Shame and Humiliation
Part I of V: Shaming and Shame
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