes are unbearably high for hundreds of millions of people, yet we prioritise more immediate and local concerns. If I cared enough, I could make hundreds—maybe thousands—of children’s lives more liveable without sacrificing anything close to what a truly decent person would be willing to sacrifice. Yet I haven’t done that, I don’t do it, and I probably never will. Instead, I concern myself with those for whom I’m directly responsible, and strive to satisfy my own peculiar needs.
Of course, I’m ashamed of it. So ashamed that it seems ludicrous to be outraged by other people’s unwillingness to give up whatever advantages they’ve grown used to. I might object to their selfishness on ethical grounds and argue for political and economic corrections, but I understand their hesitancy too well to despise them for it. And it seems to me that most people who do allow themselves to be furious on their own behalf—those who recognise that they are unjustifiably disadvantaged by local standards and rail against that unfairness with righteous fervour—are as complicit as I am in the moral shortcomings that coincide with undeserved privilege. In the words of Dave Chappelle, ‘They’re in on the heist. They just don’t like their cut.’
If I am tainted with anything more odious than the strain of human selfishness that allows me to ignore the abject suffering of millions in pursuit of personal fulfilment, I haven’t yet detected it. But I feel confident that no-one will call me out for that blemish on social media. In 2017 approximately 2,200,000 new titles or editions of books were published globally. If you combined every valuable element from all of those books into a single entity, it wouldn’t come close to embodying the astonishing complexity and innate capacity that a single human life represents. What pathology compels us to write and publish books or essays when we could be helping desperate people instead? What is this deficit in us?
Perhaps the moralistic outrage that poisons social media has something to do with a lingering uneasiness about our daily failure to forego the unearned privileges we’ve come to rely on. Do we scream about comparatively trivial disadvantages and slights to avoid that grim self-recognition? Are we all too desperate to get away with it? •
Shannon Burns is a freelance writer and a member of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.