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The ducking stool, the stocks, the "stone of shame" on which insolvent debtors sat in my grandfather's Italian village—all of these public punishments shamed transgressors. So did shaving off women's hair, tarring and feathering, gossiping, sentencing to debtors' prison, shunning. One of society's most powerful weapons, shame attacks the worth of a person. It declares a person to have become unworthy of any regard by self or others. Attempting to enforce social mores, shame exerts our power over other people by rejecting any possibility of their being or becoming good. Judging selves rather than actions, we equate the person's self with the person's actions, and we subtract our respect as well as any hope for reconciliation.
With us, truly, the quality of mercy is too often strained. While shame definitely has its usefulness, we often pointlessly misapply it. Sometimes, we should feel ashamed of how or why we have shamed other people.
Minor instances of misapplied shame include mocking spelling or pronunciation errors, which are utterly predictable in our very complex language, with its many exceptions to rules and its discrepancies between how words are spelled and how they are said. Misapplied shame includes despising excessive body weight, which shaming probably only reinforces and increases. Misapplied shame includes reacting to mistakes by attacking the person who erred, who now learns to expect failure, rather than helping the person to success by focusing on how to avoid errors. High expectations of excellent performance need not rely on either shame or false praise, both of which mistakenly focus on the self rather than on the task. The shamed self is the reverse and the twin of the inflated self. Misapplied shame creates fear and aversion rather than spurs the person to excellence.
Some popular dramas have depicted more devastating and even more irrational applications of shame. The film "The Magdalen Sisters" alerted me to how, until 1996, 30,000 Irish girls who had given birth outside of wedlock, as well as raped women and so-called sluts, were sent to the Magdalen laundries, where, shamed as unchaste and tainted by lust, these girls labored without recompense or the freedom to leave. "The Magdalen Sisters" film gave a deeply disturbing account of their financial exploitation and emotional abuse.
The most memorable subplot in "Downton Abbey" involved the housemaid Ethel Parks, seduced and abandoned by a British major who had visited the house, fired because of her affair, pregnant, and then unemployable because she lacked a reference for good character. The desperate Ethel turned to prostitution as her only means to feed herself and her baby son. The shocked village turned its back on them both. However, three women had the good sense and compassion to intervene: Cousin Isobel Crawley, the nurse; Mrs. Patmore, the cook; and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper. Thinking about Ethel's ostracism, I feel disgusted by the rampant unkindness of many but impressed by the humanity of a few.
Shame served no genuine moral purpose in any of these situations, for it merely fortified the moral vanity of the shamers, who sought to crush the shamed. Good, if fallible, people are not actually helped to be better people by having their selves judged to be unworthy. Using the metaphor of the Catholic Church's being a "field hospital" where self-admitted sinners help other sinners be the best people whom they can be, Pope Francis has moved the discussion of morals from the enforcement of rules and the infliction of shame to the extension of mercy. Francis's Church, the "field hospital," rather than judging people as unworthy, serves them in their hearts' need.
Properly Applied Shame
Is shame ever properly applied to a valid moral purpose? Film executive Harvey Weinstein's public shaming is a case in point. Enumerating his many accusers, firing him, retracting his honors, making him an object of moral disgust—all of these shaming tactics bring to the fore the heinousness of his alleged sexual bullying. Shame is thereby transferred from his accusers (who may have remained silent out of shame as well as fear) to him.
However, Weinstein's public shaming also transfers shame from his fellow transgressors to him. The scapegoat, as in ancient Israel, is driven into the desert with the community's sins upon his head as a way of purging the community's guilt. But does this transfer of shame change longstanding abusive behaviors or actually serve as a way of masking their continuance?
The behaviors of which Weinstein is accused are prevalent. Many kind and strong men, genuinely quite shocked, have become more aware of the pervasiveness of the sexual bullying and abuse of girls, boys, and women. The most effective deterrent to sexual abuse is the determination of decent men to make it extremely clear to abusers that decent men consider such behaviors contemptible and unmanly. In a word, the most effective deterrent is shame.
First published in The Woodstock Independent.