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Shame, shame, know your name

Reading about film critic Rex Reed criticizing actress Melissa McCarthy’s appearance using such sophisticated and erudite terms as “tractor-sized” and “female hippo” has me reflecting on moral psychology. You know, as I’m prone to do. Specifically it has me going back to what I know about the way shame and guilt function for both the inflictor and the inflictee, and how they differ. 

You see, guilt is a “what you did” emotion, while shame is a “who you are” emotion. Guilt points to an act, while shame points to a person. Guilt can be a productive emotion because it focuses on the morality of what a person did, encouraging him or her to recognize the immorality of that act, feel remorseful, and improve by not committing the act again. Shame, on the other hand, focuses on a person’s identity and traits, which tend to be more or less permanent. Inescapable, or at least not easily or immediately escapable. And oftentimes not even a moral concern. Shaming someone therefore is not generally a productive thing to do, and isn’t intended to be. Quite to the contrary, making the person feel shitty about him/herself, full stop, is the point
Criticizing what someone did wrong arouses a feeling of guilt (if it works). Telling someone they’re horrible, ugly, stupid, evil, etc. arouses feelings of shame (if it works). Martha Nussbaum wrote an entire book about how guilt is a useful and necessary concept in a justice system, in a legal context, whereas shame…not so much. Guilt encourages rehabilitation; shame encourages despair and recidivism. Because if you succeed in convincing someone that who they are is a terrible person, then there’s nothing for them to do but be a terrible person. But good people can do bad things– all people do bad things– so being guilty of such simply means that you’re guilty of doing a bad thing. It doesn’t define you. 
Americans are terribly individualistic, and by and large I consider this a good thing. However an unfortunate consequence of this is how good we are at turning guilty matters into shameful matters. We’re amazingly talented at conflating “who you are” with “what you did,” so that even the things an individual has very little to no control over are things he/she can be made to feel bad about. It’s true that you can arrive at a characterization of someone’s general personality by adding up the things they’ve done, and this kind of shaming can theoretically be useful. But generally speaking, shaming skips that step and goes straight for things the person in question can’t do much about. 
So I have devised this handy, basic, and utterly unoriginal rubric for determining what counts as not-useful-shaming:

The degree of control a person has over their situation is inversely proportional to how much of an ass you are being if you mock or blame them for it. 

In other words, if there is no guilt, there should be no shame. And when there is guilt, focus on that
But Americans, individualists that we are, are stunningly good at turning from “who you are” into “what you did” so that we can go right on shaming anyway. If an undesirable trait isn’t someone’s fault, then by golly we’ll find a way to make it their fault so we can properly blame them for it. The top two examples of this being, of course, obesity and poverty. People who would flinch at the idea of making fun of someone’s race or sexual orientation show no reluctance to ridicule someone for being poor or fat– the latter especially if the person happens to be female, because for women we have made “isn’t sexually appealing to me personally” into a moral wrong. Especially for actresses. 
Do people have control over being fat and/or poor? Somewhat. But:
  • it varies from person to person, and you sure can’t tell what it is for a particular person without actually knowing them, 
  • regardless of their specific situation, every person in either of these two categories you see is likely in the process of trying to remove themselves from it at any given point, and
  • membership in these categories is not in itself a “what you did,” and it isn’t a moral wrong. People do not harm others simply by being overweight and/or poor. 
Therefore, according to the rule articulated above, we should…..not shame them for it! Or else risk behaving in a way we should absolutely feel guilty about.
Take note, Mr. Reed. 

1 Comment

I can't thank you enough for this excellent post. It helped clarify some things that have been bothering me.

I have been wanting to write about my experience of being sent to Catholic school all the way up through High School while having rejected the doctrine by the sixth grade. My idea was to focus on the "background radiation" of the views of my teachers, classmates, clergy, and social circle, all of which were informed by that doctrine. This situation drove me to feel some guilt and shame as an outsider even in the face of my certainty that I was right to doubt the doctrine.

I had jotted down a few paragraphs of disjointed notes on the subject, but was having difficulty expanding the ideas and tying them together with a common thread. Your unpacking of the relationship between guilt and shame and their different roles in our culture sparked fresh associations and gave me that common thread. I'm now up to ten pages of much less disjointed notes.

I don't consider myself a particularly good writer, but I have a lot I want to say on these matters. You have a clear, thought provoking style that serves as a standard to aspire to and makes this a must read blog. I want you to know I appreciate it.

While I'm at it, I also want to thank you for the sidebar link to Coverville. As a part time gigging musician who has played in a lot of cover bands, I find it hugely entertaining and inspiring.

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