A Case for Shame ?

I have been reading a lot about shame, courage, vulnerability and the intersection of those three emotions. This, of course, means tackling Brene Brown’s work, which I absolutely LOVE (check out her special on Netflix; powerful stuff). That said, I’ve been struggling with some aspects of her work as it pertains to shame. She mostly argues that shame is a useless emotion, that shaming people never works, and feeling shame almost never leads to better behavior. I disagree with this a little (or maybe a lot?). What I seem to struggle with is she doesn’t quite account for accountability (excuse the pun) nor does she account for transitional justice. 

Perhaps, it’s because of the culture I (and many other Africans) grew up in; in which you can literally be asked (as an insult): “have you no shame?” Shame, or the fear of it, was often prescribed as an inhibitor. And maybe it worked. Maybe you can be so afraid of bringing a heap of shame on your family and yourself that you course-correct. Perhaps also it speaks to the individualistic nature in the West? When there is a community and a family, and there is the understanding that fates are tied, that actions have implications that are far reaching beyond yourself, maybe people are better behaved? In the culture I come from, if you have a certain reverence for your parents, there are just some things you would NEVER do. It's a feeling that grounds you. In my faith too: if you truly love God, there are some things that cannot coexist with that love and reverence. It transforms you, us Christians like to say. 

Brene Brown makes the distinction between shame and guilt, and argues that guilt is the better feeling because unlike shame it is helpful and productive. 

Here is the difference she states: Shame says, I am bad. Guilt says, I did something bad. It is true there is often a difference between both sentiments. That you did something bad does not necessarily mean you're a bad person. But sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes, a person can both do something bad AND be bad. How can you have transitional justice without the admission that people and institutions were bad not just that they “did something bad”? It is the gross generalization that baffles me. 

Because somewhere in this reasoning is the naive assumption that humans are "inherently good". But we are not. History has shown over and over again that we are not inherently good. People sold their fellow human beings and then enslaved them. They owned them. People were so disgusted by their fellow human beings they couldn't stand to use the same toilet as them--as in they couldn't stand to shit in the same bowl as them. People hate their fellow human beings because they have a darker hue or because they are from a different country or a different tribe or because they have sex with a particular kind of human being. We hate for senseless reasons. Leaders enact laws for the purpose of oppression. Every single institution you can think of, human beings have perverted it: religion, marriage, parenting,  work... So where do we account for the fact that someone who walks into a school and shoots up kids didn't just "do something bad", they are bad; that people who decide that poor people do not deserve good food, healthcare, education aren't just "doing something bad", they are bad; that someone who rapes a woman didn't just "do something bad", they are bad and so on?

I feel like guilt almost always come after the fact. It’s so hard to anticipate guilt, I think, but anticipating shame has always been incredibly easy for me. But that’s just me. What if people could feel the collective pressure of, "have you no shame?" before their actions, rather than the after thought of "I feel guilty. I should not have done that." Think of some of the worst people in our society now (and you and I know them. They abound in politics but they are everywhere). While guilt would be effective for them, don't you think having a little shame would have saved us all from a lot of mess?

Now, that you have read all that. The difference between all I wrote above and Brene Brown's work is mine is not grounded in any real rigorous research. This is just...opining, if you will. I could very well have the wrong approach here. Or heck, I may even change my mind in the future. But right now, I feel this way. I really believe we all need a little shame. 



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