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Shame on Us?

We have a love/hate relationship with shame.

Peter N. Stearns explains that Americans have a love/hate relationship with shame (“Why We Dislike Shame - and Can’t Get Enough of It,” Peter N. Stearns, American Interest, August 3, 2020).

For the most part, Americans agree that shame is a bad thing, because it can bring harmful and lasting effects on those who are the object of it. On the other hand, shame has its uses for enforcing certain kinds of moral behavior. The problem with shame is ultimately a problem of moral outlook and worldview: “Not surprisingly shame may seem just fine when deployed on behalf of your own values; it’s lack of agreement on values that causes much of the problem, and we have no fix in sight.”

The widespread use of social media have made shaming a greater problem, because it’s just to easy to pile on once the shaming has begun.

The goal of shaming is “to reduce undesirable behaviors by making the adverse emotional consequences abundantly clear.” Sadly, those emotional consequences can be permanently damaging. In the historic use of shame, reintegration to the group was always a goal, but that goal has been set aside for the sheer delight of humbling people we don’t like. And this makes shaming an even more brutal punishment.

Stearns summarizes, “The conclusion is clear: Shaming is awful; it is desirable; its extremes can be disciplined; it is inevitable.” In other words, we hate the practice, but we can’t do without it.

Stearns knows we can’t not use shame: “Shame is part of group life. Appropriately handled, it can help regulate behaviors that might otherwise run unchecked. It plays a role in dealing with racism. It should serve as a moderating force in political life. And it will surely factor into any effort to promote responsible stewardship of the environment.” But we need to be careful and considerate in the use we make of it: “This is why, along with due care, it deserves recurrent discussion as a constructive force, including its role in the kind of improvements we should be aspiring to in the next phase of our political life and in the evaluations of contemporary leadership.”

Shame on us if we make the wrong use of shame.

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