The Uses of Shame

There are many people for whom a bit of shaming would be a good thing.

The glossy color photo spread across two pages of the magazine. It depicted a middle class American family seated around the kitchen table: Mom, Dad and two 20-something sons.

If I had to guess I would say they were a well-adjusted family. But the magazine article told a different story.

A Family’s Story

The two sons, Andrew and Sean Humphrey, were opioid addicts. Over the past 10 years they had been in and out of hospitals and drug rehab programs. In addition to the considerable costs of these programs, the parents had also paid for the kids’ cars, gas, food and clothes. They had also shelled out for the boys’ medical and legal bills. The total bill came to over $50,000, an amount that threatened the parents’ retirement. Dad was so stressed out by the situation he was forced to take a leave of absence from work, adding to the family’s money woes.

After reading the story of the Humphrey family, I had one thought: How could they have allowed the magazine to publish their photo? Perhaps the parents felt no shame. After all, they had done nothing except help their sons. But what about Andrew and Sean? These two otherwise-healthy young men had soaked their parents for a small fortune and endangered their retirement. Instead of supporting themselves through jobs, these able-bodied sons had allowed their parents to foot their bills.

Had they no shame? I wondered.

Neal’s Story

About the time I read the story of the Humphreys, my friend Neal had a very different shame experience.1

In Neal’s telling of his story, he had an epiphany in his doctor’s office. The visit was almost over. He and his doctor had discussed a number of his medical problems related to a debilitating chronic illness. As the doctor examined his legs, Neal flinched noticeably. He found himself laughing.

“Doc, can you believe I have yet another medical problem — phlebitis in my legs?”

The doctor opined, “Well, at least you have a sense of humor about it.” The doctor thought Neal was making light of his problem.

In that instant, Neal realized what he had been doing at doctors’ visits for years: joking about his medical problems even though he did not think they were funny in the least. Rather, he felt ashamed. Neal’s flippant comment was a cover for his feelings of shame about his illness.

A Tale of Two Shames

I have been thinking about Neal’s story, and that of the Humphreys. I can’t shake the feeling that the Humphrey boys should have felt shame (but did not), while Neal should not have felt shame (but did).

Is it really that simple?

I would like to think that the Humphrey boys had a choice in their drug addiction, but I have never been in their shoes, so I don’t know. And how can I be sure that Neal didn’t have a hand in his illness — perhaps by making wrong choices in his life that caused him to fall ill?

What Is Shame?

The Jewish people have a special connection to shame. It is the first emotion mentioned in the Jewish Bible: When Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commandment to refrain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge, their punishment was intense shame at their nakedness. When Cain killed his brother Abel his initial lack of shame was a great moral fault. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery they were unrepentant. But when Joseph reappeared many years later they were shamed for what they had done.

An anthropologist has defined shame as “a violation of cultural or social values…… shame arises when one’s ‘defects’ are exposed to others, and results from the negative evaluation (whether real or imagined) of others.” So, for example, fathers who violate the cultural norm of supporting their families may feel shame. This norm exists in the wider culture but is also accepted by the errant father, so shame is generated both externally and internally. The errant father may be shamed by his peers or by his belief that his peers judge him negatively. Or he may feel shamed because he has violated his own values.

In any case, shame is an uncomfortable, sometimes excruciating, feeling.

When Should a Person Feel Shame?

Most people judge others’ difficulties with a simple question: Is the person culpable for his situation? That seems reasonable to me. It is a question of personal responsibility.

For example, a child may be doing poorly in school because he goofed off, preferred to spend time with friends and played video games. In that case, I want the kid to feel shame — at least enough to get him to study harder. But if he has failed because he has a learning disability, I certainly don’t want him to feel shame. That would do more harm than good.

There are many people for whom a bit of shaming would be a good thing. These include people who accept public assistance when they are capable of supporting themselves through work; eat excessively to the point of becoming obese; become ill through their own actions, such as smoking or taking street drugs; are injured as a result of personal recklessness, such as extreme skateboarders; are criminals who would rather steal from others than hold down a job; or are pimps who exploit women.

In each case, the person can either make or evade a responsible choice.

Many others find themselves in difficult circumstances through no fault of their own. These include: people with physical and mental illness that is not self-inflicted; victims of sexual assault or child molestation; and sexual minorities whose behavior is inborn. Others may find themselves disadvantaged by circumstances of their birth, for example, being born into poverty or into a racially unjust society.

The Continuum of Shame   

As with so many human traits, the usefulness of shame varies on a continuum. People who have no shame are sociopaths. They engage in ruthless and heartless actions because they are not restrained by the moderating force of shame.

At the other end of the continuum are people who feel excessive shame, especially for actions over which they have no control. I recall, with pain, my mother’s recounting of the shame she felt for abandoning her father to the German killing squads during the Holocaust. Although she could not have helped her elderly father and she acted only to save her own life, for the rest of her days she carried the shame of a child who had failed in her filial duty. For survivors of the Holocaust this has often led to feelings of worthlessness, depression and anxiety.

Shame and Responsibility

When things go wrong, the assignment of personal responsibility is fraught with moral hazard. Who gets to say that this one suffers by his own hand but the other one is without culpability? This is where religion, with its codes of ethics, becomes useful. But a code of ethics is not a substitute for personal judgement about individual cases. Nor should it be an excuse for heartlessness.

Unfortunately, in the current era of political correctness, many voices on the left have encouraged everyone to judge others by their group membership, rather than their personal responsibility as individuals. These voices demand that people who belong to “oppressed” groups should never feel shame. In the progressive view, the failures of people in these groups are always the fault of others.

In recent years, opposing views have arisen. Black conservative commentator Candace Owens has cautioned black people to reject the progressive idea that blacks are victims. She argues that playing the victim leads to resentment and social and economic failure.

According to Owens, the missing element in the social and economic success of minorities is accepting personal responsibility, rather than blaming personal failure on “racism” or other historical factors.

I agree. And I think that the progressives’ idea of banning all shaming is not a good thing for people who find themselves in bad circumstances due to their own actions.

A better alternative for those who feel left behind is to ask, “Have I contributed to my poor situation? And if I have, would it be a good thing for me to feel a bit of shame?”

Footnote

  1. I have changed my friend’s name in order to protect his identity.
About the Author
The author is a life-long Zionist and advocate for Israel. He believes that a strong Jewish state is invaluable, not only to Jews, but to the world-wide cause of democracy and human rights. Dr. Berger earned a PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has twenty-seven years of teaching experience. He has authored and co-authored three books as well as over 45 professional journal articles and book chapters. His parents were Holocaust survivors. Dr. Berger also blogs at: https://realbulletpoints.wordpress.com/
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