Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

DO NOT READ THIS BLOG UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM. The film is brilliant, but even more brilliant than most critics perceived.

How would you feel if you, a mother, had an argument with your teenage daughter, Angela – not exactly an archetypal angel – about whether to let her use your car to go out on a date on a Saturday evening? What if your daughter stormed out of the house saying she would walk and if she got raped it was your fault? What if you, as she fled out the door, called after her in anger that she should get raped for the foul language and insults hurled at you? What if you said this really to get back at her because you had just learned that she was exploring moving out and moving in with her father, Charlie, who used to beat you and whom you divorced when he ran off with a 19-year-old bimbo?

And then she was raped that evening. Not only raped, but murdered. Not only murdered, but raped while she lay dying. Not only murdered and raped, but her corpse burned. As much as you might live in a modern world and knew that, in this case, what happened was not a consequence of your words, the guilt you bore would go so deep and be so mutilating that you wanted, that you needed, to displace any responsibility onto another. What do you do with the ugly and agonizing pain, with the weight of that ton of guilt, with the deep burning embers of a searing grief? What better place to displace that responsibility but onto a club of cracker cops unable to find the murderer and rapist?

This is NOT a film about an enraged, unrelenting, uncompromising woman of steel, determined to ensure justice for the murder and rape of her child. It is not even a film about righteous vengeful fury. There is no righteousness whatsoever. And there certainly is no desire for justice. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) insists that she wants the government to set up a database with the DNA of every male so that it can be matched with the DNA on her daughter’s burnt corpse, it is not to obtain and exact justice, but to obtain and exact vengeance.

“Be sure and kill ‘em.” She is a hard-hearted woman so deeply frozen and dead on the inside and so full of fire and brimstone and steely edges on the outside, that we as the audience are sucked into applauding her devil take all attitude if only because the language of both sympathy and bureaucracy is so cold that we welcome, indeed applaud, someone who talks without thinking and fires away with little if no concern for or empathy with her targets. What magic when a writer/director can make such a detestable woman so tremendously likeable that we offer her our deepest sympathies. The chief target of her rage is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of affection and sensitive attachment, like his predecesor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is intelligent, sensitive and conscientious rather than an indifferent oaf.

The film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, begins with a distraught but very determined mother bent on displacing that guilt in the ostensible pursuit of justice, with which we as viewers easily identify. Especially since her method of embarrassing the police is so public. She pays for putting up signs on three obsolete titular billboards to express her rage and frustration. The motive is unbeknownst to everyone, except her son who witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter. The billboards are used to displace that deep and very painful guilt. Critics who look at Mildred as “morally unimpeachable” are truly blind and deaf.  She is a harridan, immensely likeable and sympathetic, but still a vicious harridan.

Gradually as the film unfolds, we learn of the source and depth of that guilt. But we learn much more. For Ebbing is a town where the use of foul language is the norm, where the mistreatment of Blacks is the norm, especially by one police officer, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has never been held responsible for his violent and outrageous behaviour. It just so happens that this violent cop is a mama’s boy, his mother is a virulent bitch and he is probably a repressed homosexual. He gradually wins our sympathy.

It is a town in which a happy family of a couple, a police chief (Willoughby), his wife and two children, play a game by a stream whereby the two young girls are required to fish for stuffed animals around the blanket on which they are sitting without leaving the blanket, while the parents go off for some nookie. But the instructions to the girls are delivered in the foulest language imaginable. As Mildred says at the beginning of the film when discussing the wording with her son on the proposed billboards, you may address your children in the foulest language, but on public billboards you “can’t say nothin’ defamatory.” It is a world of deep hypocrisy.

The sin permeating this town goes much deeper. When a priest, Father Montgomery, comes to the home of the distraught mother to try to persuade her to take down the billboards that are causing such stress to the popular police chief, the mother kicks him out, but not before reducing him to quivering silence by accusing him of complicity for doing nothing, just as he did nothing when his altar boy was seduced or raped by another priest. And in guilt, we sit silent in the theatre oblivious to the fact that this is a tale of raw vengeance and shame rather than of justice and guilt. The male secretive self-protective clubs of the town are now under attack by one enraged woman and her wild jeremiad. And the moral universe is inverted in McDonagh’s view when priests become priests and cops become cops because they want to do good, but are perceived now as sinister simply because of the costumes they wear, whether a clerical collar or a police uniform.

Unequivocally, Ebbing is a town in which sin has raged like a wildfire so that it permeates the language and behaviour of ordinary citizens and officers of the law alike. It is a town where the rule of impulse outweighs the rule of law. It is a town in which any efforts to purify the town had fallen by the wayside and became as obsolete as those billboards did when the new highway was built to bypass the old road. Bad behaviour had become the norm in this town in the heartland of America and sin is everywhere. The town is morally polluted. Not even the torching of the billboards and then the police station, and the scorching of the dumb and distasteful racist Constable Dixon, can even expurgate the sin. Dixon is, of course, the antithesis of Dixon of Dock Green (Jack Warner), the archetypal London bobby of the twenty-year long-running BBC series about a police officer full of common sense and empathy,

But that is just the background, the setting, very important but not the central theme of the movie. The town ceremonies and rituals and rites provide no opportunity any longer to expiate that sin, to cleanse the society of its moral pollution. Moral pollution has become the norm. There is no ritual whereby the town, its leaders and its ordinary citizens can acknowledge their responsibility for the sins. Everyone is complicit. Everyone “stands by.” For the movie is about guilt transmuted into shame, and sin transformed into vengeance.

Guilt goes deeper than sin. It is at the root of sin. It is the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. At the end of the film, the most vicious police officer becomes a burnt offering and seems to repent (following the guiding note of his now deceased chief of police to learn about guilt, confession and love), owning up to one’s responsibilities and learning to love oneself and others as a good Christian should. It is clear that the members of the town, especially this police officer and his ardent accuser, the mother of the raped girl, go off to possibly murder a suspect who they now know could not have killed the daughter. The town and the people of the town have no rite, no ritual, no religious practice through which they can expiate their guilt and accept responsibility for what they did and what they do. For the fundamental moral code of the town has become displacement of responsibility. The town is awash not only in sin but in guilt. There is no act of reparation available to them. Instead, they get a rifle and ostensibly set out possibly to murder an innocent man. They will decide en route whether they will do it.

There is no redemption. There is no means of redemption. Guns and violence as the answer to problems have so permeated the value structure, have so displaced any real moral code, that the only answer to any action is revenge, not understanding and certainly not any acceptance of responsibility for what has taken place. There is no mechanism to sharpen any individual’s conscience. Paganism has returned to occupy central stage in the heartland of America. It is a Manichean world in which demonic forces seem to continually defeat any divine force. It is a world which has lost most of its humanity where each human, every male and every female, assumes responsibility for him or herself to ensure a divine presence on earth and the expulsion of the demonic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is about the demonic taking control of a town in the heartland of America just as it has taken over the White House. Any rituals to contain and dispose of moral impurities have largely been sacrificed to cowardice, to ambition and to complicity. We have returned to an age in which a young teenage girl is raped, is murdered, is raped while dying, is offered as a burnt offering, but not to a divine order of a healthy, responsible life, but to a demonic order of guns and irresponsibility, of anarchy rather than the rule of law, of impulse rather than thoughtful consideration. It is a world in which the police station as the central symbol of the rule of law has been burnt to the ground. It is a world in which we who watch cheer this act of revenge and pseudo expiation, thrilled at the violence rather than discomfited by the phenomenal moral deterioration in our human moral code.

God is death. Humans must be wedded to life. The rituals of death, of sin and guilt need a place, a temple, where they can be disposed of. If a rabbi reminds me of the sensuousness, the incense and the smoke, the vibrancy and the flavours of a place of temple sacrifice, then that rabbi is totally out of touch with the function of the temple and the meaning of its absence. For without a temple, all responsibility rests on each and every one of us to be accountable for the commissions of sinful acts that thrust shards of guilt deep into our souls. The destroyed temple does not simply belong to a more primitive past in the sense of appealing to our basic sensuality as if it is simply an outdoor food market.

Why do we need to significantly reduce and limit a gun culture? When do we need blood prohibitions – when the police chief vomits up blood from his cancer, we must recognize the symbolic significance. After all, as McDormand says, “When you croak, the billboards won’t be as effective.” When the sadistic dentist is forced to drill into his own fingernail rather than into the not quite frozen tooth that needs removal, we get a glimpse of a place where inflicting pain has become a way of life and not a place where we try to make pain as painless as possible. So even the police chief’s self-sacrifice to minimize the pain to be inflicted on his family comes across as a positive but largely meaningless gesture, for the core meaning of what this hero did for the town is lost in a miasma of meaningless vengeance totally detached from justice.

Death is now totally intertwined with life instead of hived off and restricted so that life can thrive and blossom. The billboards ask a question intended to embarrass the police. But they are a sign of a society reduced to a shame rather than a guilt culture, a society in which out of helplessness and hopelessness conflicts are resolved by either coercion or shaming rather than by acknowledging guilt and assuming responsibility.

When a movie can put such a profound theological and social commentary before our eyes, and do so with humour and wit, when it so deliberately and cleverly misleads us into a failure to recognize who the hero and who the villain is, when a movie takes us into the bypassed rural routes of the heartland of America to unveil the miasma of sin and the absence of guilt and the rule of law that pervades the town, and when the acting by Frances McDormand , Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all so brilliant, the writing and direction of Martin McDonagh so nuanced, the movie deserves every reward it received even though it appears that most commentators missed its religious and social profundity.

The land needs to be cleansed, especially the heartland Only then can positive mitzvot and proper ethics once again rule in the land of milk and honey.

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arshat Tazria: Exclusion – Leviticus 12:1-13:59

Parshat Tazria: Exclusion – Leviticus 12:1-13:59

by

Howard Adelman

What does the ritual of cleanliness and purification after childbirth have to do with the practice of exclusion and what does the practice of exclusion have to do with the circumcision of male children on the eighth day? Verse 2 and 3 of Leviticus ch. 12, Tazria, read: “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” And why is a woman unclean for two weeks and not one when she has a female child? And why is her banishment from the sanctuary also doubled from 33 to 66 days when the child is a female rather than a male? Why should a woman be regarded as unclean at all after bearing a child?

What connection is there between the birth of a child and a disease like leprosy or even metaphoric leprosy, setting aside how accurate medically the symptoms of the physical condition leprosy as depicted in the text are? Why is raw flesh, of a placenta or chronic leprosy, regarded as unclean? In the case of leprosy, verse 46 of ch. 13 commands that, “He (she) shall remain unclean as long as (s)he has the disease. He (she) is unclean. He (she) shall live alone. His (her) dwelling shall be outside the camp.” What is the condition of tzaraat that commands social exclusion? On the other hand, what does it mean in modern society for a wife to stick by her husband and go into exile with him along with their children?

Yesterday, I wrote a review of the film, The Family, about a mafia family in which a minor mafia boss played by Robert De Niro is sent into exile with his wife and two teenage children in Normandy, France, under the American witness protection program because he ratted on his mafia family, not speaking ill of others without warrant, but with warrant, serving to ensure not simply his expulsion from his mafia family, but making himself a target for elimination. For the mafia Majordomo is determined on revenge. The dominant theme of the movie is exclusion, the loss of the family’s sense of belonging in their Italian community in Brooklyn, how alien De Niro is as a non-French speaker in a small town in Normandy, how the two children have to adapt to a new school and win friends, and how, to overcome the sense of strangeness of this family settling in Normandy when the FBI decides to attempt integration rather than preserving privacy and exclusion which in itself raises suspicions.

Last night we watched the first three episodes of the first season of the Emmy award-winning TV series, The Good Wife, which will end its seventh season run next month. The series also deals with exclusion as a dominant theme. This time the family is not relocated to Normandy, but is exiled from the rich suburban city of Highland Park, 26 miles north of downtown Chicago as Peter (Chris Noth) and Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) are forced to sell their opulent home to pay Peter’s legal bills after he is charged and convicted in a sex and bribery scandal when he was serving as the State’s Attorney for Cook County, which includes the City of Chicago. Alicia relocates with her two children, Zach and Grace, to an apartment, and Alicia resumes her career as a litigation attorney at the bottom rung while her husband, Peter, is sent to jail. Dislocation, alienation, the challenges of reintegration in work and society drive the drama. But the series begins with the focus of the camera on the hand-holding of Peter and Alicia as Peter marches up to deal with the shame and disgrace in the court of public opinion in response to the scandal.

Women are door mats and have been

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

The children have lost their friends as a result of both the scandal and the move. Alicia too is no longer “received” by her former neighbours. Even in her new job, she lives in the shadow of the scandal that is both political and personal because the sexual dalliances of her husband with prostitutes are so devastating to her. The show deliberately resonates on the Bill and Hillary Clinton scandals when Bill was President, but more specifically with the Eliot Spitzer prostitute scandal when he occupied the same position in New York State as Peter Florrick did in Illinois in the TV series. Hillary was and is a lawyer. So was Elizabeth Edwards in the John Edwards sex scandal. Sex and shame. Oh how far the mighty can fall, bringing down with them in shame and ignominy their wives and children.

The series falls into the genre of courtroom drama with a case per week in the first three episodes – a wife wrongly accused of killing her husband in the first episode, an escort who justly accuses her rich patron of rape in the second episode, and a teenager from Alicia’s old neighbourhood of Highland Park unjustly accused of manslaughter. An essential plot device in these crime and courtroom dramas is uncovering the missing clues that will lead to exoneration of the victim and just punishment for the perpetrator.

But these are just the technical devices to introduce suspense and keep the plot moving. The main interest is psychological and social. As in The Family, though Marge may not be smart in terms of education and personal career achievement, she is intelligent, independent, feisty as well as a loving mother. So is Alicia, but though Alicia is professionally trained, she runs up against her own insecurity which the street-smart Marge, who has every reason to be insecure, never does, though she is understandably in terror, mostly for her children, when the mafia hitmen come after her and her family. Alicia, though brave and determined, still wears her fall from grace on her sleeve. Marge remains a good wife. Alicia was one and we wonder whether she, like Hillary, will return to her husband’s side. Both women are cool, though Alicia is radically different from Marge in speaking clearly and with purpose where words follow thought processes rather than expressing an emotional state.

But isn’t this a real stretch from leprosy and circumcision? The link with leprosy is easier to establish. The sex offender, whether the betraying husband or the rapist or the sex offender or the pedophile, is the contemporary version of an individual deemed to have leprosy and requiring quarantine, at least until the disease is clearly in remission. Both are “diseases” of the flesh. The conditions are both seen as resulting from moral turpitude. Ostracism is the accompanying punishment. But ratting on one’s social family and allowing your sexual peccadilloes to become matters of public discussion are worse because each also brings the punishment to bear on the good wife and the good children, even if the wife and children in the comedy are not as innocent as they initially appear.

But over the long term, though I am unwilling to invest my time in the whole series to find out, I suspect subsequent episodes of The Good Wife will reveal Alicia to have as much passion as the compassion she displays, for Zach to reveal he is as clever as De Niro’s son, but in a more diagnostic and analytic way as adumbrated when he discovers the sexual scandal pictures that destroyed his father’s career were computer generated, and that the friendless younger sister, Grace, who so missed her old life will reveal as much gumption and independence as the seventeen-year-old daughter of Robert De Niro in forging a new life for herself.

But a key character in the film and the TV series is a misanthrope, the part of the FBI agent played by Tommy Lee Jones and the role of the in-house investigator in Alicia’s legal firm, Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Punjab. We know virtually nothing personal about either character, certainly in the first three episodes of The Good Wife, even though Kalinda has a great deal of screen time. If Alicia is cool and collected, Kalinda is cold and calculating and never upset by all the shenanigans. Both are protective – Kalinda of Alicia and the FBI agent of De Niro’s character – even though both evince the view that no one is to be trusted. The most distrusting characters become the ones exhibiting the most trust. They do so in a context in which, underneath the exclusion and ostracism, underneath the diseases of the flesh of sexual dalliances and leprosy, in contexts in which both dramas are replete with dead corpses (off the screen in The Good Wife and displayed with abandon in The Family), at the root of both dramas is the question, “Who can you trust?”

Which brings us to circumcision, brit milah, and the connection with social ostracism! For the Jewish ritual of circumcision entails cutting into the flesh of a baby, cutting off a symbolic piece of the flesh of a male child’s foreskin, in practice by an experienced mohel, who may or may not be a physician, but in reality is just a proxy for the father. If a father who so loves his long longed-for son, no one more so than Abraham, is capable of cutting his eight-day-old son, and cutting him in his sexual organ, inflicting pain, however minimal, where the son will carry the badge of a Jew, in his flesh and in his psyche, for his entire life, then the message tattooed in the flesh is that no one can be completely trusted – including God in Judaism in contrast to Christianity.

Trust and distrust are two poles. The misanthrope ostensibly trusts no one. The naïve trusts anyone. But to get by in life we must learn whom to trust and whom to distrust and to what degree. When trust is betrayed, the betrayer is ostracized to some degree. At the extreme, the individual is cast entirely out of the community. A Jewish lad from his second week in existence is taught that he must never completely trust, not just anyone, but especially himself and his own penis. Look at Eliot Spitzer. Look at Bill Clinton.

But what has all of this, even granting a connection between circumcision and ostracism, have to do with a woman being unclean after delivering a child, and being doubly unclean after delivering a female rather than a male child? What is the significance of being טָמֵא, tummah, unclean which is such an obsession in the book of Leviticus? When the word is made flesh, when is the flesh made “unclean”? Contact with a corpse makes one temporarily unclean. Food, clothes, animals and things, but especially people, can be unclean.

When Leviticus 10:10 reads, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean,” the general interpretation is to set up the analogy as holy:common = clean:unclean. Cleanliness is associated with holiness, with purity. The parallel is made between “holy” and “clean” and the “common” with the “unclean.” But according to the structure of the proposition, the analogy should be: holy:common = unclean:clean. It is the common, it is the ordinary, it is the behaviour according to the norms of everyday life, that is clean. It is pride, it is the viewing oneself as a god, as seeing oneself as purer than the ordinary, that is unclean. When a prosecutor sets out on the path to expunge his world of corruption, to drive the scalawags out of office, beware. Raise your antenna of distrust. For both religious and secular holy rollers are particularly suspect.

If you regard yourself as occupying an exclusive sphere immune to the temptations of desire, then pride will surely go before the fall. No one, especially one’s own father, is holy. Uncleanliness is an integral part of life. But we must guard against contamination, not the contamination of dirt, not the contamination of the ordinary, but the contamination of the obsession with one’s own purity and exclusive status. The higher we view ourselves, the greater the fall and the more appropriate the punishment and the degree of exclusion. And when we kill at will, whether as a mafia hit man, a murderer or a terrorist, when we see as our mission and vocation as taking another’s life as simply an everyday occupation, then absolute exclusion is appropriate. When we have incurable metaphoric leprosy, total isolation from society is appropriate.

If this perverse interpretation has any play, why are women in childbirth regarded as unclean, and why are they regarded as doubly unclean when the child born is a female?  Simply put, lest the mother feel holier than ever because she gave birth to a child and lest she feel doubly holy because the child born is a female, the key guarantor of reproduction. Females have twice the value of the male child (and usually have to work twice as hard to prove they are male’s equal), so the risk of conceiving oneself as holier than thou requires ritual preventive detention and social exclusion to ward off any contamination of the disease, from the germ that gives rise to the danger.

A Jewish circumcised male is given a permanent reminder that he cannot trust his penis for it has a mind of its own, especially when wedded to the holy spirit, when the male sees himself as an exemplification of the holy spirit. Females do not need to learn to distrust themselves, but they still need to learn to ward off any betrothal to the holy spirit of purity. The ritual of symbolic exclusion, of a woman regarding herself as unclean when she does give birth, and doubly so when she gives birth to a female child, exemplifies a need to be ritually and very temporarily ostracized to prevent the potential malady from becoming runaway contamination.

The upshot of the diagnosis of tzaraat, especially of an acute condition that has become chronic and incurable, is banishment, and, in the extreme, permanent banishment. A Judean king afflicted with acute tzaraat remained under house arrest for the rest of all his life in a beit hachoshit, a house of quarantine. For the rest of us, quarantine is a temporary state from which we should emerge stronger and better than ever. Thank God we are not kings – or queens!

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Shaming and Truth

Shaming and the Quest for Truth

by

Howard Adelman

In the spring, I wrote a series of five bogs on shaming and humiliation. In the first blog, amongst other illustrations, I discussed the case of Tim Hunt, the Nobel scientist who made inappropriate sexist remarks at a luncheon in South Korea of female science writers. Late last week I received a message from a colleague, who is a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, bringing my attention to a report on the truth and falsity of what took place in the initial event and in the controversy that ensued. The long discussion was unconcerned with shame and humiliation and only focused on issues of truth. The report can be found at: https://medium.com/@danwaddell/saving-tim-hunt-97db23c6ee93.

Before I get into that report, I want to remind readers about some of my depictions concerning shame and humiliation.

“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.’”

“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 deflectin…the process drives shame into even deeper recesses in the soul. And the shaming allows the multitude to coalesce and feel good about themselves… 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.”

“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…He 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.”

Then there is the issue of truth and Dan Waddell’s blog.

“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.”

In contrast, Dan Waddell’s blog, “Saving Tim Hunt,” is an extensive effort to gather evidence to establish that the criticisms of Hunt were based on reasonably accurate reports of what he said. Wassell tries to escape the charge that, “The frame determines what the facts are.” Instead, he tries to weigh in considerable detail disputes over interpretations of so-called facts.

What are Waddell’s conclusion about the facts? Generally not that dissimilar from my own, but with a very different analysis and assessment. It is generally agreed, though not without many modifications and dissents, that Waddell agrees that Tim Hunt said the following: “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

There is a dispute over whether he added the phrase: “Now seriously” after the fact, but I suggest, whether he said it or not, the phrase is consistent with the rest of the content. In any case, there is widespread agreement that the remarks, or even joke, if it was one, was in poor taste and especially inappropriate before the crowd that he was addressing. Since he called himself a “chauvinist,” there is little need to cower away from judging the remarks, and even Tim Hunt, a sexist.  My question was, if Hunt was a sexist, was the treatment he received appropriate? Waddell’s focus is on the intent of the remark. Was it supposed to be a joke? Further, was it an effort of Tim trying to be honest?

Let us take the first assessment – that the comments were inappropriate, an expression of poor judgement, and, in Tim Hunt’s or his wife’s words, stupid and ill-judged,” “inexcusable,” and “unbelievably stupid.” They were understandably “offensive.”  Tim Hunt apologized for the remarks. Waddell wrote: “Hunt responded with a ‘heartfelt’ apology, albeit one that implicitly blamed the audience for their erroneous ‘interpretation’ and failure to understand his ‘self-deprecating joke’:

‘I am extremely sorry for the remarks made during the recent “Women in science” lunch at the WCSJ in Seoul, Korea. I accept that my attempts at a self-deprecating joke were ill-judged and not in the least bit funny. 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.’

Tim Hunt apologized…His wife admitted that she could see how his words could be offensive to those who didn’t know him. Few had ever heard of him before this incident. Even fewer knew him at the WCSJ conference. And many – many more than have been claimed to date –  found it deeply offensive and, above all, sexist, including Hunt’s ERC press adviser for the trip. So why wasn’t Hunt’s apology simply accepted and the matter left there?

Were the comments a joke or intended? The comments were unfunny, as Hunt admits. So unfunny that a number didn’t even twig on he was joking. That Hunt went on to encourage those present to overcome obstacles and said ‘congratulations,’ as later emerged in Demina’s audio clip, is pretty standard fare for someone offering a toast. It in no way alleviates the crassness of his earlier comments. He made a heartfelt ‘apology’ for offending people and this apology was accepted by his hosts.

Were Hunt’s comments appropriate? No. Were they helpful to the cause of women in science, the same people he was there to toast? Not in the slightest. Were they funny? No. Even those who thought it a joke didn’t consider it amusing. A significant number did not even recognise it as a joke.

If it was meant as a joke, does that make it alright? It doesn’t. First of all not being serious doesn’t mean not being sexist. People can believe things to be funny and also think they’re true. The English language even has an aphorism for this: “Many a true word is spoken in jest.”

In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is indeed a simple one. He said something casually sexist, stupid and inappropriate which offended many of his audience. He then confirmed that he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice. The matter should have stopped there. Thus far, I am in full agreement with Waddell. But thereafter we are in strong disagreement. Waddell went on to write: “Instead a concerted effort to save his name — which was not disgraced, nor his reputation as a scientist jeopardized — has rewritten history. Science is about truth. As this article has shown, we have seen very little of it from Hunt’s apologists .” I do not think that I am a Hunt apologist. I also contend that Hunt’s name was disgraced. I do not think that history has been rewritten or that Waddell has shown that to be the case.

Let’s repeat what Tim Hunt said:

Sir Tim Hunt: I did mean the part about having — having trouble with girls. I mean, it is true that people — I have fallen in love with people in the lab, and that people in the lab have fallen in love with me, and it’s very disruptive to the science. Um, because it’s terribly important that in the lab, people are, sort of, on a level playing field. And I found that, um, you know, these emotional entanglements made life very difficult. I mean, I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offence — that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean — I just meant to be honest, actually.

Sir Tim Hunt: I came after three women, who very nicely thanked the organisers for the lunch. And I said it was odd that they — they’d asked a man to make any comments. And I’m really sorry that I said what I said — it was a very stupid thing to do, in the presence of all those journalists. And what was intended as a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment apparently was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience.

According to Waddell, “In our view, based on the evidence, the idea he was telling a self-deprecating joke solely about his emotional entanglements in the lab to a roomful of strangers simply doesn’t wash.” He refers to Blum as maintaining that on 9 June Hunt did not explain his comments as a joke, but as an attempt to be honest, the same sentiment he would express to the BBC the next day.

Hunt did not initially explain his comment as a joke. But he did subsequently. Further, attempting to be honest and telling a joke are not mutually exclusive. Waddell’s argument is facile and misleading. Further, there is a difference between a joke told in bad taste and characterizing it as not intentionally a joke at all. A bad joke, a distasteful joke, remains a joke, an unfunny one, but a joke nonetheless. Demina had commented in a tweet on 19 June: “Everybody who heard T. Hunt’s speech yesterday understood that he was joking. For those who did not: guys, where is your sense of humour?” Dismaeli wrote: “good for him that he took responsibility for the comment.”

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. A Nobel Prize winner had been brought low.

Let me end with repetition: 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.

And it is war – the war of terror and the war on terror that I will attend to very soon.

Shame and Humiliation in Judaism versus Christianity

Shame and Humiliation

Part V of V: Shame and Humiliation in Judaism versus Christianity

by

Howard Adelman

In the first part of this series, I referred to Tamar in relationship to her father-in-law as well as to Joseph and his brothers in the Torah and their rejection of shame and humiliation, especially shaming another. Instead, Judaism generally stressed guilt, remorse for what you specifically did, and not for who you are. This guilt element in Jewish cultural history emphasizes the rule of law and due process. It stressed respect for the Other and oneself. However, ancient Hebrew culture also has a deep understanding for a shame culture, for it is that which is rejected, that which represents falling into a bottomless pit. After all, the obverse of trying to abide by rules and experiencing guilt when one fails is not experiencing deep shame. It is summed up in Proverbs 13:18. If you do not follow a disciplined path, you will end up impoverished and in disgrace, totally ashamed of yourself, but if you learn from your mistakes and listen to criticism, you will be honoured. “Poverty and disgrace befall him who spurns discipline, but he who keeps reproof will be honoured.” רֵישׁ וְקָלוֹן פּוֹרֵעַ מוּסָר וְשׁוֹמֵר תּוֹכַחַת

Shame is the hell Israel will be forced into if the nation fails to follow God’s laws. “They will put on sackcloth and be clothed with terror. Every face will be covered with shame, and every head will be shaved.” (Ezekiel 7:18) But if the Israelites can throw off shame, if the dry bones of those who live without hope can be infused with self-respect and discard shame, then “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” will come to life with flesh and spirit. (Ezekiel 37)

Further, those who try to humiliate and shame me for my beliefs and my practices will, in the end, be shamed and feel shame deep in their souls and disgraced in their very bones. “Then my enemies will see that the LORD is on my side. They will be ashamed that they taunted me, saying, ‘So where is the LORD–that God of yours?’ With my own eyes I will see their downfall; they will be trampled like mud in the streets.” (Micah 7:10) Shame revisits the shamer. To be mired in shame is to be an eternal wanderer without direction, without hope and destined to live in the deepest darkness.

The opposite is escape from shame, escape from humiliation. If one escapes shame, escapes humiliation, if one is to grow flesh on one’s dried up and dead life, out of that dry ground one must grow into a tiny plant rising from the cracked and parched earth seeking self-respect and light, seeking to respect others. When I was a young man, I wrote a play that was produced called “Root Out of Dry Ground” (Isaiah 53:2) about that struggle. I was denounced from the pulpit of Canada’s largest synagogue for being a self-hating Jew. Especially some sects experts at shaming even though shaming is antithetical to the core of their religion.

Though one be humiliated, though one can be shamed, though one can be “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” and though others turn away, despise the shamed one and refuse to come face to face with him (Isaiah 53:3), though we hide our faces from him; “he was despised, and we esteemed him not,” that is not the path, the light and the way. “Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed. Neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and the reproach of thy widowhood shalt thou remember no more.”

אַל-תִּירְאִי כִּי-לֹא תֵבוֹשִׁי, וְאַל-תִּכָּלְמִי כִּי לֹא תַחְפִּירִי:  כִּי בֹשֶׁת עֲלוּמַיִךְ תִּשְׁכָּחִי, וְחֶרְפַּת אַלְמְנוּתַיִךְ לֹא תִזְכְּרִי-עוֹד.

Before we get to the story of Cain and Abel that we referred to earlier, it is important to properly understand the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. In the standard misinterpretation, Adam and Eve disobey God’s command, eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, experience deep shame and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They experienced deep shame for their disobedience. They experienced deep shame for having sex with one another.

I have written many times on the phenomenology of this experience, and so I will try to be very brief. Adam is placed in the garden. He aspires to be like God, to say and there is. After all, he is given responsibility for naming things. Enamoured with his vocation, he is ignorant of his own body, its desires and its needs. He does not even recognize he is lonely. He does not even acknowledge his body as his own. He may have been a brilliant naturalist, but he was also one dumb dude totally ashamed of who he was as an embodied being.

God knew he was alone. Adam himself never recognized his needs or his loneliness. And, as I have written, loneliness is at the core of suffering from shame. Adam is ashamed and he does not even know it well before he eats of the Tree of Knowledge of good and Evil where eating thereof allowed him for the first time to know, to acknowledge that he was ashamed. Though God had created Eve in the same way as Adam, in Adam’s dream, in his fantasy world, Eve is merely a projection of his own flesh without a mind of her own, without a centre of self-determination. He does not recognize her. He does not respect her. He does not even respect his own body. So when his erect penis in the form of an othered Being, viewed only as a devious snake, seduces Eve, that penis is not his. It is a trickster who beguiles Eve. It is not Adam who had sex. He was taken off guard. He was led down the garden path. Adam takes no responsibility for his acts. He was too enamoured with being a disembodied mind to appreciate he was an embodied creature with feelings and attachments.

But his body, not his mind, saves him. It introduces, but only introduces him, to determining what is good and what is evil, to the world of ethics and not just the knowledge of external nature, to the world of prescriptions and imperatives and not just descriptions. It began with recognizing that he felt ashamed, ashamed that he was an embodied creature and not a disembodied divine Being. With this knowledge, he could no longer live in the illusory purely mental world of the Garden of Eden. He automatically was thrust into the real world.

The shame experienced is not because of disobedience of God’s instructions, for God had simply warned that IF you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will no longer be able to live in a cut off disembodied world of the mind. You shall surely die and be reborn as a flesh and blood creature. Thou shalt not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is not a categorical imperative. It is not even an imperative at all. A conditional anticipation is not an imperative. But because Adam had not yet eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he could not recognize the difference between a categorical and a conditional. He could not recognize the difference between an imperative and a descriptive generalization, especially one that referred to what could be rather than what is.

Nor were Adam and Eve punished for eating of the tree. The consequence followed as described, but the shame arose from the lie, from the cover-up, from the displacement of responsibility. Where they should have felt guilt about this projection, about the failure to respect who he was as an embodied mind and not a disembodied God, for who Eve was as an independent self-respecting human being, they covered up their flesh. They felt ashamed. This was the Fall, not eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having sex is not a sin. Denying who we are, blaming others are sins. And Adam was deeply immersed in shame long before he and Eve had sex.

The history of man in throwing off a metaphysics of shame and accepting a metaphysics of guilt defined by rules and discipline became an effort of thousands of years. The start, however was ominous. The children of Adam and Eve demonstrate this. If Cain and Abel no longer could see themselves as demi-gods, each could at least try to define themselves and be respected as the one chosen to be closest to God. This was the new fantasy that replaced the older one. How do you achieve that recognition? They follow the reverse path of the Greeks where humans are helped by the gods – in this case by second order gods. But for the Hebrews, men still aspired to be next to God and to be recognized as God’s second-in-command.

How to get there? Show your indifference to the best products of your physical labour. Sacrifice the best that you have made and produced with the labour of your body to God to gain that desired recognition. The farmer sacrifices the best of his grain and Cain asks for recognition for his labour and service to God. Abel, the hunter, the cattleman, the rancher, sacrifices the best of his herd. God gives the recognition to Abel. Cain, instead of understanding that recognition is a step backwards, a step backwards to dependency on nature, a step back towards the image of man as a disembodied being, goes into a jealous rage and feels totally shamed. He lashes out and kills Abel.

God punished Cain by ejecting him from society and not just the Garden of Eden. The pain experienced and acknowledged there had been a piece of cake. He becomes the wanderer, the individual without a settled home who will have to roam through the wilderness of dry bones and shame, but will eventually redeem himself on a higher plane as the founder of cities, of civilization.

I recognize that this is not the Genesis tale you were taught as children. But, I suggest, you were educated in a culture that esteemed shame as a tool of progress, of redemption, as a spur to salvation. Instead of a state that had to be abandoned and left behind totally. In Christianity, it will be left behind, but by and only through grace. As it is written in Timothy 1:12, “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” Suffering is redemptive. And one is freed from shame only be being accepted as one with Christ, a far more ambitious goal than that of either Cain or Abel, who wanted simply recognition from God. If Jesus is God and a person can be one with Jesus, then one can be one with God. And that is the only route to escape shame and sin because man is by nature a sinner. As Christianity teaches, a true Christian stands unashamedly only when he finds the cross and lives as one with the spirit of Jesus.

Instead of positing guilt and shame as belonging to opposite worlds, guilt is absorbed into shame and the Hebrews are characterized as inherently wallowing in shame, suffering from faithlessness because they rejected Christ as their saviour and as a reborn God.  However, if one is a Christian, one accepts Christ as one’s saviour and the route out of sin and shame; one rejects the Jewish belief that the rejection of shame requires you and only you to have respect for who you are and not depend on another for recognition. Accepting Jesus is not only not the route to salvation but the route to reinforcing a shame culture. So Christianity was built, not on Judaism as a brother religion, or Judaism as the source religion of Christianity, but as something which has to be buried and upon which the cornerstone of the Church of Christ has to be built. As Peter put it, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (2:6) Jews became shameful, but if you trust in Christ, you will never suffer shame.

The choice for Christians was either everlasting life in Christ or shame, everlasting shame. One escaped shame not through respecting oneself and who we are, not by respecting Others for who they are, but by accepting that Jesus is the one and only way to escape your life as a sinner. Sin was shameful and man was inherently a sinner and cannot escape sin without the grace of God through the assistance and mediation of Jesus. One had to confess one’s natural sinfulness. Instead of an expansion of spirit, one had to experience contrition. Unless one accepted that path of salvation, one was condemned to everlasting shame and contempt. So guilt, instead of being a regret for one’s own responsibility in offending a social norm, becomes a synonym for shame instead of its opposite. Guilt says you are unworthy and not that you are guilty for the specific act you did.

Thus, when David cries out to God not to be cast aside in shame and thrown into the pit with the wicked, this is interpreted as a request for grace when it is no such thing. It is a request that as a person I stand up on my own two feet, accept who I am and what I must do to be better, but reject, not accept, that one is inherently shameful; to reject not accept that one needs a mediator to accomplish this task, to accept that shame cannot be a tool of redemption, but must be cast off and left in the desert of dry bones unable to rise up with flesh on those bones and a smile on your face.

In a guilt culture, one is inculcated with norms. When one disobeys those implanted norms by digressions in one’s behaviour, one feels guilty, not for who you are but for what you did. In a guilt culture, one confronts another in private so as not to humiliate the other for her or his failure to follow those norms. And when those norms shift, then there are cultural clashes within ourselves and between us and others. But this requirement for discourse is not a cause for shame, but for rejoicing. For it creates the foundation for a dialogical society. This does not entail that guilt cultures insist on total conformity, but rather they insist on a second order set of rules for altering primary norms governing behaviour, in secular parlance, a constitution. The problems really occur when these second order rules themselves are in disarray or have lost their respect.

Now some would class shame cultures as those which esteem self-pride and honour, superficial appearances and upholding of those appearances. But that is just one instance of a shame culture and a pretty debased one at that. Deep shame cultures do not attribute shame merely to how we appear but to who we fundamentally are. We are born sinners. And it is only when we accept that, when we accept that we are totally dependent on a divine hand to escape from wallowing in sin and shame, that we can escape its quicksand effects.

But doesn’t Christianity require confession of specific misdeeds? Doesn’t Christianity require restitution? Yes, but only as a step towards being reborn only when one accepts that one is by nature a sinner. In contrast, guilt without shame is the feeling that arises within when we violate the ethical norms planted within, when we violate our conscience. An individual may suffer guilt even if no one else knows of that error of your ways. The feeling of guilt can only be eased by taking responsibility for what you did as when Judah confessed his previous failure to take responsibility for his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and when he made restitution. Guilt cultures rely on the internalization of external norms which become the enforcers of behaviour. Purely shame cultures rely on external sanctioning, external shaming, external humiliation. In a guilt culture, one has to learn to accept punishment for your misdeeds, but, at the same time, learn to respect yourself. Accepting responsibility for what you did is a first step. When you accept that  responsibility, when you make up for the error of your ways, when you make restitution, you can forgive yourself, and forgiving oneself precedes anyone else offering forgiveness. And to do that, you cannot and should not be humiliated in the process, you cannot accept self-denial, you cannot and must not be humbled.

If Christianity is such a shame culture, how come there are so many beautiful Christians? I went to St. Michael’s College after I left medical school to complete my bachelor’s degree. One of my best friends was Vince Kelly. I only learned several years after we graduated that this beautiful smiling soul had hidden his homosexuality from me. And when he owned up to it, he recognized that at the time he would and could not realize his dream of becoming Prime Minister of Canada. If he had only lived to see Premier Kathleen Wynne, a lesbian, become the leader of our government in the Province of Ontario. If only he had lived to see the Supreme Court in the United States recognize gay marriage. He would have been a great Prime Minister. He was an extraordinary terrific president of the student council at the University of Toronto, leader of the young Liberals and campaigner to be one of the youngest Members of Parliament when he ran in Smith Falls, his home town.

When I was in medical school, when I was still in pre-meds, in fact, in my first year, Father Gregory Baum picked me up at the corner of Lawrence and Bathurst in his little Volkswagen beetle as he was coming down from the Catholic retreat where he lived. He gave me a lift to the University of Toronto. By the time we reached the university, we had become friends. Though we would much later have a falling out over Israel, I never ceased to view him as a beautiful soul. His mother had been Jewish and his father a secular Protestant. He had been recommended by a fellow internee, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, in the Canadian prisoner-of-war camps for German Jewish nationals, to explore attending St. Michael’s College because of his enchantment with the mediaeval world, though he would first earn his bachelor and master’s degrees in mathematics. St. Mikes then hosted the leading centre of mediaeval studies in the world. Gregory converted to Catholicism and, not long after I first met him, rose to be a very prominent theologian and advisor to Vatican II as a peritus or theological advisor. It was he who led the Catholic Church to recognize that the effort to convert the Jews, especially after the Shoah, was an effort in religious genocide and had to be abandoned.

When much more recently for twelve years I produced and hosted a television show called Israel Today, that show was financed by evangelical Christians, not because, as many wary Jews suspected, they believed that the path to salvation required the resurrection of Israel, but because many of them had learned not only to love Jews but to love the Jewishness of their own faith. When one watches President Obama at the service commemorating those killed in Charlotte North Carolina and leading the 5,000 collected there to celebrate the lives of those destroyed by a deranged racist, and Obama leads the multitude in singing Amazing Grace, one cannot help but admire and appreciate the positive and powerful spirit of that religion.

But it is not what it once was. And that is to the good. By and large and to a significant extent, it has left a theology of shaming and public humiliation behind. It has reconciled itself with its Jewish roots. In America with that country’s deeply religious faith in the American constitution and the rule of law, it has emerged there as a religion that stresses guilt for one’s specific misdeeds and the need to and possibility of recovering from error, including Whites recovering from their heritage of offences against Blacks, of heterosexuals for their offences against gays, from the White Man’s offences against the natives of North America.

But the genie of shame and humiliation has not gone far. It has become secular. It has been resurrected in our public life and on the internet in a much more virulent form.

We are all obligated to combat it wherever and however it appears.

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

Shame and Humiliation

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

by

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