Shame and Humiliation Part IV of V: Reintegrative Shaming

Shame and Humiliation

Part IV of V: Reintegrative Shaming


Howard Adelman

In this already overlong essay, I feel a need to still cover two other areas: current attempts to merge a shame system with a justice system and the rule of law, and, secondly, with the examination of Christianity as a shame culture in contrast to rabbinic Judaism. I will examine the issue of Christianity as a shame culture in tomorrow’s final part of this essay.

Restorative justice, mainly as an application or in the form of criminologist John Braithwaite’s shaming theory, is an effort to posit shame as a form of justice not simply parallel but superior to our traditional guilt/innocence legal system. As I have indicated, a pure guilt culture sees shame as demeaning. Reintegration shaming views shame as a means of redemption. Reintegration shaming targets the offender rather than the offence. As I have described, ever so briefly, a guilt culture focuses on the act committed and does not target altering the character of the offender. The rehabilitation is a matter for the offender and other institutions in society.

Though the theory was published in 1989, I really only encountered Braithwaite’s model when I went to Australia as a research professor for three years between 2005 and 2008. However, in the aftermath of the co-study with Astri Suhrke of the Rwanda genocide and the role of bystanders on behalf of an international consortium of counties and international agencies, I had encountered the theory in practice in relationship to the gacaca courts established in Rwanda to handle the vast bulk of the cases of those who had been accused of participation in the 1994 genocide. A few high profile cases were handled by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and many more serious cases by the Rwanda national legal courts or by military courts for a very few officers, but the vast bulk of cases were handed over to the gacaca courts.

I had, of course, heard about such processes as part of the justice system of aboriginals in Canada, especially when I was chair of a commission on nuclear energy and one of the four other panellists was an aboriginal shaman who introduced me to the concept of circle justice. But the Rwanda courts, and Bill Schabas’s 2005 study of those courts (“Genocide Trials and the Gacaca Courts,” Journal of International Criminal Justice, 3:4, 879-895), were my first detailed exposures to a system of justice based on a traditional model of community justice. This form of justice combines community shaming with a justice process based on shaming in front of both the victim and the community, with a confession wrought out of the perpetrator followed by publicizing the name of the offender. I admit that I was initially very impressed, though a few studies connecting the gacaca court system to a shame culture initiated my wariness. (See the very short 2000 piece by Mark A. Drumbl that preceded Schabas’ piece, “Punishment, Post-genocide: From Guilt to Shame to Civis in Rwanda,” New York University Law Review 75:5.)

The gacaca courts seemed to have the following advantages:

  • Once the process was initiated, justice was rendered in a reasonably brief time while allowing both the accused and the victims to have their say, and further, and more importantly, to allow the victims and the bystanders to affect the outcome
  • In contrast to legal trials where a person is tried by either a judge or a cross section of peers chosen at random, the people’s “jurors” in gacaca courts consisting of 24 volunteers at the foundational cell level in Rwanda were elected by the community ostensibly as persons of high integrity (inyangamugayo) based on maturity (age), nationality, absence of a prison record or suspicion of participation in the genocide, possessing a reputation of honesty and not being ideologues or supporters of the genocidaire doctrine, trustworthy as distinct from honest (i.e., reliability, though truth telling may an indicator), and did not censor or repress their thoughts in public; achievement of a specific educational level was not required and judges only received 36 hours of training
  • The economic costs were minimal compared to the enormous costs of the international criminal court in Rwanda that tried only 52 individuals over a dozen years and cost over a billion dollars with only 65 charged, just over fifty trials conducted (7 cases were transferred to the Rwanda court system and 6 charged remain fugitives), and almost all trials are now completed (1 is still under appeal)
  • The penalties in most cases of the gacaca courts side-step incarceration in favour of simple public exposure and shaming, or alternatively or in addition, longer term methods of debasement and lowering the status of an offender in and to the community by subjecting him or her to public shaming; it is the equivalent of walking around with a scarlet letter or, in contemporary terms, a judge requiring any vehicle driven by a convicted drunk driver to bear a label on its front and rear bumpers indicating that the driver has been convicted of drunk driving
  • The form of the trial does not begin with the assumption of innocence or the treatment of each offender in a different way according to the degree of offence – analogously to having different types of trials and different ranges of outcomes for those charged with genocide or mass murder, murder, manslaughter or culpable homicide, according to the seriousness of the crime; instead of a goal of making the punishment fit the crime, the premise of the system tries to make the process of justice itself fit the crime
  • The “labelling” is intended deliberately to lower the ostensibly inflated image the offender has of his or herself through advertising that neither the community nor the offender can avoid in contrast with a guilt system intended to grant self-respect to the accused whatever the accused has done
  • The system addresses the matter of community healing and views the offence committed as shattering the organic nature of the community more even than the specific offence committed against a particular individual
  • The system relies on denunciation rather than arrest, arraignment before a court and requiring a prosecutor, an official of the court, to convince a judge in the first instance that the matter is worthy of a trial
  • Denunciation always seems to reveal a much broader participation in an offense than that assumed by our guilt-based system of law that begins with the presumption of innocence (In Rwanda, the original cohort of the accused was 100,000; it eventually grew to over one million, 12.5% of the Rwandan population or about 50% of the adult male population, though many of those only committed property crimes and not murder.)
  • The focus emphasis is placed on reconciliation rather than punishment

My questions focus on several issues:

    1. Does the system accomplish what it claims?
    2. How much abuse is the system subject to compared to a guilt-based system based on the rule of law?
    3. What ultimate virtue or set of virtues does the system aim at instilling in the perpetrator and in those members of the community negatively affected by the actions of the offender?
    4. What vices are reinforced?
    5. What general principles are instantiated by the system?
    6. What general principles are negated by the system?

In general, after studying various reports and papers on the Rwanda gacaca courts – I did not myself make any direct study – I found the following general characteristics:

  • The system relied primarily on confession for the bulk of convictions, partly because the system operated on rewarding confessors with much lower sentences, but the number might have been even higher had not perpetrators been intimidated by threats from other genocidaires, particularly those who served at a higher level
  • Confessions and apologies that seemed effective were: sincere; acknowledged the fault and made no excuses; were followed by promises not only not to repeat the event, but to do all in his or her power to see it is never repeated; though the confessions and apologies may be sincere, many, if not most, victims interpret them to be insincere and self-serving, especially when the formula for getting a sentence significantly reduced is well known, and, in any case, the crime is perceived to be just unforgiveable
  • Many confessions did not come close to reaching the standards for recognizing apparent sincerity and deep remorse free of excuses, but were rewarded with significantly reduced sentences anyway, thereby evincing a cynical view of the process; where they were not rewarded, the perpetrators gave evidence of even more aggression, only held in check by fear of what would happen to them; there are claims that most perpetrators are simply sorry they did not complete the job
  • Where some efforts have been made to verify the testimony of the victims, though the accused may have been involved, the stories are often confused, shot through with events taken from elsewhere, but evince a very precise and strong characterization of the actual pain and suffering
  • Testimonies of those who give evidence and seem to suffer from logorrhea predominate; evidence of those who choose to forget are sidelined
  • Rape victims, as in many cases in western criminal trials, often feel they have been doubly victimized, but this feeling is exaggerated by the community nature of gacaca trials, the propensity to hand out significantly reduced sentences in cases of confession, and the strong emphasis on shaming which captures the rape victims in the backwash
  • Gross aggrandizement of those held to be guilty and the consequent number of victims, in part raised because the confessional mode always seemed to add additional co-agents
  • Magic rather than science as a ground for evidence, that is, reference to rituals, gestures, symbols and language reminiscent of paranormal influences are taken on the same basis as objective evidence
  • Performative rather than simple descriptive speech is privileged, that is, language that is committed to changing social reality and not simply depicting it
  • Instead of being ideologically neutral, or, at least, attempting to be objective, the process is infused with and reinforces an ideological perspective and emerges more as victor’s justice, especially when alleged crimes committed by the RPF are not generally put on trial
  • The three goals, 1) justice meted out to the offender; 2) restorative justice won by the community and for the victims; and 3) prevention of recurrence, appear to be irreconcilable
  • Instead of enhancing trust in the community, distrust is both ever present and repressed, and there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the system enhanced fear and mistrust
  • In consequence of the previous observation and the emphasis on restorative versus criminal justice, restoration may in reality only be superficial, especially when sentences like community service are either not carried out in practice, are foreshortened or implemented only half-heartedly
  • Depending on the distribution of power in the community, it appears that, rather than the community as a whole being served, different parts of the community benefit, ironically, especially genocidaires, but in some other cases, either victims or the bystanders, those that stood by in silence and least of all, people who tried to help
  • Both security and justice suffer in contrast to apparent reconciliation; insecurity rises because of both general mistrust and the hard fact that perpetrators are eventually set free
  • Finally, instead of reconciliation being achieved, the five ostensible root causes are either reinforced, repressed or relieved:
  1. Fear in the Tutsis because they doubt the depth of the reconciliation; fear by the Hutus because they interpret what has taken place to have been only a case of victor’s justice, but not one they want to or can challenge as long as Paul Kagame holds power;
  2. If economic differences between Tutsis and Hutus were a factor in the genocide in a society with a very dense population and relatively little arable land, these pressures have been greatly relieved by the extraordinary economic advances of Rwanda and the enormous increase in urbanization, all a result of something other than the gacaca shame system, and all developments which undermine a shame culture;
  3. Education and new laws, not the gacaca system, has made hate speech, racism and even the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi illegal, though everyone continues to know who is a Tutsi or who is a Hutu, but they are often wrong now when they live in the anonymity of cities as opposed to living in the countryside intermixed on the same hill;
  4. The culture of obedience to state power and authority that Gerard Prunier stressed in his study of the genocide has been reinforced by Kagame’s system of government, and, if valid, reinforces fears that the conditions have been set for a reoccurrence of the genocide;
  5. What about the culture of impunity that Prunier also stressed? It depends on the person writing. If they favour a shame culture, impunity has been reduced because so many people were able to be handled by the gacaca system. But if you favour a system of law-based criminal justice, then impunity seems to have been reinforced. This suggests that ideology is more at work in the role of interpretation than any empirical evidence.

In sum, whatever position you hold, results seem very mixed with respect to: making the society whole again through the temporary use of stigmatization; the long term goal of forgiveness; the effort at true fairness but riddled through with all kinds of unfairness; the dependence on lowering the self-esteem of the perpetrator both in his/her own eyes and the eyes of the rest of the public; the belief that exposure of the shame and public humiliation are the way of escape from the vicious circle; the evidence that the shame is neither fundamentally resolved, since the perpetrators do not really seem to take responsibility either for the crime committed or for bringing about a cure. All of these factors suggest that the value of a shame culture and its hybrid connection with a justice system have been, at the very least, grossly exaggerated.

This suspicion is reinforced in the follow-up studies of the application of John Braithwaite’s theory in the justice system in Australia, mainly in the evidence that the application of the theory does not seem to have affected the rate of predatory crime when compared to other jurisdictions that do not rely on or use the model. In my review of the literature, shaming seems only to have a temporary and no long term effect, except to drive the feeling of negative self-worth even deeper. Further, the consequences never seem to be proportionate to the offence, either greatly exaggerated, especially when the offence in the scheme of things is relatively inconsequential, and greatly reduced in cases of very serious offences. Minor offences leave long-lingering badges of dishonour while accessories to murder are welcomed back into the community, especially when the offences committed have been committed by a wide section of the community as distinct from a single individual upon whom the spotlight of shame has been aimed.

Shame, which has as its goal the alteration in the self-identity of the individual, has the least effect on that target. Even when characterized as a sin, as I will try to demonstrate in the next blog, where the sinners have been apparently brought before the judgement of God, as in the story of Adam and Eve, they resort to disguise, to projection, to displacing blame and allowing the failure to disrespect themselves as embodied individuals. Propensity to do harm or sin merely emerges in more destructive pathways. The reality is that, whether it is a guilt system, a shame system or a hybrid one that tries to marry guilt to a predominantly shame system, the only good effect is when justice is blind and, thus, fair. The justice in a guilt system only comes about when it is perceived to be fair. And if a shame culture tries to ensure fairness, it increasingly leaves behind the requirements of ensuring shame, for publicity, not blindness, is at its core.

Wedded to the process of fairness must be raising the self-esteem of all stakeholders, whether perpetrators, victims or either passive or active bystanders. Guilt seems far more effective in achieving the latter than shame, while shame as a technique seems far more effective in bringing a community together. Any system of shame cannot be correlated with reducing the likelihood of re-offending. The explanation can be understood in terms of different religious traditions.

Tomorrow: Part V of V: Judaism as a Guilt Culture and Christianity as a Shame Culture


Shame and Humiliation Part III of V: The Spectrum of Humiliation

Shame and Humiliation

Part III of V: The Spectrum of Humiliation


Howard Adelman

From yesterday’s Jerusalem Online (28 June 2015): “Gossip blogger sues Eyal Golan for insult on Facebook.”

Omri Hayon, a gossip blogger, claims that he was deeply hurt by posts from the singer and is suing for NIS 300,000 in compensation. Gossip blogger Omri Hayun filed a lawsuit of NIS 300,000 against known Israeli singer Eyal Golan for defamation following a post on Facebook where he called Hayun a “nerd who suffered from other people his whole life.” The post came in response to Hayun’s coverage of the affair involving Golan, whose name was published despite a gag order. At the same time, Golan sued Hayun along with several other journalists, in cases that are still pending. “After this post I started getting death threats,” said Hayun regarding his decision to file the lawsuit.  “All at once it was as if all of his fans had received permission to attack me, they removed all restraint. After the post went up, every half hour I received a phone call from someone else yelling at me and threatening me. One time a man called and said he was outside my house, another said he would put a bullet in my head. I only now decided to sue because it is an expensive process.”

Yesterday, one of the readers of my blog referred me to Jon Ronson’s (2015) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which came out in April. I read a few Amazon reviews and ordered the book. My analysis of the rise of a shaming culture seems to be confirmed by this observer and commentator. Though his account seems far more vivid than my own, he seems to agree that, with the internet, we have developed a form of vigilante justice that is, as I argued, totally out of proportion to the misdeeds or mistakes made by those who are humiliated. The original offence may be stupid, foolish, careless or thoughtless, but not usually evil or malicious. Ronson points to the difference between seventeenth century modes of shaming to contemporary forms because now the charges go far beyond a community which can more easily monitor and judge the alleged offence. The reports are spread without context or verification. The attacks are democratic on both ends, for anyone can participate and anyone can be a target, whether you are a stuffed shirt or a poor teenager. They are a new form of public pillorying with much more long-lasting effects because the internet never forgets. The accusers are often anonymous and the process is brutal and unrelenting. “Internet witch hunts, silicon mobs fueled by righteous indignation, create loops of animosity that end careers, and shatter lives.”

Shame has various different responses, each with different degrees of pain. Humiliation also covers a wide spectrum, from mild titillation at someone’s self-embarrassment to taking pleasure in the mortification of another and, worst of all, dancing with righteousness on his or her torn soul, the one subjected to rampant and raging humiliation. If a person accidentally pours hot tea on another, this is inherently embarrassing. But the situation need not be made worse by humiliating the spiller of the tea. And it can be made better by dismissing the significance of the inadvertent act –  by suggesting that just because the tea was not made properly enough, pouring it out on the floor and everyone around was definitely not an appropriate response, thereby ironically rebuking everyone’s general propensity to hyperbole and preventing making matters worse than they really are. We can even travel in the reverse direction and, instead of extending an embarrassing error into a situation requiring a public rebuke and mortification to humble another in the estimation of onlookers, we can use the occasion to reflect self-critically on our easy surrender to and indulgence in the propensity to thrill at the humiliation of another, especially when we can dress it up in a righteous cause such as ensuring everyone’s safety or valuing the equality of the sexes or being honest and respectful.

Let me give a mild but contemporary example of humiliation dressed up in the masquerade of righteous indignation. Some men harass and abuse women. This is a disgrace. In response, many women, frustrated at the seeming impotence of our public institutions and culture to confront the problem, have taken to the internet to out such creeps by exposing what they do and subjecting them in turn to the same embarrassment and shame these jerks induce in the women they harass and abuse. This becomes the highest expression of egalitarianism – namely, we can all be brought low. This displacement of one’s own sense of shame, however, does not confront the reality that these men engage in such behaviour because they have so little confidence and respect for themselves. Further, such efforts at retaliation do not work. The men do not change their behaviour. Even worse, the propensity of a culture to veer off course into a shaming society is enhanced at the cost of everyone having a higher sense of self-respect.

A man, who pretends he is a gentleman, suddenly makes an inappropriate comment to a female colleague or, even worse, touches her ever so gently on her ass. He thinks he is being smart and clever. She feels humiliated. If she has enough self-respect, she will confront that man in person and in private and not in the elevator where the offence may have taken place. If she is not to stoop to revenge and retaliation by engaging in a reciprocal war of tit for tat humiliation by not simply rebuffing the inappropriate advance right then in the elevator, but takes to the internet to let everyone of his colleagues, friends and relations know on Facebook how he behaved, all in the name of the honour of women, then we can understand how quickly a culture of humiliation can displace a culture of guilt. The latter requires due process and constantly trying to ensure respect for the one who should acknowledge his or her guilt. The former is wanting both in process and in the intended result.

Technology, the democratization of communications, has been accompanied by a serious outbreak of the virus of humiliation. While understandable, it must be fought and resisted. It indulges our lowest sense of ourselves rather than enhancing our self respect. It leads to tit for tat acts of revenge. He responds to his humiliation by calling her a cunt and joking that he was just engaging in a test and found her ass to be flabby and not firm. More seriously, he spreads the word among his colleagues that she is toxic and they should avoid hiring her or engaging with her professionally lest they be subject to the same reaction. The war of words, the game of revenge, is set in motion and everyone loses.

The internet has made it easy to out others, and to make such outing viral. The conditions for witch trials have gone beyond Salem to become global. Recourse to public shaming has once again become terribly easy. Through the internet, one can be instantly in touch with almost half of the world’s population. The internet allows us to live in a tiny village once again with the virtues of intimacy and mutual support, but the vices of back-biting and rumour mongering. In fact, there are now sites dedicated to facilitating the humiliation of others. The social media have become the global trading markets for the exchange of insults and introduced an unregulated bitcom, an uncontrolled currency for demolishing reputations.

When do we cross the line? If I leave a note on a travelling site that I found a restaurant offered poor food and even inadequate service, when does such criticism to offer guidance to others become an effort in public humiliation. The analogy is to a book or movie review. There is absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out failures and inadequacies in a public institution or an institution serving the public. Individuals, however, should not be subject to such public reviews. Directly confronting another with his or her failures is one thing. Publicly exposing those failures for collective rebuke and humiliation is another.

A fellow passenger on a subway may offer an offensive remark or even subversively touch another inappropriately. A young male may sprawl out his legs taking the room of four passengers, and even scratch his crotch in the process. If one can find out the individual’s identity – not difficult these days since a woman can easily trick him into giving her his cell phone number – she can then publish on line her opinion that his balls are not that big. In any case, they have been inflated by hot air so that they require two seats and the area of the subway floor where three people could stand. This retort may provide a release for the discomfort a fellow passenger experiences. But such publicity will not change the behaviour of the boor. Worse yet, it will lower the tone of public discourse and increase the scope and strength for a culture of humiliation and shame.

If you think I am exaggerating, there are specific sites for women to vent their rage and quest for revenge on men who insult and degrade women in public such as:  There is even a name for these tit-for-tat exchanges for the purposes of reciprocal humiliation – Asshole Whack-a-Mole. Of course, it only gets worse. So in addition to the internet providing a place for anonymity, discretion and respect for privacy as a dating service, it has also spawned the very reverse, an organized forum for public humiliation.

So what does this have to do with the treatment of Tim Hunt and Rachel Dolezal? They were outed and publicly humiliated for their alleged sexism and misrepresentation respectively. But what if there is little evidence for Tim Hunt being a sexist? What if he is just a poor incompetent stand-up comedian? And even if he were a rhetorical sexist, was the treatment he was accorded appropriate to his faults? Well, you may admit, perhaps the point about Tim Hunt’s exaggerated treatment may be valid. But surely I cannot deny that Rachel Dolezal lied or, at the very least, dissembled.

If a lie is an effort to deliberately mislead, note the following: Rachel never claimed to be African-American as far as I could learn. She claimed to be Black. She also insisted that she was not white, in full knowledge that others would interpret that, not as a cultural statement, and not as a denial of the validity and relevance of colour as a racial category, but as a pretence that she was not somatically white. She compounded the problem by questioning whether the two parents who raised her were her genetic parents. She even at one point seemed to suggest questioning whether they could be considered white. Yet I could find no journalist account that tried to explore why what on the surface appeared to be such outlandish claims, claims that could and were easily falsified, Rachel did it and what it meant. After all, her own identification as white just a few years earlier was easily learned.

I believe that the trading of insults on the lowest level of human discourse on and through the internet is but one end of a whole spectrum of the rise of a culture of public humiliation and the valorizing of shame. It is not as if the issue has been ignored. It has been discussed widely. Further, it has been documented not only by Ronson, for example, but by New York City photographer, Caroline Tompkins, in her series of photographs of men whom she confronted and then photographed. She revealed them to be defiant. They challenge Caroline rather than retreat in fear. They seem proud rather than ashamed of their contemptible behaviour. Some are smug and others become even lewder. See:

This seems to suggest that, at least in this case, shaming did not work. Those shamed certainly give no indication of any guilt or remorse. Do they feel ashamed inside? Is their sense of themselves reduced? Instead of their self-definition as boors and bullies being questioned, the shaming seems to have enhanced that aspect of their character. Rather than looking downward or away, they stare right back at Caroline.

When you are ashamed, your own sense of self suffers a hit. You metaphorically shrivel. You avoid effects and corresponding affects. On the one hand, shaming and humiliating may reinforce the status quo ante and even enhance bad behaviour. On the other hand, it may supposedly work, but work only by lowering the self-esteem and self-respect of the Other. In either case, the culture of shame is enhanced from either of these opposite results. And there is no learning or change in behaviour. The reason is simple. Shaming is not designed to alter behaviour by changing who we are. It is designed to perpetuate and enhance war –  war between the sexes, war between and among people of ostensibly different races or religions. Shaming attacks our beliefs about ourselves and about others. Though an act of shaming, another may let off steam, but it is decidedly ineffective in dampening the passions that lead to war.

Shaming, while it has some positive outcomes for the initial victim, ends up doing more harm than good in the long run by undermining self-criticism, the rule of law, due process until determined guilty, and, most of all, a respect for and appeal to the best in an Other rather than reinforcing the disrespect and low opinion the Other has of himself. But the problem that sticks most in my craw is when, in the same confidence one engages in shaming of louts, one brings down the high and mighty when they happen to err in inadvertent ways.

To the degree shaming works at all, it relies on fear. If you do not act in conformity with the ideal the other imposes, the consequences will be horrific. There will, literally, be hell to pay. If you do not experience hell, you will at the very least suffer in purgatory. And if you stand face-to-face with the Other who is part of the system of shaming and humiliation, you are in a losing game. If you insist that you are being persecuted unfairly, you appear to be full of self-pity. If you confront the Other, you appear belligerent. If you try to explain yourself, you come across as a bumbler and dissembler, for the interviewer frames the questions. It is impossible in such a situation for an individual on the defence to get outside the frame in which the shamee has been placed. It is a catch-22. There is no way of getting through to the other except by following the model set by the biblical Tamar –  refuse, adamantly refuse, to get into the same game. Do not try to shame the other by revealing the lack of compassion for an Other, by revealing the lack of self-reflection by the Other, by trying to obtain recognition of the lack of comprehension in the other. It is a mug’s game and the shamee is always the mug. Whatever course you take to deal with the matter directly will turn you into a loser.

However, it is not enough to be driven by fear and face the inevitable prospect of being cast as the loser if you engage in the shaming game, even by taking up a defensive posture, for there is no right of self-defense in the shaming game as opposed to the guilt game. But what if you humble yourself before the Other, offer an apology and a mea culpa? It does not matter whether it is the Inquisition or a Salem witch trial, a communist re-education camp or a show trial, do not expect justice. The system of shaming will only be reinforced and your responsibility for the public hysteria will be confirmed by your confession.

Given that a shame system is built on a foundation of fear, given that it is a closed system in which the shamee cannot win but must always emerge as a loser, given that confession only confirms guilt rather than rendering a guilty verdict only after your voice has been heard, there is no escape for the shamee without others confronting those who would paint scarlet letters, those who would reduce the shamee to a shattered and shaking mass of nervous tendrils, those who would deny due process.

The reason is simple. Shaming is not based on a rational system, but on a hysterical one. It depends upon hyperbole and disproportion. It lacks both a system of justice and an aim at arriving at a just outcome. Justice is its enemy rather than its ally. For a just system and a just outcome always depends on granting respect to and assuming the responsibility of the accused. A shame system depends on reinforcing an individual’s insecurity and lack of respect for him or herself.

Shame and Humiliation Part II of V: Veritas, Prometheus, Mendacius and Humiliation

Shame and Humiliation

Part II of V: Veritas, Prometheus, Mendacius and Humiliation


Howard Adelman

The understanding of shame and humiliation is writ deep in our culture. I will illustrate this with a story from Aesop’s Fables. But before I do, I have first to remind everyone who Prometheus was because the fable begins with him. Prometheus was a Titan, the gods who first overthrew the primordial gods only to be overthrown in turn by the Olympian gods. Prometheus was a second generation lesser god, the god of forethought and crafty counsel, a traitor to his side in providing aid to Zeus to help the Olympians overthrow his fellow Titans led by Cronos. He was also a potter.

In Genesis in the Torah, there are two different stories of how man came into being, first by naming. God said and there was. The second was by God moulding the man’s material form from clay. In ancient Greek mythology, that task was assigned to a lesser god, Prometheus. In Genesis, Cain and Abel rival over who should be recognized for making the best sacrifice – the best of a farmer’s versus a hunter’s (or cowboy’s) labours. In Greece, the story takes place in a different direction. For instead of taking the best that you have laboured to bring forth and sacrificing that to God, Prometheus tricks the gods, more particularly Zeus, in the switcheroo at Mecone and ensures that the best and most nourishing part of a sacrificed bull will be reserved for the celebration of human men; he left only the inedible parts, the bones and organs, to be sacrificed to the Olympians. Second, when Zeus, to prevent Prometheus from taking the last necessary step in that sacrifice, withheld fire from him, Prometheus stole a fire bolt, hid it in a fennel stalk and gave it to man. Prometheus was the first humanist.

In revenge for both these acts of rebellion, Zeus created Pandora, the first woman. In Genesis, Eve has a twofold history, created by God in the same way Adam was and, secondly, by taking one side of Adam and forming a woman. In the Greek mythological tradition, Pandora was created specifically to bring mischief to men. Instead of the snake being the trickster, as in the bible, in Aesop’s fable that was directly Pandora’s function. In the Hebrew tradition, that element of Greek mythology was imported into the interpretation of the Biblical tale of human creation. Pandora has been projected onto Eve’s character ever since the two traditions came into contact.

For his double-crossing the gods, humans are not thrown out of the Garden of Innocence called Eden. Rather Prometheus was punished, not by having, like Sisyphus, to roll a great rock up a mountain, only to have it roll down just before it reached the top so that the next day he had to roll it up again. Instead, an eagle was assigned to pick out the eye and/or the heart of Prometheus (after all, he had shown too much compassion for human men), and/or the liver, thought to be the source of bile. As soon as that part was eaten, it grew back so the process was repeated day after day. Prometheus was punished for his foresight – it was taken away. Prometheus was punished for his compassion – it was converted into self-pity at his own suffering. Prometheus was punished for his rebellious spirit against the Olympian gods.

Aesop tells a subsidiary tale. One day, Prometheus decided to sculpt a mirror image of Veritas, the daughter of Zeus and the embodiment of honesty. When Zeus summoned Prometheus to appear before him, perhaps to explain what tricks he was up to, Dolos (Dolus), his assistant, was left behind. Dolos’ chief characteristic was to be a trickster, a master of deception and craftiness, treachery and guile that was even superior to that of his master, Prometheus. Dolos had been fired up by his master’s ambition and decided to fashion a replica of Veritas on his own. The replica would be of the same size and weight and share the same features of Veritas so it would be impossible to tell the facsimile from the real thing. However, Dolos, though an exceptional copier, was not as experienced as Prometheus in his preparations. He ran out of clay before he could complete his copy. Prometheus, when he returned, was delighted at the result, praised Dolos and did not notice that the copy of the original lacked the feet of clay of the original. He infused the copy with a love of honesty to ensure it was a precise copy in spirit as well as in the flesh and placed the sculpture into his kiln.

When the fixing of the clay was completed, while Veritas as the model could walk away on her own two feet, the imitation was frozen on the spot. That forgery, which lacked feet of clay, was named Mendacius, from which we have inherited the word, mendacity, the characteristic of being, not only a liar, but being a born liar. A liar has no feet and cannot travel. A liar becomes fixed in and by his or her own lies. However, as a faithful copy of the original, Mendacius always claims to uphold honesty as the highest principle.

Philosophers serve truth; they understand they are not and never will be masters as they try to perform their duties as the cleaning staff of the intellectual life. Many journalists, perhaps most, pursue honesty and claim it is the truth. They are heirs to Hermes (Mercury in the Roman pantheon), a son of Zeus, and see themselves as belonging to the Olympian gods. But, mistakenly, many and perhaps most follow the facsimile of truth, Mendacius, the immobilized image of Veritas. They fail to recognize that truth is established by subjecting one’s own presuppositions to self-criticism and not recognizing that the truth is never ensured by honesty. For them, truth is ensured by following rules, by recognizing the sacredness of boundaries and not by questioning those rules and boundaries.

On the other hand, they are populist democrats of the human spirit, for those boundaries are universal and apply to rich men as well as thieves, to the rulers as well as the ruled. Thus, they do not recognize that, in the name of honesty as a facsimile of the truth, in the name of universality, their underlying and unconscious goal in life is to prove that all are bound by these rules. Secretly, their greatest achievement will be to prove, that, like themselves, those who are great achievers also have “feet of clay”, which means they lack feet and are stuck and mired in the hidden drives in their own lives. The exposure may be accurate. At other times, it is simply a revelation of the journalist’s own inadequacies projected onto the target and done without the effort or even the ability to see and grasp that the result is more a product of their own projections than the alleged failings of the object of their mischief.

Humiliation, instead of attending to a specific wrong, deflects attention from that fault to attend to an allegedly greater one, an offence against an abstract and universal principle. By abstracting and deflecting, the public and, more importantly, Rachel herself, is distracted from the need to experience guilt. The process, instead, drives shame into even deeper recesses in the soul. And the shaming allows the multitude to coalesce and feel good about themselves at Rachel’s expense. Most importantly, shaming prevents us from expunging our sense of shame within and inhibits us from striving and standing on the stage to express our own self-worth. Who would want to take the risk and be subjected to so much scorn and humiliation? As Brené Brown so richly characterizes the difference between shame and guilt: “Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” Blaming someone tells the other that he or she did something wrong; shaming someone tells you that the other is bad.

When I transferred in my last year of high school from Harbord Collegiate to Bathurst Heights, portraying that you loved learning in that new school was grounds for shaming. The standard was that it was alright to get top marks, but you also had to show that you did so without cracking a sweat. Shame is a straight jacket that prevents the highest achievement. If you shame another, you cannot feel empathy. And compassion for another is the best antidote to the toxicity of shame.

In Russia, gays and lesbians are persecuted both by the law and by vigilante action to out gays, humiliate them and get them fired. Last night on Pride Weekend around the world on CBC’s The Passionate Eye, I watched the documentary “Hunted in Russia.” In excellent journalism, the film portrayed how vigilantes systematically outed gays, beat and persecuted them, exposed their faces and got them fired on the Catch-22 that the pictures of their victims had appeared in the press as gays and, thus, they were guilty of promoting homosexuality which was against the law. When the persecutors were ever prosecuted for assault, they were mostly able to get off through lawyers’ tricks, widespread support in society and the complicity of the law. On the other hand, if a gay or lesbian protested the infringement of his or her rights, they never could get a permit, and, if they protested in the name of being gay, they were prosecuted under the law for promoting homosexuality. Even without mentioning homosexuality, if two gathered in one place, one to hand out leaflets and the other to carry a sign, even if they insisted they were not together, they were harassed, arrested and prosecuted for launching an illegal protest, for there were two of them together protesting and they lacked a permit.

Shame is a virus and easily detectable because in any age, but particularly in our electronic age, it triumphs when it now goes viral. Vigilantes in Russia use the internet to persecute gays. When going viral is held in such high esteem, a culture of shame expands and grows like a cancer in the body politic.

Tony Judt made cancers on the body politic his intellectual obsession. (I have already published a long essay on Tony Judt focused on his anti-Zionism of which these few comments formed a small part.) But he was driven by a fear of humiliation and that was how the last two years of his life ended. As his wife, Jennifer Homans, described it, “The more he retreated the more public he became. His private life at home and with friends was his greatest comfort but it was also deeply sad: he couldn’t be the things he wanted to be and he was haunted and humiliated by his ‘old’ self—what he called ‘the old Tony,’ who was lost to him forever.” He declared, “whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise.” He insisted he would and did not feel shame. But he feared, and suffered, humiliation. Why?

One theme, repeatedly mentioned, but not highlighted in his last book Thinking the Twentieth Century, written when he was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), is perhaps the most revealing. Judt described his father “as a frustrated man: trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing work which bored and perhaps even humiliated him.” Humiliation is that theme. His mother too suffered from shame. “Mother was discreet to the point of embarrassment about her Jewishness versus the overtly foreign and Yiddish quality of most of the rest of his extended family.” When his father drove their Citroën to visit relatives in a poor area of London, Tony Judt “wanted to disappear down the nearest manhole” because of “the envious attention his new car was attracting.” When he lived on the kibbutz in Israel, he recognized that its functioning was based on the “successful deployment of physical intimidation and moral humiliation.” Not our usual association with kibbutzim, but an incisive comment true of most tribal and collectivist societies, whether a small town or an imperial Soviet Union or Russia.

When Judt became a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, and had some authority, the student cohort who now attended these elite colleges came, not from the aristocracy and private schools, but from excellent state schools. Once they were discovered by one of the “bedders” (women from town who served as surrogate mothers to the young boys and girls, for King’s had become co-ed by that time) cavorting on college grounds nude.

The “bedder” was humiliated and felt ashamed. Three factors explained her reaction: the presence of girls; when she came upon them, they made no effort to dissimulate or even cover up; worst of all, they laughed at her discomfort. In short, they had broken the rules of engagement between herself as a working class woman in the midst of a society of privilege in the name of populist egalitarianism. She felt humiliated.

As Judt explained the situation, previous cohorts of students, though often repugnant snobs and sods brought up in privilege, recognized her station and respected her class and its values. They knew better than to treat a servant as an equal sharing their values. Those gentlemen “would have apologized, expressed their regret in the form of a gift and offered an affectionate, remorseful embrace.” Treating the “bedder” as an equal had “as much as anything hurt her feelings.” She had lost a claim on their forbearance and respect: her role had been reduced to mere employment rather than being a surrogate mother. The new rich bourgeois class shared none of the sensibilities of those who practiced the better side of noblesse oblige, but shared the same ignorant principle amongst themselves: “all human relations are best reduced to rational calculations of self-interest.”

The bourgeoisie, the Olympian gods of modernity who had overthrown the aristocratic Titans, were true believers in the reduced and impoverished capitalist vision: “the ideal of monadic productive units maximizing private advantage and indifferent to community or convention.” They have no “understanding of social intercourse, the unwritten rules that sustain it, and the a priori interpersonal ethics on which it rests.” They spouted and said that they revered Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, probably not having read it, but certainly not having read his volume, A Theory of Moral Sentiments. They acted as if all humans were driven, at bottom, by self-interest. If they became journalists and messengers of the greater gods, their perpetual mission was to demonstrate the validity of that Truth.

Why was humiliation and shame the most evident by-product of this indifference to and failure to recognize class differences? Respect and recognition are the proper antidotes to class differences and economic conditions. And it works both ways. One must show the greatest respect to those who do not share our privileges, no matter what your level or lifestyle. But one must also show the greatest respect to those who have earned it, whether in their intellectual or social productivity. Bringing them low when they slip up is not showing respect. Humiliating them in total disproportion to any error they have committed is merely an effort to displace lack of respect for ourselves in the terrible guise of righteousness and honesty.

All this merely explicates that shame and humiliation were crucial themes for Judt. These extracts do not explain why humiliation was so important so that these two themes became a window through which he experienced the world.

Tony Judt only hints at all the humiliations he suffered on growing up. When he was an established academic in London and went in to launch a complaint about mistreatment of a Czech acquaintance by the authorities, he learned that he was totally ignorant of the circumstances and problematics of the case. He was offended and embarrassed “to be thought both unimportant and uniformed.” And, of course, his humiliation at needing help all the time to do almost everything during his last two years of an immobilized life must have been the pinnacle of humiliation for him. But then why was humiliation so central to Judt’s historical experience?

Because, in the end, Tony Judt was himself a journalist and not a philosopher, a messenger of the gods, but one sent out and about to ensure the gods came to recognize they were only mortal.  In 2010, Maggie Smith published a book, Asylum, migration and community which probes the experience refugees feel when they exit a country and then the double humiliation they experience in their country of asylum. Their loss of status is more embarrassing than anything else they experience, especially if they come from middle class roots. Humiliation is almost always about failure of recognition. And journalists are the group most sensitive to this failure to recognize their role as Hermes to Zeus, as messengers of the Olympian gods.

Tony Judt was a famous scholar, but before that government bureaucrat he appeared to be an ignorant dolt. Tony’s father was an informed and articulate reader, thinker and believer, but he worked in a hairdressing parlour. Tony’s mother was a died-in-the-wool English woman ashamed of her Jewishness and the European accents of her social circle. After all, her friends were “greenies.” Tony was embarrassed and humiliated at the kibbutz because they saw him as just a grunt when he really was a very successful student who had achieved entry into one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Britain. The kibbutzniks had no appreciation of that accomplishment. Judt just generalized on that ignorance and branded them provincial for not recognizing his achievements. And the “bedder” at Cambridge was embarrassed and humiliated, not simply because the students did not recognize the class to which she belonged and the rules of discourse long established in dealing with class relations, for all rules had to be universal and not conventional. These children of the nouveau riche did not see her as an independent Other with sensibilities and responsibilities. The previous privileged classes at least had the decency to give her the semblance of respect and recognition.

The humiliator generally is indifferent or has contempt for the position or the person of the Other, whether a thief or a rich man, whether an ordinary citizen or a great ruler. For journalists are those most attuned to humiliation. They suffer its pains and pangs every day of their lives. One who is humiliated is not only embarrassed, but can develop a repressed anger and urge to retaliate for that non-recognition, an attitude exemplified by Cain when God recognized Abel and not him. The humiliatee wants the injustice corrected and can become a demon in the pursuit of his or her version of social justice. At the extreme, humiliation, revenge and the desire for social justice can be found to be a pervasive theme in the actions of mass killers at schools and at places of work. (Cf. Charles B. Strozier, David M. Terman and James Jones (eds.) with Katherine A. Boyd, The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History.) Journalists are the mass murderers of reputations.

Since Ruth Benedict in the year of Tony Judt’s birth characterized Japan as a shame culture and America as a guilt culture, and since then others have characterized Jewish culture as a guilt culture par excellence, and still others have built on and revised and improved on that distinction so that one broad consensus emerged. Shame cultures grant low cultural value to the individual. Shame can then be used as an effective tool of social guidance. Guilt cultures grant low cultural value to the community and guilt must be instilled within each individual to ensure a degree of social conformity to social norms. Why then was shame so preeminent in Judt’s psyche?

No culture relies solely on shame or guilt. Cultures use an admixture of both. A high degree of one versus the other allows one to characterize a culture as predominantly a shame or, alternatively, a guilt culture. But a culture can have high value placed on both individualism and community. This was true of the Jewish culture of the biblical period and contributes to its “schizophrenic” frenzy until today. It was both a shame and a guilt culture. Tony Judt was driven by a search for community in Zionism, in the kibbutz, in Cambridge University college life and in his intellectual devotion to social justice. In his behaviour and in his intellectual pursuits and writings, he was the consummate individual with an original voice. But in the value given to social order, a shared community was a prerequisite to enjoyment of public life. Guilt is expressed greatest if an individual like Tony Judt fails to grant adequate credit, recognition and acknowledgement to an Other. But shame becomes the main descriptor when social norms rather than individual achievements fail to be recognized. Tony Judt had very little sense of guilt, but was enormously sensitive to humiliation.

So Judt became the scourge of Zionism as the greatest expression of a guilt culture in today’s world. (I will deal with this theme separately in a discussion of the UN Human Rights Report on the Gaza War and the Israeli response.) He became, not an English, but an American Jew determined to turn the tables and humiliate both America and Israel as he also expunged any personal shame and became the widely admired brilliant writer, historian and critic. As an equal opportunity provider, he even had time to distribute the product of his poison pen on the English, the French and others. Only the Czechs get off, and that is because they were the vehicle for his rebirth and rejuvenation. The despiser of identity politics becomes its exemplar when applied to nations.

So why is shame such a vice and shaming others and humiliating them even worse? Because shamers undermine self-respect and respect for another. Shame can overwhelm you and shaming can drown you in a tsunami totally out of control. Enhancing anyone’s susceptibility to shame is not a good deed. Overwhelming someone with a cascade of shaming in an uncontrollable storm of public humiliation is definitely a bad thing. It is a virtue to stand before oneself and before others and be without shame. It is a vice and betrayal of oneself to allow oneself to be drowned in humiliation.

When someone’s actions bring disgrace and ignominy on themselves, they must face their guilt and be subjected to the condemnation of the law and or the moral code of a society applied to the specific offence, not a general abstract principle. Offending a specific law or lying in a specific situation, does not require shaming. Quite the reverse. Shaming inhibits anyone from coming face to face with one’s guilt, for facing one’s guilt requires enhancing one’s self-respect. A person should not be forced or induced to do something because he or she feels ashamed. If you feel afraid and cowardly, the answer is not feeling deep shame or having shame heaped upon you. The answer is getting in touch with the source of your courage. This is not achieved through a torrent of reproach.

It takes a great deal of effort to enhance and build up a culture of guilt. However, firestorms and tsunamis of humiliation can wreck havoc in a very short time, not just to the victim of shaming, but to the whole culture. We are all brought low by an expression of such self-indulgence. It is one thing to win. It is quite another to shame, mortify and humiliate those who do not, but especially those who do succeed but then reveal a fatal flaw. Putting others to shame is not the object of a contest. Encouragement of the highest achievements of all the players is.

If someone esteems shame, embarrassment, mortification and humiliation of another, if one takes secret pleasure in inducing a feeling of self-hatred and the pain that goes along with it, then one is causing harm and injury to the spirit of what it is to be human. Infliction of pain on another goes much deeper than a stab or a bullet wound. Because it plants a seed of self-contempt, a drop of poison that can expand and consume another’s soul.

It is easy to confuse an effort to make another face his or her guilt with subjecting another to humiliation. But the best clue that I know of in discriminating between the two is proportion. When the condemnation is totally disproportionate to any offence that might have been committed, then what we have is an exercise in witch hunting and not a moral or legal trial. If one is caught making a sexist comment or what appears to be a poor joke, the proportionate response is to check whether sexism lay behind the comment. If it does, then the person should be told directly and in person your response. If, however, one’s instigation sends a tidal way of condemnation and stripping of another from all honours and respect, and without checking whether there even was any behaviour to back up the charge that the man was a sexist, then it is clear that it is society that is disgracing itself and not the individual.

If a person is ostensibly caught telling a lie or deliberately misleading another, it is incumbent upon us first to check that it is really a lie deliberately intended to deceive, or whether the inability to be totally open stems from another source. And we do well if we ensure that we ourselves are not dissembling by dressing up our pursuit of humiliation in the name of a righteous cause like honesty, transparency and a respect for those who raised you.

Tomorrow: Part III of V – The Spectrum of Humiliation

Shame and Humiliation: Part I of V: Shaming and Shame

Shame and Humiliation

Part I of V: Shaming and Shame


Howard Adelman

Is shame a virtue or a vice?

Shame is what you do to yourself. Humiliation is what one person does to another. You humiliate your neighbour when you try to shame him or her. Trying to put a neighbour to shame is one ineffective way of trying to get rid of the shame you feel in yourself. Whether expressed inwards towards oneself or displaced outwards onto another, as the ancient Jewish sages wrote, “Better a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”

Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and got her father-in-law, Judah, to sleep with her so she could conceive. However, even though Judah had broken his promise to provide his other son as a husband for Tamar so she could have a child, even though he publicly denounced her as a prostitute when it became obvious that she was pregnant, Tamar refused to humiliate her father-in-law and the biological father of the foetus she carried in her womb. She revealed the truth only in private to him and not only informed him that he was the father of the child, but gave him clear proof. He decided on his own to acknowledge his guilt in not fulfilling his promise to Tamar and took responsibility as the father.

The story of Joseph, the favourite son of Jacob, and the coat-of-many-colours his father gave him, is also a tale of a refusal by Joseph to shame his brothers before their father. His brothers had pretended that wild animals had killed Joseph when they had sold him into slavery. When, many years later, his brothers, during a drought and famine, traveled down to Egypt for provisions, Joseph had risen to the highest position in the land next to the king. However, he kept his identity secret and made his brothers go back and bring his father. Joseph then revealed himself to them, but adamantly refused to humiliate his brothers by telling his father what happened. He lied. Joseph had not told his father earlier even to relieve the pain at the loss of his favourite son lest Jacob take out his wrath on his brothers. Joseph always made his concern for his brothers’ dignity as human beings primary. He fabricated a story to spare his brothers ignominy, humiliation and the wrath of their father.

If it is wrong to humiliate another and shame him or her in public, is it wrong to feel shame oneself? Carl Jung called shame the swampland of the soul. Steve McQueen recognized this when he directed and co-wrote the part of a sex addict played by Michael Fassbender in the movie, Shame. As it happened, when Shame was given its public release, Fassbender appeared in another movie released at the same time; he played Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method. It is 1904 and Carl Jung is treating a new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), with Sigmund Freud’s new talking cure. Shame was also a theme in that movie for Jung diagnosed his patient as being obsessed with sexual humiliation, in her case, brought on by the abuse of her father.

In the film, Shame, Fassbender stands before the audience in full frontal nudity. What a contrast to being em-barr-assed! In fact, the movie is about the main character, Brandon, who insatiably pursued sex. Sex was not on display in such detail for titillation, but to allow the audience to get inside Brandon’s head and learn to understand a man running away from himself and escaping his deep sense of loneliness through sex. Standing nude before us, not with Fassbender’s usual macho body, we view Brandon as an addict who fuels his addiction with junk food while watching porn and masturbating.

Shame is the product of our loss of self-esteem, our increasing self-doubt and insecurity. When we feel shame, we have set aside any consideration of our self-worth. Shame feeds on self-loathing. That self-loathing, in turn, forms a vicious circle to propel us into behaviour that increases our contempt for ourselves even further. Shame is indeed a “soul-eating emotion” in Jung’s terms. I knew a mother of a grown daughter who obsessively shamed her offspring in public. The mother would directly tell her daughter, “Why can’t you do it as beautifully as ….N?” She asked her daughter rhetorically, “Why can’t your child be as smart as G?” That mother fed on humiliating her closest offspring, yet her daughter had learned to turn the tables and prevent shame from swamping her life and, most importantly, disrespecting herself and showing disrespect to her own mother. The daughter was still never perfect enough, still had to be everywhere exactly on time, still had to perform always at the highest standard. But she did not allow the shame to eat away at her soul as if it were the spiritual equivalent of a flesh-eating disease.

Shame is allowing your self-worth to be determined by how you appear to others. Ironically, shame, so tied with exposure, hides in the deepest recesses of your being, subverting your self-worth in the most devious ways. Fed by self-doubt and a low opinion of oneself, shame is not determined by who you are or what you do, but by the phantom of who you are supposed to be.

Why then is shame defined as a painful feeling that arises from a consciousness of dishonourable or improper behaviour towards another? It is because we project shame onto another and believe it is the other who behaved dishonourably? Tim was a sexist. Rachel was a dissembler, if not a liar, who, to compound her problems, showed no proper respect towards her parents. He or she should feel pain, we insist. He or she should be conscious of his or her misbehaviour. But it is we who cast stones who must become self-conscious of our behaviour. Tim Hunt did not feel that he was disgraceful. But he was disgraced. Rachel Dolenzal pursued her quest to identify with and fight for the rights of Blacks with intelligence and energy. But she was subjected to public shaming as a dissembler and even a liar.

Deborah Blum is not only an American journalist and columnist for The New York Times, but also a Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for best reporting for her series entitled, “The Monkey Wars” on the ethical conflict between scientists who use animals in their experiments and animal rights activists opposed to this purported cruelty to animals. As a star science reporter, she gave a parallel lecture to Tim Hunt’s in South Korea at the Ninth World Conference of Science Journalists. She wrote about what happened to Tim in an article for The Daily Beast called “Sexist Scientist: I Was Just Being Honest,” the title of which quickly informed readers about her view of Tim Hunt as well as satirizing rather than explicating and understanding his own account.

Both speakers had given their lectures. At the luncheon afterwards, they were each asked to add a few informal comments. Deborah talked about the way women make science smarter. Tim gave a tribute to women’s contribution to science. He then went astray to talk about his troubles with girls in the lab (supposedly humorously, and suggested perhaps structuring labs on the apartheid principle).

Deborah Blum’s nerves had already been set on edge when Tim referred to female scientists as “girls.” When he made his infamous remarks which I wrote about, Blum, along with two other science journalists, were appalled.  They tweeted simply to put what they had seen and heard on record, and the story went viral. Tim later protested that he had been “hung out to dry” and that he had only been joking, but to no avail. He insisted that no one had called him to ask him to explain what he meant. Blum took umbrage at that for she declared that she had made a point of asking Tim for that very explanation. In that explanation, Tim had evidently said that, “he was only trying to be honest.” But Blum never reports on what that explanation was. She presumes the remark was just a revelation of Tim Hunt’s sexism, though she quotes from his apology to the Korean female scientists and journalists. Most serious of all, in contrast to her award-winning series on the war between lab scientists and animal rights activists, she never even attempts to explore the war of righteous journalists battling for the purity of principle in a number of different fields and the sacrifice of individual human lives and reputations in that crusade.

Hunt had written that he regretted his “stupid and ill-judged remarks.” He added: “I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.” Blum acknowledges that this indicated that the event was not entirely an “ill wind,” but not because Hunt’s remarks were not an ill wind, but because Hunt was forced to retreat and retract his sexist remarks – without ever determining whether those remarks were intended to convey a sexist worldview. Blum never tries to reconcile the remark, Tim Hunt’s apology and his behavioural record as a scientist and collaborator with women or to explore why he would offer such a tasteless joke. Instead, Blum went in another direction. She challenged characterizing the firestorm that followed as a “witch-hunt” and, instead, insisted that, although she sympathized with anyone caught is such a media storm, “if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones.  Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.”

But that is precisely the nature of a witch-hunt. The individual hunted down and quartered does not count. What counts is the principle. And if Tim Hunt had to be sacrificed on the altar of pure principle, so be it. Further, it was not even worth investigating whether there was any empirical evidence to support her assumption that Hunt was a sexist. That was just a given. The remark was made. He said that he was trying to be honest. Case closed. And that has been the problem with most of the journalism coverage of both Tim Hunt and Rachel Dolezal. The frame determines what the facts are. Disputes over interpretations of so-called facts are set aside and certainly never traced to different frames of interpretation. Nor is her own role in igniting the firestorm critically investigated. After all, Deborah was just tweeting for the record. She had not intended to bring Hunt down. But when the corpse of his reputation lay in tatters, that was just the cost of upholding a principle. Quite aside from never investigating whether such pain was proportionate to the alleged offence, Blum never asks whether her offence might have been far worse than Tim Hunt’s. He apologized. She remained self-righteous.

However, shaming another begins with being made to feel ashamed of oneself. How do we combat shame that somehow has been instilled in us? By self-love. By self-respect. By attending to our actual performance rather than our inadequacies and all the ways we fall short. Shame is a cancer that can only be held at bay by subjecting it to laughter and derision, by forcing it into the light where it has a great deal of trouble thriving. For shame belongs in the shadowland of the soul. It is a saboteur, a terrorist of our spiritual health. It sends the message that we are unworthy and unloved, indeed, unlovable. Shame corrodes. Shame corrupts. Shame paralyzes and induces impotence.

That is why it is wrong to try to hang a scarlet letter of shame on another. If feeling shameful is a process of sickening oneself with the thought of oneself, shaming is often the effort to project that state of being onto another because of what one believes deep down about oneself. To project shame on another is to attempt to relieve oneself of that feeling no matter how we rationalize it. Why do we try to get rid of the feeling by ejecting it onto another? Because we feel deep down that we are not good enough and so try to bring down someone who appears too good, too active in the battle against privilege. Rachel Dolezal is a case in point.

And she was vulnerable. She did not show proper respect for her parents, whether they were her biological forbears or not. She somehow seemed ashamed of them. She stumbled when she tried to articulate who she was and who she was trying to become because she lacked an adequate intellectual framework to articulate her own aspirations within a more universal context. However, as I will later try to show, no matter what she had done, once caught up in a system of shame, there is no escape and no method of throwing off the shame. For it is akin to a Haitian curse, to having an effigy of oneself struck through with a long needle. The pain is excruciating and cannot be avoided. Further, the process, once accepted and dominant in a culture, gives official permission to allow others to portray the shamee, in this case, Rachel, as a dissembler, as someone who deliberately wore a disguise, because there was a grain of truth in it. The world is invited to join the exercise of shoving in pins. But the real truth was that Rachel courageously took on her own self-definition of who she was, and, further, stood up to the abuse and name-calling.

Tim Hunt, in contrast, when he cracked a stupid dumb joke and it backfired, fled the field when the abuse and put-downs poured in. He offered a clearly sincere and heart-felt apology, that, as can be expected when one understands witch hunts, was either ignored or misinterpreted and used against him. But he never joined the media circus. A Nobel Prize winner had been brought low. The institutions that are there to protect intellectuals from their deepest vulnerabilities because they venture to work on the frontiers of ideas, suddenly turned tail and allowed the lions to maul and scratch and bite their own offspring to deflect the public rage against themselves. Tim Hunt could be the most courageous of individuals in pursuing the frontiers of knowledge in a field where he had enormous expertise, but when he inadvertently left his comfort zone, and failed to perform up to scruff, the lions were waiting. Released into the arena of public opinion, Tim Hunt never had a chance. The feeling of inner doubt that he had worked his whole life to overcome through superb performance to insist that he was good enough rather than never being good enough, now escalated into a different domain altogether. “Who do you think you are?” Not satisfied with watching a highly respected man being drawn and quartered, the watchers and gazers, those who cried for more blood, tramped on the torn and shredded body to demonstrate their own disgust with themselves.

Do not get me wrong. Those engaged in humiliating another never experienced their sadistic behaviour, their efforts to humiliate, their desire to bring an esteemed person down, as an engagement in public humiliation. No. They were serving a higher purpose – fighting against sexism or combating a failure at transparency. Like the Puritan witch hunters of old, they were serving a higher calling. “This is who we are!” they shouted from their fountainheads in the media. “Now see where you are.”

But what about Jian Ghomeshi, Evan Solomon and Senator Mike Duffy when they failed in what they actually did, when their hidden selves – their sadism, poor judgement or greed – were exposed to the public glare? Should they not feel shame? Should they not be humiliated and disgraced?  Perhaps the media firestorm was far out of proportion to the slip-up of Rachel Dolezal and even more so of Tim Hunt, but surely those other three should be made to face the guilt for what they did.

Facing guilt and shaming are two radically different enterprises. Ensuring that they face what they did wrong does not require humiliating them. If they erred legally, it is for the courts to judge. If they failed ethically, society will hold them to account and convey what is unacceptable behaviour. There is no necessity to heap on humiliation. They may or may not feel shame. But we fail if we try to transfer our own sense of low worth onto any of them. Humiliating another is unacceptable, not simply or mostly about what is done to them, but about what we are doing to ourselves.

A shaming society is a society of witch hunts and public flogging. It is not a society that tries to raise the level of self-worth of everyone. A society of shaming is a society that says we all have equal value when that can only be done by bringing many of those with great value into the common trough. If they misbehave, they must be found guilty in the eyes of the law or in public valuation. They must be brought face-to-face with their guilt. But rubbing their noses in the trough of greed or a failure in transparency and recognition of what they did wrong, only enhances the difficulty they face in dealing with the truth about themselves. More importantly, it hides and displaces our failure to deal with the truth of who we are. They have done it to themselves by their behaviour. What those guilty of a crime or moral turpitude deserve from us is compassion and a sense of proportion. And it is the latter that is so sorely lacking when we engage in schadenfreude.

A society that respects guilt and allows and encourages confrontation with one’s guilt is a healthy society. A society which indulges itself in humiliation and shaming is a sick society. A communist system is a shame culture par excellence, a culture that undercuts any individual’s capacities to be allowed to feel guilty or grant recognition to another individual.

Shame is not the acknowledgement of guilt. Shaming is not the focus on what you did to harm another. Shame is not an effort to get someone to acknowledge that what was done was bad – though I will later discuss a hybrid that pretends and contends that it does precisely that. Shame is not assisting another to apologize sincerely and to take a punishment proportionate to their deeds. Shame is humiliating the other, is heaping scorn on another. And it is always done in the name, not of a specific legal or moral code, but in the name of a universal abstract principle – anti-sexism, honesty, Puritanism, communism.

Shaming someone because she did not show sufficient or proper respect for her parents is not an effort to allow Rachel to face her failure. For her failure is allegedly misrepresentation. The abandonment of respect for her parents was viewed as the core case of that failure, not the core of  failure in her altogether. For if she was alienated from her parents, that was simply an interpersonal problem between Rachel and her father and mother. But if she disowned her parents for the purpose of lying and dissembling before the public, then Rachel crossed a universal moral principle which we must all uphold –  honesty. And honesty is the demi-god before which all journalists must bow down in an uncritical idolatry.

That god was called Veritas, the goddess of honesty in the ancient Mediterranean world. I will not go into the difference between the parallel Athenian god, Athenaia, which offers a subtle explanation. Instead I will try to offer a mythological explanation of why representatives of the public media seem to take such much pleasure in revealing that a greatly admired or respected person has feet of clay. I will retell the tale about Veritas that can be found in Aesop’s Fables.

Tomorrow: Part II of V: Veritas, Prometheus, Mandacius and Humiliation

Rachel Dolezal and Racism Redux

Rachel Dolezal and Racism Redux


Howard Adelman

In response to my article on Rachel Dolezal and Racism, I received two important items in response. One by Cecil Foster is reprinted below and repeated as an attachment. The other goes to the heart of the issue of deception, the letter from the Executive Producer of KXLY News explaining their role in the affair. The letter of explanation can be found at:

Rather than clearing up the matter, the open letter indicates that the local media station approached the matter within two frames, that of somatic Blackness that I described, which is a matter of philosophical analysis and not just given facts, and suspicion that Rachel was dissembling about allegations of racial harassment. With regard to the first issue, the news outlet noted that, “we and other journalists heard rumblings that Dolezal was not being truthful about her race.” In other words, to be truthful is to publicly display that you are not genetically Black when your whole point and belief is that Blackness is NOT about race, but rather that race as a biological construct is a prime source of the problem. The issue for the news outlet was that the anonymous callers had no proof that Rachel was not biologically Black when a simple check of her records at Howard University would have established that she considered herself to be a genetically and biologically white woman when she had been a student and had not yet come to see that this way of categorizing the issue was part of the problem.

On the second matter of whether Rachel was lying or telling the truth to police about racial harassment complaints, the letter points to evidence that does not substantiate their suspicions, but that there was no proof of Rachel lying. So why is this part of the account except to provide additional ammunition on the main story line, that Rachel Dolezal was a dissembler.

On the first issue, the Executive Producer of News at the station wrote, “Humphrey [Jeff Humphrey, a senior reporter at the station] heard from a trusted source that there was more to Dolezal’s story. Specifically, that Dolezal had been lying about her race and misleading her employers, the city of Spokane, her students and the community.” In other words, the story focus became whether Rachel Dolezal was being open and honest about her race, even if she questioned the very framework of the question. It is clear that this News Media either did not wish to or was incapable of raising that issue about its own query.

That is when, so to speak, the “shit hit the fan.” “Humphrey reached out to her parents in Montana – on a phone number found through a simple search – and, they confirmed what the source had said: Dolezal is a white woman, born to white parents, with childhood photos and the birth certificate to prove it.” This simply confirmed that, contrary to the difficulty they claimed about ascertaining Rachel’s genetic roots, the answer could easily be found. What they did not do was ask why that was an important question and, even further, what was behind asking such a question. Then they might have confirmed that Rachel Dolezal believed that genetics was irrelevant to being Black and they could have written a much more interesting though more difficult to grasp story on that subject. The story that Rachel was simply a liar is far easier to convey. In my view and in my categories, if we are to reject the “one drop rule” and the premise of racism altogether, then depicting Rachel as a white woman is the source of the misrepresentation.

Now wait a minute, you might insist, are you saying she is not White? Yes. I am saying three things: 1) that she is certainly not White culturally; 2) she rejects being White as an aspiration; 3) the very premise of someone being genetically White is itself a fraud. It is the failure of the media outlet to question its own framework and premises that is far more important than whether Rachel Dolezal was trying either to disguise or to avoid the question of whether her parents were white.

Just read the triumphalist tone of the Executive Producer’s account of what took place. “As the world has now seen, Jeff confronted Dolezal and she stumbled, saying she didn’t ‘understand the question’ about whether or not she was black. She walked off the interview and we knew we had the next piece of our story.” How does one handle an interviewer who, stricken with mindblindness, refuses even to consider that his frame for asking his question may be misguided. Rachel was not and is not a philosopher, though she is very articulate. But she does stumble when trying to cut through the racial framing of one reporter after another. I am surprised, given how frustrating it must be for her, that she does not blow up and tell them how dogmatic and misguided they are. Instead, she retains her cool.

The Executive Producer then concluded, “At that point, it was shocking and confirmed our source’s information (and her parents’ information), but we needed to put it in context, prove why it mattered.” Did they ever establish why it was shocking, except to anyone steeply rooted in obsolete somatic racial stereotyping? No. Did the news station ever establish why it mattered, except to insist repeatedly that not openly owning up to one’s supposed genetic roots was deception. But what if you deeply believe that genetics is irrelevant to the issue? What if you get tired and frustrated that the reporters fail to open up to the fact that the way they ask the question is misguided and reinforces racism?

The account then goes on. “By the time we were ready to put Dolezal’s interview out to the world, Spokane Mayor David Condon issued a statement, saying the city was investigating Dolezal’s ethics in relation to the police oversight committee and we had a solid news hook.” Why was the news hook not an inquiry why Mayor Condon was investigating the issue in the first place? Had Rachel committed a crime? Was she even guilty of moral turpitude? She refused to engage in a discussion in terms of her identity based on racial stereotyping. I find that perfectly understandable, though it would not be a tactic I would personally choose.

“Our story – his interview – blew up. At once, this once-respected teacher, leader and advocate became a national punchline.” The fact that this Executive Producer was never able to conceive of a frame that rose above racial stereotyping is the real story. The fact that this was another case of using the media to create mass hysteria over something totally irrelevant to bring down someone whom the Executive Producer agrees was a respected teacher, leader and advocate, is the real story.

The mindblindness of KXLY News and most of the media coverage in the United States, including very highly regarded journalists, is the real story.

The account concludes as follows:

“So, why does it matter? Our community was misled. We trusted this voice to speak for those without a voice. We trusted her to teach our students. We stood by her when she said she and her family were targeted and afraid. We rallied alongside Dolezal and her family in front of city hall, with community members carrying signs of support. We’re a trusting community and she broke that trust.” But where did she break that trust? In her performance? In her refusal to accept the categories of racism fostered by the station’s own questions? And the fall out of the media failure is terrible, not only for Rachel, but for the community which will have learned little except to encourage people to be less trusting of what others say and not being able to ask questions about the presumptions behind their own questions. And it is very troubling for the role of journalists. “What did we, as journalists, learn from this? Trust your gut.In my interpretation, this means that you should surrender to the prejudices you carry with you in your mind and mental framework rather than learning how to analyze and question them. According to the Executive Producer, if you cannot trust your gut, you will never be able “to put news in context for the people you serve.”

That erroneous conviction is the story, and the Executive Producer missed it.

Now for Cecil Foster’s Response to My Essay on Rachel Dolezal

He first note I received was very brief:

“Thanks for sharing this interesting piece.  It is (by far) the most illuminating thing I’ve read about this case. It deserves a WIDE readership.  Has it been loaded onto any of the customary social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn)?  I’d like to forward/tweet it if possible.”
Cecil then sent a much longer and even better take on the story than I provided as follows:

Dear Howard,

I think you are justified in holding fast to your views on Rachel Dolezal. You might not be in the majority—and neither am I even among some black friends and academic contemporaries—but you are reasoned and justified. Of course being in my company might not be much of a consolation.

The two main events of the past week that caught our attention in a big way—Rachel Dolezal and the Mother Emanuel Church massacre/terrorism—are cut from the same cloth. Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Roof make us confront the meaning of an identity like black and blackness and what it means in the modern world.

1) Rachel Dolezal came into the black community, got to know it well, indeed, intimately. She willingly became a daughter of the community through marriage and produced for the community—not mixed race, transracial, postracial, half white, half black—but two black sons. She took on the mannerisms of black culture, spoke the lingo and even put a kink in her hair—and as every man of any colour or ethnicity knows, you don’t mess with a black woman and her hair. She joined the cause of the black community for social justice and took on a leadership role, ultimately heading up a local chapter of NAACP. When she had a choice of identity, she always said I am black. She lived black at a time when even some who were supposedly born black and never had to worry about this ascription were moving away from blackness. She fully embraced blackness. Like a modern woman joining a family through marriage or a profession of love, Dolezal became one with the community, took its name/identity, and out of her own body produced the fruits that would carry on the name and identity—not of her former affiliates—but of her preferred community and family. Her past might have been with others, and over that she had no say, but her future was/is with the black community. She sought to give the black community life from generation to generation and in a world of social justice.

Dylann Roof came into the black community. He was welcomed, as relatives of the slaughtered testified, with opened arms. He entered the inner sanctuary of blackness in America: the black church, choosing one of the most historic in the nation. He sat with those poring over the finer points of the community’s most holy text. They exposed him to their thinking and reasoning. He was taken into the heart of the faith that supposedly is the bedrock of black culture. They invited him to stay and share and to learn—to know and understand liturgical things that even many authentic members of the black community do not know or have forgotten. He was allowed to drink deep from this inner well. He endured it for almost an hour. He was distilled in the faith that was instilled in him. He was being initiated. The experience was so good, for he was treated so well by everyone, that he almost changed his mind from completing his “mission.” My belief is that they would have even offered him an altar-call, or would have invited him to come again for further preparation, so that eventually, when such a call came, he would accept and in the twinkling of an eye be transformed into a full member of the black church and community. They were all so nice to him, he said. But he pulled out his gun and slaughtered nine of them, hoping this would be the beginning of a reign of death on blackness. He did not transform—he remained a somatically white man with mythologically the most deadly of weapons “a black heart—evil.” That is the story of one type of the “other” who comes among the people (the initiated) in any known human, and sometimes, animal form, but who is only Evil. Only the heart makes the Other different from the people. In every black community there are stories about black-hearted men. Check out August Wilson’s play Joe Turner Come and Gone and those who stole the black men of the community. Remember the founders of the first black republic in the Americas. Those Haitians said based on the purity of their heart and their good works that the Poles and Germans among them, though somatically white, were black because they fought for the revolution and freedom from slavery for all. They said all slave owners—and some were black— regardless of somatic colour, were white. Roof wanted death for the black community. He was blackhearted. In this case it is clear who is black and who is white here.

2) Let us shift to an ethno-racial register where we try to make sense of this identity issue based on “hard facts” of genes and nature and biology rather than mythology. Perhaps Dolezal is teaching her parents—and by extension much of white America as historians as early as Van Woodward told them—that they aren’t what they think they are. So Dolezal’s parents outed her: they claimed the ancestry they gave her is a mixture of various eastern European bloods with some Native American added in. We know that for a long time much of Eastern, and even parts of Western Europe, were ethnically and racially black. In an Anglo-Saxon dominant world, which was the early North American formation, all but Anglo-Saxon Protestants were black. Indeed, the Hungarians, Italians and Irish—as well as the wandering Jew of any complexion—only recently escaped into whiteness from being black. If the KKK, Skinheads and the likes of Roof were to have their way, some of them would be kicked right out of whiteness pronto. But the parents say more—that there is a commingling of Caucasian and Native American. So after they were brought into whiteness as Caucasians there was degeneration: the Native American. Which means that somewhere in Dolezal’s past there would have been a “Half-breed,” and by the one-drop rule of Modernity, all “half-breeds” were black and so black that, as the unnatural product of superior and inferior races, the product had to be for evermore of the inferior identity. The family could, genetically, never be white/Caucasian again. Not only are Rachel and her sons black by Modernity’s miscegenation rules, but so are her parents. But that would not surprise us since the southern historians have long told us that technically almost all (southern in particular) whites in the U.S. are really black genetically.

3) This leads to the question of who is “authentically” black. And for some time we have acknowledged that there is no objective proof or that authenticity truths are not self-evident. So we moved to the solution of self-identification. You are who you tell me you are as only you can know yourself genuinely and I take your word for it until proven otherwise. Authenticity is proven analogously. We are all innocent until proven guilty—the guilt coming from our actions to portray the black heart within; or our innocence is proven by our personality of producing actions that could only flow analogous from a pure heart. Dolezal says she is black. What is the evidence against her to prove otherwise: that she “deceptively” acted to further blackness acting as if she were black and that she was so good at it that she darn well fooled everyone for so long. Why analogously her action would make us believe that she is what she said she was!!! Go figure. Roof identified as a white racist intent on destroying black people. He had the opportunity to change and walk away: he chose to be authentic to his whiteness. His actions confirmed the person he self-identified as truly Dylann Roof. No doubt here—he said he was what his actions proved; she said she was what her actions proved.

Modern society treasures, and is organized around, the ideal of freedom, especially freedom of choice. Ultimately, we are who we choose to be. Choice is at the heart of self-determination and particularly progressive freedom. As a modern being I can choose not to die the person I was born. I can change, and change as many times as I want, while searching for the ideal me. A truly free modern man/woman is a self-made. As creatures of a culture of freedom Dolezal and Roof made choices; they made themselves: Dolezal’s to be black and kind hearted; Roof to be white and blackhearted.

Finally,  black/blackness are in the end mere identities—empty signifiers. We are constantly emptying out old content and putting in new. Gay no longer simply means happy, and neither does fairy, or slut have negative connotations. The transgendered are who they know they are in their head regardless of how they look, smell, taste or appear to us. Barack Hussein Obama, the child of white and black parents, might never be black enough because he never lived in the projects and did not live the deep social inequalities of that lifestyle; nobly in his ancestry, he never lived on the “real” plantation. But then for those saying Obama is not black enough, neither are West Indians, even though their ancestors were on the plantations, for they have English, French, Spanish and other European mannerisms that make them less than American. Modernity is constantly killing off the old signified and refilling with new to give new meaning, or to argue a perspective. So is the case of black/blackness.

To my reasoning Dolezal is black even if she is not African-American. But then again, someone like me is deemed unquestionably black even though I am not African-American. African-American is a totally different social construction from black and perhaps that is the problem here: that too many people are conflating the two terms and thereby mishearing Dolezal when she says she is black.

Cecil Foster, PhD

Professor and Interim Chair

Department of Transnational Studies

732 Clemens Hall

SUNY at Buffalo


New York 14260

United States

Tel: (716) 645-2082 & 716-645-0786

Fax: (716) 645-5976


Recent books:

Rachel Dolezal and Racism

Rachel Dolezal and Racism


Howard Adelman

One note of guidance. I capitalize Black and Blackness, White and Whiteness, when I am making a conceptual reference. When I refer to the term itself, or when I am quoting, I do not capitalize.

Categories carry moral, social and political weight. Black is one of them. When Cecil Foster was my PhD student, he wrote his thesis on Blackness. In 2004, he published, Where Race Does Not Matter: The New Spirit of Modernity (Penguin). In 2007, another instalment of the thesis was published, Blackness and Modernity: The Colour of Humanity and the Quest for Freedom (McGill-Queens University Press). Though I was his faculty supervisor, I learned far more from him about being Black and about racism than I ever knew.

Cecil’s thesis is straightforward. Black is and has been a construction to define Whiteness. While the term white has been associated with goodness and purity, the word black was not. Cases in point: the black arts or giving someone a black (angry) look, or being in a black mood or in someone’s black book (ostracized by that person), or saying that a person is the black sheep (a renegade) in the family, or referring to the black market, that is, the irregular and illegal trade in goods and services, or a black list as was used against artists and writers and film makers in the McCarthy era, or in the term “blackmail,” the effort to extract money through the use of threats. The word black is associated with the intemperate, the outsider, the renegade, illegal or irregular behaviour. In short, if Whiteness is associated with goodness and purity, Blackness is associated with the black witch and evil. Black is not beautiful in the English lexicon. Black i

The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a widespread challenge to these associations. Last week, the slaughter of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Black congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, is but one indication that, for too many, the word black continues to be associated with all that is bad. The Confederate flag still flies from the flagpole in front of the legislature in Columbia, South Carolina. Unlike American and state flags, the Confederate flag was not lowered to half mast in recognition of the slaughter of a popular Black pastor and eight of his parishioners by a white supremacist, Dylann Root.

This, and the terrible incident that provoked it, may be connected with the absence of gun legislation in the U.S. But at a deeper level, I believe that the fact that South Carolina is one of five states that lacks any hate crime legislation is more to the point. South Carolina hosts nineteen different white supremacist organizations, including the Klu Klux Klan. This was not just a mass shooting that occurs so frequently in the U.S. It was a mass shooting that deliberately targeted a pastor of a Black church and his congregants.

Modernity, for Cecil Foster, has been a quest for Whiteness, for purity and perfection. However, our evil, deep, dark and black passions hold us back. This framework for morality has deep philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and mythological roots. In Foster’s analysis, however, Canada stands out as the first country to define itself in terms of multiculturalism, as opposed to ethnic homogeneity, and, therefore, to reject a Black-and-White frame for looking at the world.

There are four primary forms of understanding Blackness. The first is somatic – the genes you inherit that give one’s body a certain shade. This isn’t an absolute category. It is relative. Somalis and Ethiopians in Africa do not consider themselves Black. But they are perceived as Black, neutralized and blackwashed as a visible minority in North America. In 1924, Virginia passed The White Integrity Act, one of many anti-miscegenation laws, that defined a white person as someone with blood that was “entirely white, having no known, demonstrable or ascertainable admixture of the blood of another race.” That law was overturned in the landmark legal case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967. A state law in Louisiana defined anyone as Black who had 1/32nd Negro blood, a law that was overturned in 1983.

A second category for understanding and conceptualizing Blackness is cultural. Blacks have a different culture than whites – speak with a different accent, eat specific “black” foods – gumbo, fried chicken and grits, corn bread, collard greens and watermelon, catfish and black-eyed peas. On a much deeper level, to be Black culturally is to identify with the history of Blacks. The fact that many or even most Blacks may no longer eat these foods does not mean that their association with Black slaves in the American south did not leave an indelible mark to characterize even when contemporary Blacks cannot trace their ancestry back to slaves. The one area where this resonates most strongly is music. Jazz and rock-and-roll both have Black roots. Their universal and global adoption into modern culture is an indication that popular culture has become Black far more than it has become White. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” the theme song of assimilation by a Tin Pan Alley Jew, Irving Berlin, took the dream in the opposite direction of a melting pot.

The third meaning of Black is best epitomized, not by Black Americans from the American south, but by Blacks from the Caribbean who immigrated to Canada and for whom Black stands for status and a way to differentiate Blacks who return home to the Caribbean with money and microwave ovens, fine linens and fluffy towels. They do not opt for integration into their adopted country to become living examples of the highest ideal, as did Harry Belafonte in the U.S. For those who hold Black to be primarily a status consciousness, return with this status is more important than even attaining success in Canada. Cecil Foster himself may have achieved notice as a novelist, essayist and academic scholar in Canada, but this would not compare to the recognition and status he would have enjoyed if he had returned to his birthplace in Barbados.  In the story of Rachel Dolezal, the most inappropriate accusations levelled against her were that she identified as Black for the purpose of status and financial gain.

Finally, there is the category of Black as an ideal rather than White, Black as the essential core of multiculturalism which finally wipes out somatic Blackness and the ethical superiority of Whiteness for a totally opposite ideal vision of a society that not only tolerates but celebrates difference rather than whitewashing the colour out of everyone. In such a perspective, Blackness becomes a dialectical method, not of separating out and dividing in terms of the pure categories of Black and White, but of blending, of conceiving of Black, not in total opposition to White, but as a method that combines what we see and experience with a rational categorical frame for exposing an underlying structure, while always insisting that the categories of Blackness and Whiteness be understood in terms of their historical context and within a specific society, that is. located in time and place. That is how the tale of Rachel Dolezal must be understood, as rooted in time and place and the particular history of another victim of mob hysteria, misrepresentation and metaphorical lynching.

Let me represent it by a table:

Modes of Representation                    Materialist                   Idealist

Social Status Blackness     Black is Beautiful

Somatic Blackness        Cultural Blackness

That is how the case of Rachel Dolezal must be understood if one is not to distort. When the press largely portrays the issue as a white woman posing as a Black, the word black is being used to suggest a quest for privileges, status and financial rewards. Usually Whiteness is privileged for such purposes, but virtually all commentators failed to recognize that there is a trajectory that privileges Black status. This trajectory only became part of the debate as an accusation. However, privileging Whiteness is far more prevalent, hence raising the puzzle of why anyone who was “naturally” and genetically White would want to identify herself as somatically Black. But when you read the details of Rachel’s story, a frame that is restricted to being somatically Black as a method for achieving social status simply distorts and pre-defines her as a fraud, a deceiver, and a peculiar one at that, for it is rare for a somatic White to want to become a somatic Black.The two top categories represent very opposite types of aspiration. The two bottom categories represent very different starting points. In the lower left, society constructs your racial identity. In the lower right category, self-identification becomes supreme. What seems clear is that most people in the media seemed to want to represent Rachel Dolezal as operating on the left hand side of the chart and, unusually, she represented herself and deceived others into thinking she was somatically Black, so these critics of Rachel claim. Further, she did it to achieve social status in the Black community and the benefits of position. In her own story, as opposed to this real misrepresentation, her trajectory rose from identifying as culturally Black at an early age and aspiring to become ideally Black.

However, when Rachel is perceived as someone educated at Howard University, as someone who even took the university to court in 2002 for denying her a position in the university because she was white, a case which she lost, it becomes clear that she has spent her life crusading against somatic Blackness. If she had to engage in that fight by posing as an African-American to gain admission, she might have. But she actually never did. She clearly knew she was somatically White. She was then regarded by her peers and the faculty as White. She wrote her essay for Howard University, not to deceive the university that she was somatically Black – why would she sue them later for denying her a position because she was somatically White – but because she “plunged into black history and novels, feeling the relieving release of understanding and common ground.” She was transitioning into a culturally Black woman even as she remained somatically White.

“My struggles paled as I read of the atrocities many ancestors faced in America.”

But her quest was not simply to remain culturally Black. She clearly wanted to become idealistically Black, to get the world to understand that Black is beautiful and not the denigrated category the term possesses in the English language and especially in the heritage of American society. “At the early age of three I showed an awareness of the richness and beauty of dark skin when I said, ‘Mama, all people are beautiful, but black people are so beautiful.’”

Somatic Blackness was one route to cultural Blackness and ideal Blackness. But it need not be the only route. And it could not be her route. Her path, though she never directly experienced discrimination as a Black, was more challenging, especially since many, and perhaps most, Blacks deny the possibility of such a path. Rachel was also not pursuing Blackness as a status category, as a rich cool cat returning home with all the symbols of a consumer culture, but with special attention to glitz and gold. This stereotype is portrayed as a particular version of a gangster in American movies, such as the excellent one I saw last night, Life of a King, about Blacks who chose to reject the social status conception of Black. Rachel pursued a trajectory by denying her identity in terms of a somatic White person, traveling via a cultural Black person identity to arrive at the ideal of Blackness.

Nor was she doing this through stealth and misrepresentation. Michele Garcia might have concluded that, “It’s pretty clear: Dolezal has lied.” In fact, it is pretty clear that she had not, though she did permit people, and, in some cases, abetted individuals to draw false conclusions about her. When asked specifically about her race, she replied, “If I have to choose to describe yourself and you’re able to give terms like a fraction of whatever but an overall picture, I consider myself to be Caucasian biologically.” As she said in a different way, taking up the challenge of the question about somatic Whiteness, on the NBC Today show (, she answered the demand to admit that she was White by saying, “I do take exception to that because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question, are you black or white?”

This is not a case of dodging the issue, but of refusing to get trapped by the categorization built into the question. She insisted on the moral right to identify herself in a way that felt most authentic to her in accordance with that self-determined identity. She definitely did not fabricate her racial identity and engage in blackface as a performance, but, rather, rejected the prison of existing somatic categories in favour of understanding her identity within a more composite, more complicated, and more fluid frame. And she certainly did not do so for financial gain as some have charged. “Dolezal benefited materially from her self-representation as black.”

How does one escape the tyranny of the ideal of the homogeneous Whiteness and purity if you have to answer questions about your race in terms imposed by that racist conception and admit that if you carried even the one drop of ancestral Black blood, and that would make you racially Black, then you are endorsing the ideal of the racially pure White? Laws may be repealed or overturned in judicial decisions, but it is much more difficult to overturn categories embedded deeply in our linguistic and cultural practices. Working within these somatic categories of Black unless pure White is but to accept the racist language, a racist language for which many if not most Blacks have not even freed themselves. To achieve the new ideal of Blackness as the inversion of the old ideal of homogeneity and purity as the highest category symbolized by the colour white, to do so by traveling through the terrain of cultural blackness, has been Rachel Dolezal’s trajectory.

But that is not how it has been perceived by most North Americans caught up in the old categories of somatic Black and White as dictated by the utopian opposite ideal of purity and homogeneity of race versus miscegenation. Rachel became the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP in January of this year. By all accounts, she infused that organization with energy and vitality in the pursuit of the equal rights of African-Americans. She secured new offices in downtown Spokane, solidified the financial base of the NAACP Spokane chapter, brought in many new members, launched a number of new strategic initiatives while, at the same time, she helped individuals fight race-based discrimination.

Why was she induced to resign? (For her resignation letter in full, see the Facebook page of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP or She resigned, not because she was racially White, but because she came to believe that the complex publicity over the issue of her identity would harm the agenda of the NAACP.  The firestorm over her identity had become a distraction from its mission, some understandably believe. I, in contrast, believe the firestorm has offered an excellent opportunity for the NAACP to advance its position and mission.

But that is not how most media outlets interpreted the story. Rachel had engaged in deception. Rachel’s empathy for Blacks had evolved into subterfuge and impersonation. just as in the 1949 movie Pinky directed by Elia Kazan, Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned African American woman had done so in reverse when she passed herself off as white when she fell in love with a white doctor. (See the op-ed by Tamara Winfrey Harris, a Black American woman, in last Thursday’s New York Times, 16 June 2015 headlined, “Rachel Dolezal’s Harmful Masquerade.”) Rachel had misled, claimed Tamara, while people like herself had no choice but to be Black. In fact, as I argue, Tamara did have a choice, to reject somatic Blackness as an imposition by racists and identify oneself as culturally and idealistically Black.

From this perspective of deception and misrepresentation, many demanded Rachel’s resignation from Spokane’s volunteer police oversight board as well. Spokane, a city of 210,000, is 90% White, and about 2% somatic Black, but Rachel actually lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the heartland of the Aryan Nation. The charge has also been made that she violated Spokane’s anti-harassment policy by engaging in conduct that humiliated, insulted or degraded members of the police force. What an outrageous claim in the light of the behaviour of some police officers across North America, even in Toronto where a new Black police chief defended carding when the evidence clearly showed that Blacks were totally and disproportionately targeted by the practice. Further, such a charge seems ludicrous except for how serious it is in revealing how entrenched we are in the old racist categories of Black and White as dictated by the utopian ideal of the purity of Whiteness. It should be no surprise that a law-and-order Republican, who especially favours the police and fire department, Mayor David Condon, is leading the charge to remove Rachel from her voluntary position.

The disgrace of the whole event is not simply that Rachel has resigned from her position with the NAACP, or that she has also been fired from her jobs as a part-time college instructor and freelance journalist. The real disgrace is that some prominent members of the Black community, who are clearly somatic Blacks, have either bought into the portrait of deception or resent a somatic White for achieving such prominence in the Black community, even though the national NAACP initially stood by her and insisted that somatic Blackness was not a qualification for her position. However, some local NAACP members could only understand the issue through somatic black lenses.

By now it should be clear that I am critical of the predominant way this issue has been portrayed, understood and mishandled. The public humiliation and metaphorical lynching of Rachel Dolezal has been a disgrace. The firestorm reveals how deeply the ideology of racial white purity and its complement, the Black/White somatic divide, is embedded in North American history. For when Rachel wrote that her ethnic origins were white, black and American Indian, she was not saying that she was somatically Black, or that she had genetic Black roots – except insofar as all of us can trace our genetic history back 70,000 years to Africa, but that Rachel was ethnically Black and that she identified culturally with Black America.

The matter was not helped when her parents evidently “outed” her when they told a reporter that she did not have a drop of Black blood and said that their daughter had begun to “disguise” herself as Black when the parents adopted four Black children. It seems clear that Ruthanne Dolezal, with all her outreach towards Blacks, was deeply somatically White and could not envision having a biological daughter who identified herself as culturally Black and even adopted some of the hair and dress styles to signal that transition.

What about when Rachel referred to Albert Wilkinson as her dad? Her answer: only her biological dad could be her father, but many older men, for her, were dads. One was Albert Wilkinson. Many who hear this insist that this was a clear deception because others would assume that, if Rachel referred to him as her dad, then she meant that he was her biological father. Even if that wasn’t what was meant, she had to be aware that this would be how others interpreted her relationship to Albert Wilkinson.

What about when she was asked in another TV interview about whether she denied that her real parents were her genetic forbears? Surely one was forced to raise one’s eyebrows when she said there was no proof that they were her biological parents and that her birth certificate was only registered after 6 weeks. Here, she was not asserting that she was not biologically White, but she did suggest she carried some scepticism about her paternity and maternity. Was she just being a nut case, or was she hinting at something else? I do not know, for the interviewer was obsessed with insisting that she had a duty to engage with others if they used the somatic White and Black categories to define her identity. Unfortunately, instead of following this line down wherever it went, the journalist hammered away at the theme of deception rather than asking why there was even an iota of doubt. Rachel’s questionable replies threw more suspicion on her willingness to be transparent even though it was clear that she was not in a position nor had the time nor wanted to take the time to constantly tackle the somatic illusions that some Whites want to impose on others.

This isn’t simply an American problem. In Thursday’s Toronto Star (16 June 2015), Neil Price, who teaches at George Brown College, denounced Toronto’s new police chief for endorsing carding and thereby engaging in “a deliberate denial of race-consciousness typical of blacks who gain important positions and find it necessary to publicly signal a disavowal of any allegiance to black people and their grievances.” Although I disagree with Police Chief Saunder’s stand on carding, there is no evidence that he disavowed his own Black consciousness or his sensitivity to the historical suffering of Blacks. Rather, I saw him as acting as Police Chief for all the people and saw himself as a person who believed that a form of carding that did not target or single out Blacks was an advantage in undertaking police work. I myself am sceptical about the technique in general and doubly sceptical that it can be practiced in isolation from its historical pattern of usage. However, the pursuit of a high professional position does not entail an immediate suspicion that the person is abandoning his identity as Black, but that he may be pursuing a higher ideal of Blackness as a universal marker in a society with a history that gave the highest value to purity and Whiteness.

Anna Leventhal, a writer of fiction like Cecil Foster, in her column on Rachel that was published side-by-side Neil Price’s, asked, “Why can’t Dolezal be African-American? She identifies with the culture, she grew up in a mixed-race family (her biological parents adopted four Black boys), and she has clearly demonstrated a commitment to the struggles of African-American people. Who are we to say she is not who she claims to be? It seems we have reached a high water mark for cultural understanding and acceptance of gender’s socially constructed nature. The next step would be to apply it to race.”

However, it is clear than Anna Levanthal’s understanding has its limits. “While the idea of being ‘transracial’ has some history in describing the identities of adopted children who are of a different race than their parents, it doesn’t mean it can be used casually to describe the feeling that you are not of the race you were born into.” But what if your agenda is NOT to deny the supposed race that you were born into, but the utility and misuse of somatic categories of race, particularly Black and White, altogether? There is little evidence that Rachel denied the race that she was born into, in spite of the efforts of the press to portray her as engaged in deceptive practices, but much evidence to support the position that she denied the alleged race into which she was born was relevant to her identity. As her two sons told her when the whole issue exploded in the media; “Mom, you are culturally Black and racially human.”

Rachel explicitly refused to accept the idea of somatic Whiteness and Blackness that most Americans seemed to want to impose upon her. In recent years, she had not been claiming to be transracial, as such a claim played into the tyranny of somatic Blackness. Rachel claimed to be Black, culturally Black and idealistically Black. Rachel was not taking “on a new race,” but a new culture and a new ideal in the face of a society that refused to budge from its polar oppositional categorization of Black and White. She did not just want to be an ally of Black Americans, for she perceived that as surrendering to the somatic and idealist categorization of Black and White as oppositional categories with the purity of Whiteness being reinforced by the very categorization itself.

Anna Leventhal’s analogy with Grey Owl who presented himself as racially of mixed white and Ojibway stock, is, therefore, not a parallel. For in addition to his identification with the culture of our aboriginal peoples, he actually was a racial poseur. Rachel was not. Anna’s inability or refusal in the end to understand Rachel’s agenda, her insistence that Rachel could and should have remained White and simply openly supported Blacks, indicates that, as tolerant as she tries to be and undoubtedly is, she has missed the point.

For a very interesting parallel, read Avraham Osipov-Gipsh’s account, “Am I Like Rachel Dolezal?” published in Tablet this past week. As he asserted on the same principle of self-sovereignty, “I performed Jewish. I lived Jewish. And nobody owns the right to tell me if I am Jewish or not.” Except, he was not dealing with a somatic category, but with a melange that apply to being a Jew, some of which have implications for religious membership and others implications for membership in a state that are not satisfied by self-sovereignty. What about the commandment of honouring your parents, whether biological or adoptive or foster in the Shulchan Aruch? Was Avraham like Rachel in failing to honour his parents, a failure that cast so much suspicion on Rachel’s self-identity? That, for religious Jews, is a far greater desecration than dissembling; lacking respect in that area is a desecration of G-d’s name.

Nigel Short and Sexism

Nigel Short and Sexism


Howard Adelman

To my grandson, Jo Jo.

Nigel Short is a fifty-year-old English chess grandmaster who earned his status at 19 and was, at the time, the youngest international master after Bobby Fischer, who achieved that pinnacle at the age of 151/2. By the time Nigel was 23-years old, he was ranked third in the world. In 1993, he was badly beaten by Garry Kasporov in the world chess championships. Nevertheless, he has won a slew of victories since. For example, two years ago in the Canadian Open Chess Championship match in Ottawa, he bested Canadian grandmaster, Eric Hansen, in a tiebreak.

Because of his superior role in the international and British chess world, he was awarded an MBE in 1999, was named Secretary General of the Commonwealth Chess Association in 2005, and received an honorary doctorate by the University of Bolton in 2010. He has also a record of getting into controversies: a dustup with Bobby Fisher in 2001, charging another Grand Master with cheating in 2007, but the issue which got him into the deepest hot water was his claim this year that: a) men were hardwired to be better at chess than women; b) that women had other skill sets in which they were superior; and that c) inequality was just a fact of life. He went on to grant that his wife had a higher degree of emotional intelligence than he has, but he was superior in spatial orientation, in particular, in his ability to back his car out of his narrow garage.

Whether his claims are or are not true, they had policy implications. In the field of chess, it meant not going out of his way to encourage female chess players and, instead, simply accept as a fact that men in general were better in chess than their female counterparts.  To repeat, he did not mean men were superior to women, just superior in the particular field of chess and some other areas of expertise. For example, when his e-book, Cancer 0, an account of his survival from cancer, went viral (proceeds went to the Weston Park Hospital), he credited his editor from Solopreneur Publishing, Gail Powell, as being “a brilliant lady” who pushed, cajoled and pressured him to write the book. He tweeted, “compared to her, I’ve done very little.”

It seems clear that he does not believe or claim that men are superior to women. In many areas, women are superior to men. Sometimes he implies that overall they are superior. But he does assert that in the field of chess that it is a “fact” that men are superior to women. Before examining this “fact,” does his claim justify charging him with sexism? If sexism is prejudice based on stereotyping women, with the implication of discriminatory behaviour against women on the basis of their gender, the charge is not easily made. If his claim is not a “fact” but a result of stereotyping, one basis for such a charge is present. But does such “stereotyping,” assuming for the moment his claims amount to stereotyping, include the second qualifier? Is he prejudiced? It is not clear. What seems clear is that he does not seem to favour special measures to encourage and facilitate women playing chess. There seems no evidence that he discriminated against women in chess.

He may be guilty of stereotyping (yet to be determined). He may even be guilty of prejudice, but the evidence on this seems equivocal. The third necessary foundation for a charge of sexism does not seem to be present, the translation of these beliefs into discriminatory behaviour. If these indeed are both the necessary and sufficient foundation for a charge of sexism, then the charge seems unwarranted in his case because of the lack of evidence for a charge of prejudicial behaviour. However, if the meaning of sexism is reduced to just attitudes, he may, and I stress “may,” be guilty of sexism.

Was his remark “sexist”? If sexism is the belief that one sex, the masculine one normally, is generally superior to and/or more valuable than its opposite, the feminine sex, then he is not sexist. Sometimes to be sexist means believing one gender, whether male or female, is superior to the other, but generally sexism is behaviour where limits are imposed on what women (or men in the more neutral version) can and should be allowed to do. An individual who holds such views is sexist if he (or she) engages in the practice of sexism.

Judit Polgar, who beat both Bobby Fischer’s and Nigel Short’s record by becoming a chess grandmaster at the age of 15, used her own case to rebut Nigel Short’s case. After all, she has beaten Nigel Short in chess and even Garry Kasparov. Judit argues that if women are permitted to have not only the same, but the right opportunities, they are just as capable of becoming chess grandmasters as men. As children, boys and girls currently start off as equal players, but by the time they enter their teens, parents, teachers and others discourage them from continuing.

Now neither Nigel nor Judit are biologists, neurologists, geneticists or psychologists. They are engaged in a common dispute – on whether the brains of men and women in certain areas are hardwired differently so that in different areas, men can perform “naturally” better while in other areas, women are superior performers. Note that one can hold such a position without it translating into discriminatory behaviour. That position can also lead to policies to go out of one’s way, using social and even preferential arrangements, to foster and encourage superior performance in the gender with the allegedly weaker aptitude in a field. If women are indeed not hardwired as well as men to play chess, then social policy could be made to provide extra efforts to encourage and develop women’s skills in the sport. Sexist attitudes need not lead to sexist discrimination re the gender allegedly claimed to be inferior. For some, it can lead to the advocacy of policies and extra funding to further the development of female skills in an area where they have performed, on average, poorly in the past. “Is” does not entail what ought to be. This is clearly not the position Nigel Short holds. While not promoting prejudicial treatment against females, neither does he favour special measures to foster female skills in chess.

Note, Nigel Short never said, as some journalists have claimed (Radhika Sanghani), that girls don’t have the brains to play chess. His claim is that women do not have the same natural endowment in the same proportion as men to eventually produce an equal number of female as well as male chess champions. Women can play chess. Women can play superior chess. Women can clearly even beat male grandmasters. One day, a woman could even become the world champion. But probably not without special measures. With special encouragement and facilitation, more women can become top players. But Nigel Short seems to believe, that any and all effort in that direction is not worthwhile because men will always dominate top chess playing. “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”

Kasparov explained women’s inferior success in general because they were not as aggressive as men. Nigel Short suggested that women on average and in general were not hard-wired to become as good chess players as men because of the male superiority in spatial visualization, a claim that applies in general and on average, but does not apply to Judit Polger. Further, Judit’s position is closer to Nigel’s than first appears. She seems to grant that men and women are hardwired differently. “I believe that as I have proved it with my carrier that with the right amount of work, dedication, talent and love for the game it is possible to compete with the best male players in the world of chess, even though many of my colleagues were sceptical about my potential… Men and women are different, but there are different ways of thinking and fighting and still achieving the same results.” After all, she beat Nigel 8 games to 3 with five draws.

Judit accepts that natural gender differences exist, but those natural benefits (aggression and/or spatial visualization) need not lead to different results. Further, women’s special set of skills are not developed because women drop out of playing tournaments around the age of twelve because they are grabbed by other interests. I am curious whether this will happen to my grandson, Joe, who is a youthful prodigy headed up towards higher and higher rankings in the chess world. Will his enormous interest in and aptitude for music lead him not to be as preoccupied with chess as he was until he entered his teenage years?

Lorin D’Costa, an international master, has been actively involved in programs to encourage girls to continue playing chess, programs that have been quite successful. But even he admits that boys become more obsessive than girls and girls are more easily seduced by other activities because chess is not regarded as “cool”.  Further, they have so few models to copy –Hou Yifan and Alexandra Kosteniuk as well as Judit Polger.  So the question is whether hardwiring (spatial visualization, aggressive or obsessive traits) or social arrangements, including the few idols available or the financial support available to male players in Russia that is unavailable to women, lead to differences, and whether those differences can be offset by alternative social programs? Condescending and disrespectful behaviour of male colleagues to their female counterparts clearly does not help.

However, this blog is not intended to sort out the nature/nurture argument as applied to chess, let alone in general, for it is a debate that goes back almost a century. Rather, my question is what should be done when various males on the spectrum of different opinions and explanations utter their opinions, and often do so from positions of authority? When those positions appear prejudicial towards females and are uttered by males, should the males who utter those words be fired, stripped of their honours and/or ostracized?

I believe they should be criticized but not pilloried. Even when males occupy positions of authority, they need not be stripped from those positions. Let me offer one example from my experience. In the seventies or early eighties, a female colleague was retiring from the university. In the course of the retirement party for her, I learned that her pension would not be as high as a male colleague with the same number of years of employment at about the same level. I thought this seemed self-evidently wrong and got my faculty to appoint me to the five member panel that set policy for the university pension fund. (All the members were then male.)

I soon learned that the alleged facts were correct. She would receive less pension payments each month than her male colleague. When I asked the actuarial consultant why this was the case, he explained that she received the same pension amount, but over more years since women on average lived longer than men.

At the next meeting I tabled a motion. Black members of faculty should receive higher pensions than white members because, on average, blacks in Ontario had a shorter life span than whites. This, of course, shocked my colleagues who were both startled and embarrassed at the tabling of what was regarded as an outrageous motion. They asked why I was making such a motion. I said that I would give my arguments when someone seconded the motion. The Vice-President Finance, who knew me well and was a very fair gentleman, out of courtesy seconded my motion so it could be debated. When the motion came up for discussion, I argued that if gender differences could be used to pay men more per year than women, then racial differences could be used to pay blacks more than whites. All three groupings would, on average according to actuarial tables, earn the same pension amount in total over the rest of their lives. (I did not get into the issue of black female professors.) The problem lay in the categories in terms of which discriminatory pensions, if there were to be discriminatory pensions, should be paid.

But, that would mean men would get smaller pensions than they received now if women were to get the same annual pensions. I admitted that the conclusion was right, but so what? Further, since men were about 85% of the faculty, the impact would be relatively small, but the impact on our female colleagues in their ability to live with a decent life style was large. But these and a myriad of other arguments were beside the point. The real question was whether natural differences in gender or race or IQ or any other category you want to imagine – height or weight for example – should be used as a basis for allocating pension funds.

Responsa: Nature versus Nurture

Responsa: Nature versus Nurture


Howard Adelman

In response to my piece on Tim Hunt, I was pleased to hear from those who supported my view. Two readers’ reactions deserve a more extended reply.

  1. Nature versus Nurture

The Response

I agree about Tim Hunt.  100%.  But I even agree with Lawson and what he said.  You don’t.  You said, “If he accepted a biological determinism in a war against social norms that condemned such behaviour, his false consciousness might make it very difficult for him to perform his job”.  It was not false.  

So, I disagree.  It is the truth-tellers imperative to tell the truth.  He was doing his job just fine.

Lawson, looking at his men, had concluded that they were biologically inclined to be assertive (duh, they are soldiers who are obliged to fight and kill now and again)…some maybe even get aggressive now and then.  And that hormone is indiscriminate in it’s object once focused.  That is the testosterone speaking.  NOT his hormone but theirs. Tell me he is wrong.

He is employing the scientific method of observation and, eventually, conclusion.  He observed that aggressive young men often assert themselves where they are not wanted.  It does NOT mean he accepted the behaviour, only that the behaviour existed and he postulated (after observation) that it was likely natural in some sort of way for immature but large and healthy young men….the sort of way we want on the football field and the battlefield but not in the mess hall.  He was saying, in effect, “We have this force that we try to harness but it sometimes spills over into socially unacceptable places.”  That does NOT make him incapable of doing his job. Ste one:  he sees the difference.  It makes him a keen observer and a truth-teller.

The harangue that followed did more to hinder his efforts because he is telling a truth and no one listened.  And what they heard, they condemned.  Who would want that job?

They are both victims of politically-correct (morally wrong!) hysteria.

My Reply

Is Lawson a “truth-teller” in drawing a conclusion about biological determinism re some healthy strapping young males?

But first, how do you establish such truths?

The scientific method is one of observation and conclusion? I am afraid we disagree. Your simplistic empiricism does not accord with a current prevailing version of science inherited from Karl Popper and others. Simply put, science is NOT about simply observing and drawing conclusions. Science is about being confronted by puzzles, about formulating hypothesis to explain the dilemma, and then seeking, NOT to prove the hypothesis, but to falsify it. Generalizing simply from what one claims to be common sense observations – such as observing the behaviour of strapping young testosterone-driven young lads in the military – is a generalizing that possibly could explain their harassing behaviour. But does it? In this case, we have had lots of science to assess whether such a generalization is correct, though undoubtedly many agree with you and hold the same view as you based on their common sense observations. But, TO REPEAT, common sense observation and generalization is NOT the foundation for science.

Evidence for Testosterone Induced Behaviour

John Money (he is at Johns Hopkins in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences), about whom I have written and published before, but on the behaviour of pedophiles and his testimony as an expert witness in legal trials, in his book The Development of Sexuality and Eroticism in Human Kind, holds a scientific rather than common sense generalization version of your thesis. You might read him for a proper scientific support for your belief.

However, this is not the predominant view of science at this time. Note, the issue is about determinants of behaviour. There seems to be little doubt that biological factors play a key role in whether humans express their sexual behaviour in the direction of pedophilia, homosexuality and heterosexuality. If that was the question, then the answer is well known now and widely accepted – these factors influence, but do not determine behaviour. So the question becomes: if this factor is a determinant of behaviour, do social factors enhance or repress such expressions that society may deem unacceptable?

Currently, the homosexual expression of biological drives is now considered acceptable, partly because they seem immune to alternative social conditioning such as repression. Pedophilia is not considered acceptable. There is some debate on whether pedophilia can or cannot be controlled by strong social norms of enforcement against such behaviour. In the case of heterosexual drives expressed as bullying or even harassment, the prevailing social norms have shifted to intolerance. In this social shift, are we trying to repress what is only a natural propensity?

The general conclusion is that, although heterosexual social attraction is indeed natural, the form of expression in terms of cat-calling, harassment, and even, and especially bullying – the case Lawson was discussing – is not. Research seems to indicate that the primary determinants are NOT biological in this case, but social and individual factors that encourage or discourage such behaviour. More interesting, a key influential factor is not simply an institutional norm inhibiting aggressive behaviour in testosterone-filled young men, but the response of targeted females.

If they act as simply aggrieved women indifferent to the perpetrators’ drives and forces, bullying and harassment does not decline and, often increases. However, if the targeted victims make claims to reduce harassment by not simply referring to their own victimhood, but to the way that the bully or harasser has been conditioned by such norms, if the targeted victims, thereby, demonstrate a concern with how prosocial behaviour is encouraged and not just how anti-social behaviour is discouraged, bullies and harassers much more readily alter their behaviour. For example, a paper in the last issue of the Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social; Environment undertook a proper comparative study and drew something like this conclusion. This research in itself reinforces the conclusion that biology is not the key determinant of harassing or bullying heterosexual young men with an excess of testosterone.

In some, the pretty-well overwhelming conclusion of science at this time is that biology is NOT the key determinant in male bullying and harassing behaviour. Current scientific work has concentrated on how to shift from a culture that was either permissive or even encouraged such behaviour to one which discouraged such behaviour. The continuing research predominantly holds the view that in cases of harassment and bullying, biology, though clearly an influence on such behaviour, is not the key determinant in spite of a widespread conviction, such as yours, that it is. The reference that you offer to support your conclusion is NOT science but common sense impressions and generalizations, which, unfortunately, are often erroneous. But there are some scientists who support your view and you might want to read them so that you can come back with some solid and more scientific arguments.

  1. Is Nigel Short a Sexist?


In relationship to your article, here is an example only a few months ago – of hypocrisy with a clear-cut sexist comment, but I do not think anything happened to Mr. Short such as stripped of his title…

Look at his tweet and I included several articles for you to draw a societal conclusion… please do, because I don’t understand how he got away with this.

Best Regards

Checkmate! This Grandmaster Wins Award For Most Sexist Claim

By D’Arcy Maine | Apr 22, 2015

Are you ready to have your eyes roll completely to the back of your head today? If not, take a moment to prepare yourself because that’s EXACTLY what’s about to happen.

Meet Nigel Short, a British chess grandmaster, whose recent claims in an article in New In Chess magazine are raising eyebrows around the world. Short, ranked No. 64 in the world, proclaimed that men are better than women at playing chess because, ahem, their “brains are hard-wired very differently.”

So that sounds super scientific and stuff.

He furthered his ridiculous argument by explaining his wife has a “much higher degree of emotional intelligence” but that she “doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to maneuver the car out of our narrow garage.” OK then.

Because it’s 2015 and blatant sexism isn’t exactly the most accepted thing anymore, the article was widely criticized. But not one to simply apologize and let the whole thing blow over — perhaps men’s brains aren’t wired to do so — Short continued to embarrass himself with an appearance on Sky News.

Here is Mr. Shorts tweet:

My Reply

My reply is too long to include in today’s blog. Tomorrow I will write about Nigel Short, whether his remarks constituted sexism, and, however, they are characterized, does he deserve to be punished in any way for uttering such remarks, including stripping him of his status as a Grand Champion?

I also want to write about racism and the response that forced Rachel Dolezal to resign from her position with the NAACP. That will wait until Sunday. Only then will I return to my main concern – the use of “hysterical” shaming to bring down the mighty through public humiliation.

Dr. Tim Hunt

Dr. Tim Hunt


Howard Adelman

I am ashamed, deeply ashamed, at what is happening to our society. And by our society, I mean our global one. For the phenomenon is not local. I not only felt ashamed. I cried. I literally cried. And I could not even offer as an excuse that I have shallow tear ducts like most women.

The story is simple, but the consequences have been catastrophic for Dr. Tim Hunt, for science, for our academic institutions, and for a society that believes it upholds the principles of due process and the rule of law as well as the underlying principles governing their application. For we have allowed hysteria and mob rule to take the place of deliberation and consideration in meting out rewards and punishments.

On 9 June 2015, just one week ago, Tim Hunt was the invited speaker at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul Korea. His audience for the lunchtime address consisted of female journalists and scientists. The title of his talk was: “Creative Science – Only a Game.”. I have been unable to find a transcript of his talk on the internet. Nor have I been able to learn whether the exact title of his paper had a question at the end of the title. However, I suspect Tim Hunt was exploring the issue of the degree to which science is a field of playful creativity or simply an activity governed by rules with the results determined by skill or strength or aptitude or even luck. Whatever else games are, they are usually competitive. Play, on the other hand, is open-ended, more freeform and specifically not governed by fixed rules.

I have no idea whether this was in fact the theme of his talk, for the hullabaloo that arose from the talk came from one short paragraph. Reading that paragraph offered virtually no clue to his thesis, though an interpretation might suggest that he favoured a rule-based system of scientific discovery rather than one emphasizing the free range of the imagination. Tim Hunt’s father, Richard William Hunt, was a paleographer, an expert in the study of ancient manuscripts, and was then Keeper of the Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He may have been very rule-based given his profession. At the Infants Department of the Oxford High School for Girls where Tim Hunt was enrolled by his parents, the only thing he tells of his memory of the school is that he learned to detest, even hate games, because they were so competitive, especially games like musical chairs where I suspect he, as an early nerd, was probably the perennial loser. Thus, given his experiences before he was eight-years-old, one  inclined to believe that he favours the playful approach to scientific discovery.

This interpretation would be reinforced by his autobiographical comments on the Dragon school he attended when he left the girls school. “The Dragon was much better, much less regimented, at the same time much more playful and more serious.” This suggests he favoured a playful rather than a games approach to scientific discovery. This interpretation is reinforced by the additional evidence that when he started his scientific career in the sixties at Cambridge under the supervision of Asher Korner. Hunt always lauded Korner deservedly for encouraging a great deal of freedom for students working under his supervision in both their choices of research and their approach to a problem. Hunt was not the only one to say so. Tony Hunter, a winner of the Wolf Prize, a colleague of Tim Hunt’s at Cambridge and in the direction of research both were pursuing, also lauded Asher Korner under whom he worked before Korner moved to take up the Chair in Biology at Sussex. Hunter also commended Korner for encouraging a free play of the imagination in approaching scientific problems.

In any case, the paragraph that gave rise to a firestorm around the world was the following: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” (My italics) Anyone who knew anything about Tim Hunt had to recognize he was being self-referential. He met his wife, Mary Collins, an almost equally famous molecular biologist, by working beside her in a lab. Perhaps she cried when he offered her some criticism, and that opened their way to falling in love, making a lifelong happy marriage by all accounts and having two daughters themselves working their way up the ladder in scientific careers.

Since the brouhaha broke out, Mary Collins has steadfastly defended her husband and reprimanded the despicable and cowardly academic and research institutions to which she has devoted her life. In the series, Methods in Molecular Biology, she authored the eighth volume, Practical Molecular Virology – Viral Vectors for Gene Expression. The issue under discussion is a viral vector, but not of the expression of genes but of a hysterical culture gone mad. Mary has occupied even more esteemed positions than her Nobel-Prize-winning husband. She has been a Professor of Immunology at the Division of Infection and Immunity at University College, London, the head of the Division of Advanced Therapies at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, and the Director of the Medical Research Council Centre for Medical Molecular Virology. She is an innovative scientist in her own right with a tremendous record of research in cell biology undertaking pioneering work on how to introduce new genes into cells, work that promises to be so crucial to treating inherited conditions leading to cancers as well as in the actual treatment of those cancers.

It is too bad these two great scientists had not dedicated a bit of time to understanding the new rapidly spreading viruses on the new media that create such panic and chaos in the social conduct of human beings. But more on this later.

Notice the following about that paragraph that led to the hysteria. First, Tim Hunt was making a personal reference. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls…” In the speech, at least, he did not seem to be proposing a generalization about the interaction of men and women in labs. Secondly, there is absolutely no implication from that one paragraph that he favoured sexually segregated labs let alone inhibiting women from pursuing scientific careers, hardly likely given the career path of his wife and two daughters. Third, though it may perhaps be difficult to detect in print and perhaps even among a cosmopolitan audience unfamiliar with what passes for humour at Oxford, Tim Hunt was steeped in a particular form of humour characteristic of Oxford but, coming from Cambridge, it was not an art he ever mastered. The humour is often self-deferential, sharp and usually at the expense of either the person telling the joke or a close colleague in which dissing one another in clever and subtle ways becomes the order of the day.

However, assuming the comment was offered in humour (he claimed it was meant to be jocular and ironic), it was an absolutely dumb joke to present in that forum unfamiliar with the nuances of Oxford college humour. The late Professor Jerry Cohen at Oxford, a Canadian and McGill grad, who was the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College from 1985 to 2008, was deserving of even more fame as the greatest raconteur in imitating and making fun of that sense of humour. There have been actual scientific surveys about humour at Oxford. Over 60% of scholars there, both male and female, value humour as the most important trait in understanding an individual’s character. My sense in having read about Tim Hunt is that he was as bad at the competitive spirit of joke-telling at Oxford as he was in playing musical chairs as a seven-year-old at the Oxford School for Girls. Humour is used there to ease tension in relations as well as to express oneself in this competition of wit and sharp barbs.

Perhaps the stress on what I often regard as bad humour – I am not an Oxford grad; my eldest son earned his PhD there so I will have to check with him – arises from the fact that Oxford is an old university deeply steeped in traditions going back to the Middle Ages and the manuscripts Tim’s father so carefully preserved. For in those manuscripts, as in Shakespearean plays, the English had inherited the inane idea from the Greek philosophers that governed the understanding of the body for almost two thousand years, in spite of much Egyptian evidence to the contrary, that humour was a cardinal fluid, one of four – phlegm (blood), choler (yellow bile) and black bile (melancholia), being the other three – governing human behaviour and dispositions. The four humours gave an individual his or her personality dependent on the ratios of each fluid in the body.

Based on medieval theory, Tim Hunt lacked sufficient humour fluid in his body.

Nevertheless, quite aside from his apparent indiscretion and insensitivity to context, anyone who knew just a little about Tim Hunt had to know that he was not in favour of banning women from molecular biology labs in particular and science in general. He did not advocate sexual separation, even as he put his foot further in his mouth in BBC interviews afterwards when trying to explain his views. He lacked a high profile public relations agency to explain to him that once the ire of the mob has been aroused, do not try to explain. Do not try to equivocate. Just say you are sorry in the most sincere manner possible and do so as soon as possible after committing what is interpreted as a grave social offense. Then withdraw from the battle, otherwise one is bound to leave one’s own guts strewn all over the field of public battle, especially one as averse to fights and conflicts and competition as Tim was and is. Earlier this morning, the hosts of the lunch, the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations (KOFWST), had the good graces simply to ask for Tim Hunt’s apology and immediately accepted it.

If only that had ended the matter. If only the British and European institutions had not acted with such unseemly haste in tarring and feathering Tim Hunt. If… if.

Contrast the way General and Chief of Staff Tom Lawson handled his controversy when he opined in an interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC for The National when questioned about sexual harassment in the military. Although “the terrible issue” of military sexual harassment “disturbs the great majority of everyone in uniform,” he opined, while admitting it was a trite answer, “it’s because we’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It’s not the way it should be.” Note that he was not saying that what is determines what ought to be. He explicitly opposed such a position. But in explaining sexual harassment in terms of some form of biological determinism, he stepped on the feet of all those who believe quite reasonably that it is a matter of nurture not nature, and that the problem lay in institutions which encouraged or even merely tolerated such behaviour instead of ensuring zero tolerance through education and punishments.

Lawson’s statement was far worse than Tim Hunt’s. It was not made as a joke. Lawson generalized instead of being self-referential. And Lawson occupied a supreme position of authority in the Canadian armed forces and was directly responsible for the elimination of sexual harassment in those forces. If he accepted a biological determinism in a war against social norms that condemned such behaviour, his false consciousness might make it very difficult for him to perform his job. He was wise enough, or was in a position to have cracker-jack public relations advice, to immediately back down and apologize. So instead of the stripping and tar and feathering of Tim Hunt, I suspect Lawson will be allowed, even if shamefacedly, to keep his position and retire in good grace. Tim Hunt was stripped of all of his positions even though in not one of them did he any longer have any authority to make decisions about who did or did not work in labs.

In the case of Tim Hunt, a bit of knowledge – not very much – would have clarified that such a hardnosed misogynist position did not characterize Tim Hunt’s life or experiences, let alone his convictions and positions he advocated. After all, aside from meeting and working with his wife in labs, he worked in 1979 under Joan Ruderman who taught him so much about embryology; he worked in her lab studying the translational control of maternal mRNA. In Joan’s lab, he also worked with Nancy Standart, a postdoc research student, who followed Tim Hunt to Cambridge. He gave equal credit to Nancy for establishing the first well-authenticated case of mRNAs functioning as translational controls and, subsequently, with identifying the key regulatory regions that serve translational masking. The list goes on.

There is absolutely no evidence that Hunt is either sexist or a misogynist and every evidence to refute such charges. That conclusion was based on the hue and cry based on misreading what he said and wrote. The charges forced Hunt to resign as Honorary Professor with University College, London, in the Faculty of Life Sciences, as a member of the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee, as a member of the European Research Council (ERC), all in spite of many women who had worked with him who defended Tim Hunt and his reputation. Dame Athene Donald, professor of Physics and fellow of the Royal Society, insisted that, “Hunt was always immensely supportive of the ERC’s work around gender equality.”

Let me offer a taste of a bit of the witch hunt that drove such a distinguished scientist into the wilderness and ostracism. Kate Rybczynski, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo and chair of the university’s Status of Women and Equity Committee, wrote an op-ed published in yesterday’s Toronto Star. This is the way she sarcastically began her column. “The trouble with science is all girls. I see it all the time – women swooning in the corridors of our engineering faculty flirtatiously tweaking pipette in our science labs and sobbing over keyboards in computer labs.” With such a very different form of humour, belong to burlesque rather than the ancient common rooms of Oxford, on the level of farcical hyperbole, Kate began her advocacy of literally hanging Tim Hunt’s effigy in the courtyard of college campuses.

The fact that even reading the simple extracted paragraph would not lead any individual versed in the least care in reading to interpret what he said as a generalization about women in science seems to have passed over her head – or perhaps under it. He did not say or write, “the trouble with girls in science,” but “my trouble with girls.” He did not write nor did he clearly mean that, “Hunt is essentially saying that having a woman as a colleague reduces the productivity of men to the point that companies and universities would be better off having a gender-segregated lab, or worse, hiring less qualified men and excluding more qualified female candidates.” This a totally unwarranted extraction.

Should Kate be asked to resign for writing such inanities? Not from her academic position – she may possibly be a very god psychologist – but as chair of a university committee concerned with assuring that women are treated fairly on campus? Should she be fired from that position for her inability to read and her gross misinterpretations of what is said and read and for not doing her homework? Unless, of course, she apologizes for her insult to the normal intelligence of the rest of us, let alone Jim Hunt.

The rest of the article about closing the gender gap is critical and important, and it is too bad the opening drivel of her op-ed piece undercuts any respect that should be given to such arguments. Tim Hunt has set the stage for women in biology in a remarkably generous way. Knowing this, he was invited to address women journalists and scientists in Seoul, Korea who did not know he was as awkward with Oxford traditions of humour as he was at playing musical chairs. After all, he came from Cambridge. Tim Hunt, in spite of Kate’s ill-grounded charges, has not been one who has “made science and tech a toxic environment for women,” quite aside from Margaret Wente’s argument in The Globe and Mail that such charges are empirically obsolete.

Kate’s conclusion: “It’s good he stepped down.” We may indeed need more men and women to stand up for gender equality, but gender equality means that Kate’s comments and unsubstantiated generalizations should be treated as part of the hysteria in assessing and judging others. The op-ed is, not a sufficient cause for Kate to be asked to step down, for even academics, perhaps, especially academics, should be entitled to their moments of stupidity in the sun. But they should not be joined. They should be criticized.

What is more despicable is the way esteemed institutions bent to the will of a mob and acted precipitously, without due process, without reading the full text, without a fair and reasonable inquiry into what happened, without Tim being allowed to explain himself before his peers – in summary, without a semblance of due process and without a proper day in the court of public opinion.

Cyclins and cyclin-dependent protein kinases are the key messengers in both telling cells when to turn on and serve as inhibitors telling cells to turn off in making enzymes to catalyze mitosis. Tim Hunt’s work was crucial in advancing our understanding into how such messages actually work. If only political scientists and sociologists did as well in teaching us what institutions and activities are critical in inhibiting mob hysteria and how it has worked in the past, the equivalent of preventing the runaway reproduction of cancer cells. These same institutions are needed to turn the switch on to ensure healthy reproduction of cells take place.  We clearly need to learn how and when to turn on and off the switches of public opinion and to allow a fair consideration when people slip up.

There is a lot more to learn from Tim Hunt. He has stood on the shoulders of the founders of molecular biology, such as Francis Crick, who set the standards. Crick always took great care to explain what he was thinking about. He was always careful to make sure that everyone around the table really understood. Most importantly, he always asked a myriad of questions before he inserted his own opinion. We have much to learn from these molecular biologists well beyond their enormous contributions to the advancement of their field. Instead, we allow them to be humiliated and lynched when they slip up and make a stupid joke.

Losing Oneself

A Review of Still Alice


Howard Adelman

[For David, Debbie and Zach]

Look at Bellow’s portrait of Chicago to which the protagonist returns where he knows he cannot remain invisible. “The main threat [Bellow calls it a ‘liminal’ threat] in a place like Chicago is emptiness – human gaps and breaks, a sort of spiritual ozone that smells like bleach.” However, it is precisely this liminality, this role of the atmosphere of a place, that allows it to serve as an intermediate and transitional condition between failed efforts to disappear and successful, but crooked and indirect, ways to reappear.

If you read yesterday’s blog reviewing Saul Bellow’s novella Actual, if you do not have Alzheimer’s or some other cognitive condition or dementia that impairs memory, or if you are not getting old and forgetful, or if you are not, like me, suffering from a terrible memory for some things and a terrific memory for others, perhaps you will remember the above paragraph from near the end of yesterday’s blog and review. I did not know then that yesterday evening on Netflix I would watch the movie, Still Alice, with a grounded performance by Juliane Moore playing Alice Howland with a subtlety and grace that reveals both Alice’s strengths and increasing vulnerability. Still Alice premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and I missed seeing it then. During its theatrical release, I was out of town. However emotionally shaken I became last evening, I was really happy I saw the movie.

I do not believe I have seen a film before on Alzheimer’s – and there have been plenty in the last decade – that viewed the onset and progress of the disease from the point of view of the victim rather than a family member. The performance deserved an Academy award.

At least half a million Canadians suffer from various forms of dementia; Alice learned that she had contracted a rare type, early-onset Alzheimer’s, when she was a 50-year-old in the prime of her life and at the height of her career as a linguistics professor at, in the movie, Columbia University. There are early clues. She forgets the word “lexicon” during a lecture and, after some hesitation, substitutes, if I remember correctly, “word field.” She first really recognizes that something must be terribly wrong when she is taking her regular exercise running through the grounds and parks of Columbia University and suddenly finds she is lost and totally disoriented even though she is in the central commons of the campus. But the most severe blow does not come when the diagnosis is confirmed, but when she learns that early-onset Alzheimer’s is inherited and that each of her children has a 50/50 chance of inheriting the condition. Even Job never received news as bad as this.

If you read the book by Lisa Genova upon which the movie was based, it may be easier to remember the scene near the end of the movie when Alice’s youngest daughter, Lydia, also played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart, describes a metaphor of flying in the stratosphere above even the thinned out ozone layer that she can look down upon and observe how fragmented and thin and broken up it is. But then souls of the dead rise up to the ozone layer, thicken it and connect the parts together into a network to make it whole again.

She describes this to her mother who by then has trouble even recognizing her own daughter and who has just gone through a year in which the neurons in her brain were undergoing necrosis, premature dying off and then asphyxiating nearby cells so that one’s own cells that have given you your thoughts, that have made you who you are, and, that, in Alice’s case in a very specific and peculiar ironic way, have been the very object of her research and the foundation of her professional success, that are for everyone the basis for each person’s ideas and memories, those same cells now turn upon nearby cells in a process of molecular murder instigated by the cellular suicide of one of the neurons. The process makes no noise. The person in whose head this necrotic process is taking place only knows it, only figures out that something is wrong, because she begins to recognize that what is happening is not her, that she is losing herself.

Instead of a thinking and remembering brain, made up of networks of neurons, the network begins to break down. Gaps appear. The cells in a PET scan appear fragmented and broken. Further, as the cell membranes lose their integrity, the cell releases the deadly poisons of cell death into the extracellular space. The result – inflammation that prevents the phagocytes from reaching and removing the dead cells through pagocytosis. So the condition worsens. More networks breakdown and the process accelerates. Unlike the process that Stephen Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne, goes through in The Theory of Everything, the deterioration is all the more shattering because it is mental rather than physical, because one loses one’s mind and one’s self and not just the functioning of one’s body.

In Lydia’s metaphor, however, with the death of the cells, with the death of the cell network, with the loss of integrity and increasing fragmentation, the souls of those dying people that are being lost, rise up to the real ozone layer in the heavens rather than Bellow’s imagined ozone layer in the streets of Chicago. Those souls link arms and form a new network that holds together and thickens the ozone layer. So death ensures the continuation of life.

For Bellow, the gaps, the emptiness, the necrosis, was neither in the heavens nor inside one’s head, but in the streets of Chicago. There the ozone layer lives, not in the stratosphere. It smells like bleach. And it performs a liminal function in linking a failed effort to disappear and a crooked and indirect way to reappear. In the film (and the novel) Still Alice, the disappearance of the self requires no effort and it is tragically successful What reappears is not a reborn self, a self who is saved, however imperfectly, but a soul that rises to the heavens and cures the layer that makes life possible on earth. And it does not smell like bleach.

Still Alice is the very opposite of a tale told by Bellow on exactly the same theme, but traveling in reverse direction. The movie is a tale of a disappearing self like the drip drip drip of a tap that gets faster and louder as each minute of the film passes and the inevitability of the self’s vanishing proceeds relentlessly and incrementally apace, recorded by camera work that is minutely fine-tuned and calibrated and to music that has the power to move without ever being noticed. Inevitability may be the given, but what is not given is the way Alice handles her condition, with logic, with common sense, and, finally, with a surrender to her heart as she loses the skills in her head.

Instead of ozone serving as a link between the loss and the rebirth, the loss and the rebirth save the ozone layer. In the end, while Bellow always tried to balance his writing between realism and the creative imagination, Still Alice is a film deeply rooted in the real, deeply rooted in hard science. But it takes the imagination of her actress daughter, Lydia, to bring salvation to that dying world. She is the only child of Alice’s three children that can and does accomplish the deed, for she is the only one that is an artist, an actor on the stage of life in which the imagination and emotions provide the proscenium upon which all life must be built, not the intellect.

At one time in the movie, Alice tells her daughter Lydia, a story. Lydia was the one child with whom she had the most strained relationship because her daughter insisted in following her muse rather than the hard realism of her mother. Alice tells Lydia a tale of a butterfly that she was told by her own mother when Alice at the age of seven became so upset when she learned that a butterfly lived its life of beauty for only one month. It isn’t the length of time one lives, but the intensity and the quality and the beauty that one brings to that life that counts, Alice’s mother told her. It is not a tragedy for a butterfly to have a short life. What matters is the beautiful life they have when they live. And the only memory Alice had to retain was that she had had a beautiful life.

What, Alice asks of Lydia, if I don’t recognize who you are and I do not recall how much you love me? Lydia replies, then I will remind you and show you how much I deeply love you. Then you will believe me. It is the now that counts even more than all the memories.

In this tale of losing oneself, in which, in Alice’s words, one experiences those moments when you are most afflicted, the self, instead of being within, floats before you just beyond your grasp. You feel not only that you are losing it, but that you are totally lost. For if you cannot control and keep hold of yourself, you cannot choose which memories to lose and which to cherish. As your yesterdays disappear, so your hopes and expectations of the future also vanish.

This is what Alice tells an assembly of neurologists and specialists in Alzheimer’s disease when she addresses them, lecturing as if she were still a professor in full control of her faculties, but who took three days to write the short speech and can only deliver it by crossing out each line in yellow as she reads so that she can retain her place in the speech and not forget where she is in her talk. Though she forgets, and though her ability to hope goes with it, she is still Alice and today still matters. So the opportunity to lecture again, to exercise her great gift of understanding language, its functions and its processes, to use her gift of eloquence once more, probably for the last time, was to her a great gift and, for the moment, she could bask in the sheer joy of the feeling it gave her.

There is not an ounce of melodrama, of false sentimentality, of saccharine sweetness in the whole movie. Juliane Moore plays Alice with subtlety and restrained understatement. Mostly, it is through her face, through her own reactions to each new discovery of her loss, that she allows us to experience the deterioration alongside and from within her. Perhaps the co-directors deserve some credit. For Richard Glatzer had some deep understanding of what Alice was going through because he suffered from the neurodegenerative disorder of Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. His co-director, and his partner in real life, Wash Westmoreland, experienced Glatzer’s loss of self alongside him.

As Alice’s loses herself, she also gradually loses those closest to her – her devoted husband, John Howland played by Alec Baldwin, her older daughter, Anna Howland, played by Kate Bosworth, and her son, Tom Howland played by Hunter Parish. Except Lydia. For when she watched Lydia perform in a play – I believe it was Angels in America by Tony Kushner – and she could not even follow and recognize that the play was a reflection of what she was experiencing, and that Lydia could give the part so much power and strength of emotion because she had directly asked Alice how Alice had felt, how and what she really felt and was not satisfied with an answer like “OK,” or “It could be worse” or “not bad.”

Lydia wanted to know what Alice actually felt. Alice told her. But Alice could no longer comprehend what she saw and what she had witnessed. But it did not matter. For what she grasped was that the play – and life itself – was about love. Alice knew what she had felt. She felt not only that this had been the theme of the play, but she felt her daughter’s intense love for her, the intense love of the daughter with whom she had had such a strained relationship. And that love lived on in her heart, not in the network of neurons in her brain.

At one point in the movie when she looks at herself in the mirror and does not recognize the shrinking woman with the dull hair and the pale skin of her face and a head sitting on a body that no longer seemed to be able to support it as she shrivelled up before her and our eyes to match the necrotic behaviour of the neurons in her head, when she no longer could recognize her own self, she knew it was time. She spread soap suds or toothpaste or shaving cream over her face in that mirror. But by the time she recognized it was time, it was too late and all sense of time and memory and control over her life had passed her by. Claude Jutra, like myself also a medical student who never practiced medicine, whom I think was Canada’s best film director ever (I rank Mon Oncle Antoine among my top ten films), knew when it was time. He too had Alzheimer’s. When he was still able, in November 1986, he disappeared into the St. Lawrence River, a case of life imitating art for that is what one of his heroes had done. Alice lived on to teach us a deeper meaning to life.

I cried through the movie, not so much for Alice as for my brother Al. He had a blastoma in his brain when he was only 62 at the peak of his career as a cardiologist. I cried for the memories of watching him lose one cognitive and then one physical function after another. I cried as I watched everything that made Al the imperfect human being who he had been, vanish. I cried as I watched him disappear over a period of twelve months until he was simply a living, breathing corpse in a coma on his back that could neither see nor hear nor speak nor feel. I cried because I remember spending a month with him in Arizona as he sought to benefit from the latest far out experiment in combating his type of cancer, but each day he clearly and unequivocally deteriorated. I cried because I saw him fight for his life and to control his life, but, unlike Alice, by surrendering himself to be a guinea pig rather than, like Alice, using conniving and tricks and mental exercises to retain her memory and control for as long as she could. I cried at my anger at him for giving into his mystical propensities and grasping onto the handle of false hope instead of retaining the solid ground of his scientific training. I cried because, at the end, when the magic of any hope would have been relevant, he was past his due date. I cried because Alice as she became sicker evolved to become more open to her own children and turned into an even more extraordinary butterfly, while Al had turned himself back into a larvae, a ghost and a demon, in the hope that he could re-emerge once more through a second metamorphosis as a butterfly. I cried for each of his three children. I cried because I had not been able to follow him back into the new cocoon that he had made for himself and from which he would never again emerge. I cried because I deeply loved my brother and have missed him ever since. I cried because I was unable to convey that feeling Lydia conveyed to Alice before Al’s mind was totally eaten away by cancer.