Shame & Violence: Deadly Partners

Violence is inseparably linked with dishonor and shame. To better understand these deadly partners, here are two learning resources—a book and a Missio Nexus webinar.
Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 10.33.16 AMViolence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (1996) has become a modern classic in sociology. The author James Gilligan, M.D., was director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system, then directed the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School. Those experiences allowed him to trace how shame causes violence, and see how the present penal system exacerbates shame. Here are some quotes from Chapter 5 “Shame: The Emotions and Morality of Violence.”
  • I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this “loss of face”—no matter how sever the punishment, even if it includes death. (p. 110)
  • The purpose of violence is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride, thus preventing the individual from being overwhelmed by the feeling of shame. (p. 111)
  • The secret [that violent men would die in order to not reveal] is that they feel ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed, over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them, so that they are ashamed even to reveal what shames them. And why are they so ashamed of feeling ashamed? Because nothing is more shameful than to feel ashamed. (p. 111)
  • A man only kills another when he is, as he sees it, fighting to save himself, his own self. … This is what I mean when I say that the degree of shame that a man needs to be experiencing in order to become homicidal is so intense and so painful that it threatens to overwhelm him and bring about the death of the self, cause him to loose his mind, his soul, or his sacred honor.
  • [One precondition of violence is] when men perceive themselves as having no nonviolent means of warding off or diminishing their feelings of shame or low self-esteem—such as socially rewarded economic or cultural achievement, or high social status, position, and prestige. Violence is a “last resort”… (p. 112)
  • The violence-engendering ethos of “rugged individualism,” and the social Darwinism that continues to dominate so much public discourse, make it almost impossible for us to take care of people without humiliating them first. (p. 120)
  • When discussing how the rituals of imprisonment are “total degradation ceremonies” intended to shame, subjugate and humiliate, Gilligan says, “If the purpose of the imprisonment were to social men to become as violent as possible—both while they are there, and after they return to the community—we could hardly find a more effective way to accomplish it.” (p. 155)
Overall, Gilligan’s Violence is a sobering yet thoughtful reflection worth reading, especially for people working with at-risk youth, prisoners, or other contexts of violence. It offers great insight as to how all levels of our society convert shame into violence.
Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 11.14.52 AM Missio Nexus will also be hosting a webinar “The Gospel of the Kingdom for a Violent World” by Werner Mischke on Feb 11, 2:00-3:15pm EST.

Here is a summary: Honor-based violence makes the news daily. Yet the church is often weak in its understanding and response. Discover how the dark side of honor and shame fuels violence. Examine how Christ’s honor-sharing “gospel of the kingdom” offers a powerful cure for violence—a living hope and powerful message for the world today. Register here.      

resources for Majority World ministry

4 Comments on “Shame & Violence: Deadly Partners

  1. I do not doubt the analysis, or the connection of shame and violence. But I believe it would be wrong to attribute all violence to shame.

    “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed…”

    Well, I live in Mexico, and almost all violence I have seen (and I have seen a lot) was motivated by fear and the struggle for power, not shame and the plight for honor. Whether it were killings between drug cartels (show your greater power, induce fear), blood feuds between indigenous families, preemptive murder (kill your potential enemy to overcome your own fear and show your power), land wars, confrontations between police and protesters… It seems that honor is seldom (if ever) an issue here.

    • Marc, thanks for more great cultural insights. Yes, I share your doubts with Gilligan’s “I have yet to see…” comment. But he said it, so I quoted it!

      As for your examples of violence in Mexico. I wonder if honor-shame are not at work right on the surface (as in a Muslim honor-killing, for example), but is layered below the various causes that you mentioned. Behind the confrontations for power that you mention, is there a desire for respect, appearing macho, being the revered figure, being the controlling patron able to honorably provide?

      Gilligan analyzed several examples where violence seemed unrelated to shame, but then showed how it was ultimately shame-induced. Shame was not the direct cause, but a few steps removed. This thinking was insightful, but some left me thinking, “Seems like were stretching everything to somehow tie it back to shame.”

  2. Here’s a thought on the Southeast Asian culture I have lived in for a few years now…
    Violence is “pandemic” – as is litigation under the nation’s laws against defamation. Not all, but a huge percentage of violence and litigation is about saving face (preventing shame). The civil laws against defamation make no distinction between statements that are objectively true or false: if a statement or claim is damaging to one’s reputation or finances then it IS defamation. Are the statements objectively true? Makes no difference – it is illegal. Try to fit that into a rule of law culture!

    One person has suggested that this particular Honor/Shame culture has become focused solely on the Shame, leading to this state of affairs, and has dropped any consideration of the virtue of Honor, which some other Asian cultures retain. Here, since honor now carries negligible influence, the focus is almost entirely on preventing public shame. I.e., it is a defensive posture – a highly litigious society – but for different reasons than the very litigious U.S.

    Seems very peculiar, and I do not see the leaders being able to stop this train, or re-direct it to a constructive end. It really does seem only heart by heart it can be changed.

    Lastly, thanks for these posts! You’re doing a valuable service.

    • @JLynnB Thanks for the insightful explanation here. I have heard people posit that some honor-shame cultures are more about the honor while others more about the shame, this your observation fits in that way. Though I obviously don’t know your context…I wonder if honor is not absent, but defined as “face.” Honor and face are surely related, yet some have distinguished between “face-cultures” and “honor-cultures.” Just some ideas. But regardless, you end the conversation on the right tone–how can this be redirected for social good? How can honor and shame be transformed? That is a vital question!

      And lastly, thanks for the encouraging word!

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