Article: “Why We Dislike Shame”

The American Interest has published an article “Why We Dislike Shame—and Can’t Get Enough of It.” The article examines why shaming is essential in America today, and offers some suggestions for curbing its excesses. I commend the article for its clarity, balance, and insights. The author, Peter N. Stearns (University Professor of History at George Mason University) works extensively on the modern history of emotions and their social role.

Here are a few of my favorite lines, which hopefully whet your appetite to read the full article.

After an analysis of our post-Enlightenment scorn for shame, he explores its potential: “Shaming also persists because it serves vital social functions and because, even in contemporary Western society, it can work, or at least seem to work. This other side to the argument, focused on shaming not so much as individual punishment but as social practice, is what makes the current issue so complex—and so intriguing.

He summarizes the complexity of shame: “Shaming is awful; it is desirable; its extremes can be disciplined; it is inevitable.” But without ending in despair, he charts a path through these complexities so that shame may play a positive role, especially in modern democracies. 

The author makes a most insightful comment: “One of the reasons for discussing shame is to highlight the kind of complex, ambiguous problem that invites contemplation and debate rather than decisive formulas.” For me personally, this resonated strongly in my attempts to present honor-shame for Christian audiences. Many people, whether one’s context is the public sphere or Christian ministry, have a natural inclination to domestic shame into a sort of philosophical notion or pragmatic tool. But the multi-faceted nature of “shame” and “honor” (evidenced by the proliferation of definitions) calls us to contemplation and reflection, especially as they relate to human identity, morality, and community formation. Our conversations about shame must involve nuance and wisdom, as the concept is not as tamable as we may wish.  

And perhaps my favorite, the proposal of a new virtue—”shameability.” Click here to read more. 

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Posted in Culture, ethics
3 comments on “Article: “Why We Dislike Shame”
  1. “Some shame, however, is with us to stay. The continued deployment of the emotion despite 250 years of criticism is a fact that simply must be acknowledged.” (Last paragraph in the cited article.)

    Isn’t there serious confusion here? How can one ‘deploy’ the emotion of shame in someone else if that other person is (rightly or wrongly) ‘unshameable’?

    What is ‘deployed’ is instead surely merely negative judgement that may, or may not, trigger that emotion of shame in someone else.

    This distinction is vital, it seems to me, in the context of highlighting the failure of what for Christians was the decisive deployment of mistaken negative judgement by ‘the world’ – the condemnation of Jesus by the Roman Governorate. The ‘freedom’ experienced by the earliest Christians had surely to do not merely with Jesus’s vindication by the Resurrection but their realisation that by this means the shaming power of the world had been completely ‘relativised’: the Christian was now subject to an entirely different ‘supreme court’ – with Jesus as judge. Isn’t that the significance of the creedal formula: Jesus as judge of the living as well as the dead?

    I therefore feel that it is a mistake to use the word ‘shame’ merely to describe an ATTEMPT to trigger shame, a negatively critical comment or verdict on someone else. Only if that person does react with that emotion has he/she been truly ‘shamed’.

    Expressions such as ‘fat shaming’ are therefore problematic in that they seem to assume that to comment negatively upon someone is necessarily to trigger shame in the target, when in fact, for a variety of reasons, the criticism may well rebound and trigger shame in the person who has deployed it.

    Given especially the fallibility of human judgement and the need also to discuss ‘resilience’ – e.g. in teaching Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – isn’t this an important distinction?

    And don’t children need to know that distinction also, given that it is far from unknown for e.g. teachers to be simply abusive and unfair?

  2. Ruth Yingling says:

    Thank you for posting this. This was a very interesting article. It’s fascinating to observe the author’s own internal conflict with the idea of shame. I think what he’s describing by “shameability” is the idea of “honorable.” Someone who is shameless is dishonorable. It’s interesting that he struggled to describe this quality in a child because we no longer understand this concept within the culture.
    In a culture so divided I feel that shame can only become more and more toxic. “Proper shaming” would require an agreed-upon honor code, which we do not have. Additionally, shame doesn’t seem to work the same way with individualists as it does in collectivist cultures that value relationships and belonging to the group. Cultures driven by the values of honor-shame shun exclusion more than anything. The prospect of exclusion is a strong deterrent for them. The exclusion that results from shame brings deep sadness and the desire to reintegrate.
    But cultures that value individual integrity and self-expression will be more anxious to avoid judgment than exclusion, and shame will be applied more like judgment with the loss of opportunity (cancellation) or financial loss, or possibly threats of violence. It is definitely more punitive than preventative. In these cultures shame will usually feel unfair, unmerited, and restrictive (Why am I being judged or held to someone else’s standard of right-wrong?). It will only breed resentment, rage, and further division. The question (battle) becomes, whose honor code are we going to enforce with this shaming?

  3. Rainer Ehmann says:

    Thank you for this article!
    What baffles me is how enamored the evangelical community is with this “ardent shamer who accepts no shame himself.”
    Evangelicals by their value system they are taught have learned to be kind and considerate to one another or feel shame in failing to do so.
    Someone comes on the stage who knows no morals except his own, and we forget moderation, reason, and kindness as we buy into value systems condemned by the Bible. We should re-think our world view.

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