When you feel that who you are as a person is not okay, shame is that feeling. Shame is the whole affect comprising the thoughts surrounding the feeling (e.g. ‘I just wish I could be less ____’), as well as the behaviors and habits that come as a result. Shame makes a person lie when the truth threatens to reveal values, beliefs, or attributes they find (or worry are) unacceptable in themselves.
Guilt does this, too. When asked, ‘Did you sleep with that person?’ the guilty adulterer says no. The ashamed adulterer, however, says no to the question, ‘Do you want to sleep with other people?’ Desires cleave to identity in the ashamed self.
This Shame 101 recap is helping me get at some thoughts I had while catching up on old New Yorkers and reading two pieces that addressed the ways shame works online. The articles covered the facts and events of episodes of online shaming, and they began to explore why they happened and what they meant, but something in their analysis felt off, or missing. I’m here trying to fill in the gaps.
But before I do that, let’s go back to that ‘okay’ in the opening sentence. A very good way to work through shame is to clearly define that ‘okay’ from your perspective, and then sniff out who defined it that way for you. Who or what set the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? Our society and its culture do this at all times (e.g., ‘Thou shalt not have a limp dick during sex’, ‘Thy BMI shall not be above this number’), and because we believe in the necessity of morals and ethics in maintaining that society, the question is what we do when someone crosses a boundary.
Too often, we shame. It’s a verb, too, unhelpfully. Shaming comprises everything we do (to others and ourselves) to induce the feeling of being not okay. Shaming goes beyond ‘you crossed a boundary’ to assert ‘you are bad at heart for having crossed the boundary.’
Here’s Dr. Zoidberg to illustrate:
Let’s look first at Becca Rothfeld’s review of two recent books on online shaming, one of which is written by a philosophy professor named Owen Flanagan. From Rothfeld’s review (my emphasis):
Because shame is a means of enforcing whatever values are operative in a given society, whether it proves salutary hinges on the merits of the moral system in which it is deployed, at least according to Flanagan. He admits that shame has too often been conscripted as a weapon against the oppressed—as when women and queer people have been encouraged to suppress their sexual impulses. Nonetheless, he calls for shame to be enlisted in the service of social justice, as it was when a concerted social-media campaign ejected the Hollywood producer and serial rapist Harvey Weinstein from power.
Shame can punch up, is the book in question’s basic argument. And shame sure can, but it should not expect results, which is how Rothman seems to conclude (again, my emphasis):
Shame, as Flanagan sometimes appears to forget, is an effective weapon only when it’s brandished against those who already inhabit a shared ethical universe. If politicians on the other side of the aisle strike Flanagan as shameless, that’s not because of any shame shortage but because they are not bound by the norms he favors. When Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, remarked that ‘anyone who denies the truth of what happened on January 6th ought to be ashamed of themselves,’ the Fox New commentator Tucker Carlson countered that she was the one who ‘should be ashamed.’ A mere increase in the total volume of shame in circulation would not result in the social betterment that [Flanagan] envisions; big feelings do not guarantee big changes.
She’s right, but I don’t think for the right reasons. Is shame an effective weapon to bring about change, even when brandished against those sharing our ethical universe? Spoiler alert: this writer says no way.
I, as versed in shame as anything in this world, can think of three ways one responds to shaming, self- or otherwise.
One: You shut down. Shame is very good at lying affirmatively about the self, such that when you feel bad about, say, how much you enjoy sweets, it feels like something as deeply innate and intractable as the shape of your genitals or smell of your armpits. Shame doesn’t allow for the fact that you’ve made (and can unmake) certain choices, or fallen into certain habits (and can climb out of them): shame convinces you that this is who you are. And it’s even more scarily good at convincing you that who you are is also easily ashamed, making you ashamed, again, of feeling ashamed, angry and disgusted at yourself for once again shutting down in shame, and thus begins a shame spiral. Down and down and down. It happens especially when you share the values of the people who are shaming you. They’re right about me. Jesus Christ they’ve found me out. Shaming is thus a very effective way to prevent even the possibility of change ever happening.
Two: You act out. There’s something that often feels deeply unfair about being a bad person, when you assume (falsely) that everyone around you is a good, or at least better, person. Like: why me? Why can’t I etc.? Compound this with the notion of intractableness above, and you start saying Fuck it. If I’m bad, let’s be B A D. Or, similarly, you fight back against the shaming with the assumption (again, false) that the opposite of acting shamefully is acting shamelessly. Like that ‘cash me outside’ girl. Or perhaps a more useful example is owning the libs. When you hear that who you are (i.e., poor, rural, conservative, etc.) is not okay, there is so much joy and liberation (often false, but the feeling is real) to be had in doing things that would piss off the people you believe have set the standard. ‘It’s really fun to see the other side lose,’ is how professor Khadijah White puts it, in this NY Times article about D. Trump’s fans being less in support of him than aligned against his critics. White is speaking about the pleasure in doing things that don’t help you, and may even harm you, as long as they trigger the outrage of those you feel are trying to shame you. This is a trap just like the spiral above; in acting out, you double-down on the thing you’ve been shamed for (or felt ashamed of), and so good luck effecting change.
Three is where you understand you’ve been shamed, and little if anything true about you has been said, so you move on.
(Three is like a superpower I’m writing a whole book to try to acquire.)
Let’s look next at this profile of Orna Guralnik, the star of Couples Therapy, a show I’ve never seen before and would personally only ever want to watch the homosexual segments of. Toward the end, the article mentions one couple, Annie and Mau, the latter of whom became something of a villain:
[Mau] insisted that his needs were not merely straightforward but rational, normative. He considered sex to be a daily necessity. He had been displeased with a birthday orgy that Annie had planned for him and, after Annie said that he disrespected her, responded with sophistic, “I’m sorry if you feel that way” reasoning, resisting Guralnik’s interventions at every turn.
Here we have a shameless man, or a man about whom many would say he oughta be ashamed. Whether Mau has worked through shame toward self-understanding and -acceptance—or whether he’s just a dick—I can’t say. My guess is he’s a dick, but I was surprised and then somewhat enlightened when the reporter asked Guralnik about him:
‘I actually enjoyed working with him a lot, even though he wouldn’t enter my field,’ Guralnik said. ‘I really respected him. People became kind of obsessed with ragging on him. It was a little upsetting, actually.’
I’m trying to get at the place where her respect is coming from. I think it lies somewhere between stubbornness and self-esteem, or between assertiveness and arrogance. Maybe it has something to do with being a clear communicator about your needs, no matter how outrageous or unfair they may seem to your partner. Or to Reddit, which the article reports went apeshit over Mau and started a thread called ‘Somebody smack Mau please’. They called him a dick. They diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder. They shame-hated on him so much that Mau appeared on the thread in an attempt to explain himself, which you can imagine how that went.
Well you don’t have to. Mau wrote that he’d wanted, on the show, ‘to express complex and interconnected dynamics’ and Reddit called him a dick. Mau then deleted his post and moved on. In the moment of his online shaming, he took option no. 3. And nothing, in anybody involved, changed.
The most useful metaphor I’ve come to in trying to express what shame feels like is a hall of mirrors. (I’ve written about this before, in a post about shame spirals and how to get out of them.) Well it’s like a hall of those warped, distorted funhouse mirrors that make your body look funny. In shame, all you can see is various distortions of your self. You’re too fat. Too slutty. Not smart enough to publish with the intellectual big dogs. Not enough of ‘an alpha’ to pull off’ that jacket. Too lazy etc. etc. You turn away from one image and another is there to lie to you again about who you are. Key thing: that’s all you can see. There’s nothing else in a shame spiral but ‘You’ ‘You’ ‘You’ ‘You’.
The way out of there is Somebody Else Somebody Else Somebody Else Somebody Else.
Acting shamelessly is not the way out, because you’re still bound by shame’s grip—the way wearing an HRC ‘Make America Gay Again’ hat [JPG] is not a form of #resistance because you’re still agreeing to use the tyrant’s language. People who act shamelessly often have fun, but rarely have the best perspective on their actions, and those actions’ consequences. Shaming them usually just adds more fuel to that fire.
Consider instead being a flat mirror, a more accurate mirror, reflecting what the other person is doing. This is Psychobabble 101: When you do X, I feel Y. A cliche because it works. Or doesn’t: Mau on Couples Therapy likely heard a lot of mirroring statements, if Guralnik is as good as the profile said. He likely clearly heard her and Annie, didn’t get defensive or act out shamelessly, and he likely didn’t care enough to change or do anything about it. The shock of that may hurt deeply, especially if you love the person, but you’ll also be getting a clear message of your own: I don’t share your values. Best to understand that’s often going to be the case on this overstuffed planet, and move on.
Maybe a better construction is When you do X, you hurt mostly yourself in this way. Take it from a person who nearly lost everything at his most shameless: being shown how your actions actively impede your goals and dreams is highly effective in starting the path toward change. There’s nothing kicky or fun about this kind of talk. You get no points in ‘owning’ anybody. But of course we know that. Shaming is always less about effecting positive change in the shamed than in helping the shaming self feel better. Another funny trap.
- And when you, on the ‘other side’, perform the intended outrage, this is Feeding The Trolls 101. You don’t feed the trolls. You should not expect positive results from anybody when you get on Twitter and feed the trolls.↵