Politics and Shame

On the Essential Logic of Shame As It Is Lived


In its conventional use, shame has a moral meaning. A person experiences shame when he regrets being involved, either directly or indirectly, with an act or state of affairs that he would rather not be associated with. When shame occurs, it permeates one's whole being. It does not occupy only a corner of one's mentality, but saturates it and weighs it down. Thus, beyond the moral meaning of shame lies an ontological one: it reveals to the person experiencing it the inability to escape one's identity. The experience of shame, as Hawkins points out, is an experience of nudity, the impossibility of covering oneself up. In Healy's words, it is the attempt to muffle or keep quiet what cannot be contained. Shame consists in the desire to flee a primitive nudity that cannot be covered up. Like Hamlet, the shameful person may wish all of reality to be reduced to nothing with his own death, but existence itself cannot be annihilated. Even in suicide, the body may lay there as the body of a person who ought to have been ashamed. It is the body of a murderer, a rapist, of someone who does not fit into our framework of acceptability. One may come up with excuses, as in Pawlowich's attempts to absolve himself from a failed hockey career that reached its end before it even began. Shame reveals that selfhood—much to the rationalist's dismay—is not something disconnected from the body, from this extended corporeal being that puts me in a position and allows me to posit myself as a ‘self’. Shame reveals that selfhood and embodiment are inseparable, and that the attempt to escape the experience of shame is as difficult as the attempt to break the chain that ties the self to the body. It is as if the shameful person says, “I do not want to be this person,” but then realizes that the quiddity, or this-ness, of this persecuted identity in non-negotiable. The law of identity simply cannot be transgressed.

Let us look deeper into the phenomenon of shame as it is lived. So, are we calling for a psychological explanation of what happens in the brain when someone experiences shame? Neuroscience tells us that when an emotion occurs there are such-and-such neurons firing in the brain and this causes the individual to feel certain sensations. While such an explanation has its place and importance in our inventory of knowledge, we do not seek such third-person analyses here, but rather a description of shame as it is lived. As Henri Bergson famously puts it in Time and Free Will, I experience the sensation itself, not these mechanical processes.

If we are concerned with a first-person analysis, then is it necessary for the shameful person to be aware of his shameful existence in order for there to be shame at all? If a woman, Mary, accuses a man, John, of being a shameful person, does it matter if John is not aware of her opinion of him? If John is not aware that he should feel shame, then he is evidently not ashamed. So, another person's announcement of John's shamefulness is in fact a third-person moral recommendation of what John should feel like—not a categorical claim about what is the case. So, the phrase “John is a shameful person” means “John should be ashamed”, but there is no indication here of whether John actually is ashamed. Moreover, Mary's phrase “John is shameful” in fact means “John is shameful to me”, and this may in fact be a concession of Mary's own shame of being associated with someone as apparently shameful as John. Mary's claim that John is shameful tells us more about Mary's moral standards than it tells us about John. Perhaps Mary is the only person who thinks John should be shameful. Or maybe others think Mary should be ashamed about calling someone as noble as John shameful. If we want to understand the nature of shame, then, we need to get to the crux of the matter: we need to consider what it is like for a shameful person to be actually ashamed. Otherwise, we would not be able to describe shame as it is lived by a person who is ashamed.

But when we consider shame as it is lived in the first-person, we are still describing a complex phenomenon. One such complexity concerns the issue of whether shame is necessarily a social phenomenon, or whether it is solitary. After all, it is possible for John to feel ashamed about something that no one else knows. For example, John may regularly engage in some private activity he knows others would frown upon, and privately feels shame for engaging in this activity. If we look closely, however, we see that this apparently solitary experience of shame is in fact socially constructed, for John is judging himself as if he were a person judging someone else; he thematizes himself and bestows upon himself a meaning that is made possible by a certain moral framework he inherited from others. Shame, even when it's private and unknown to anyone else, is therefore still a social phenomenon.

A Nietzsche enthusiast may object by suggesting that if a person has arrived at his own values and has broken free from the social herd, shame can indeed be solitary. If a person, for example, believes that showing pity is a shameful thing, and is one of the very few people who hold this view, then the shame following an act of pity results from one's own moral standards. In this case, there is no social framework from which the value of shame is inherited. But this Nietzschean perspective does not fully accomplish a break from sociality. After all, the Nietzschean transvaluation of values must take an awareness of popular morality as its starting-point, and so there is already a social understanding of shame at work prior to the attempt to arrive at new values. Zarathustra was indeed aware that his proclamations were shameful and that his ‘higher’ values would lead to other calling him shameful. Thus, even the Nietzschean objection that shame can be a private phenomenon still presupposes an awareness of social and public experience of shame. The Nietzschean still is aware of being labeled as shameful, even if he tries to escape this shame by creating new values. Of course, it is unclear whether the Nietzschean ever does accomplish this escape.

On a political level, the question of shame becomes more complex. Are we speaking of cases in which a politician accepts responsibility for some acts people performed in the name of the very State he helps govern? Or, are we to speak of politics itself as a shameful occupation? The title ‘Politics and Shame’, which we have been given, is ambiguous. Since we have already defined shame as something an individual person experiences (how could a people experience shame if its individuals do not?), let us examine what it means for a politician to feel shame, and what it means to be shameful by association.

There are two senses in which a politician may experience shame. First, a politician may be ashamed for something he actually did or ordered to take place. We call this form of shame ‘shame by act’. We oppose to this ‘shame by association’. For example, the American politician Dick Cheney may be ashamed of his lesbian daughter's pregnancy, but this is a shameful situation he is not directly the cause of. Moreover, a politician may be ashamed of the behavior of its country's citizens, soldiers, or anybody who is affiliated with the country, and take responsibility for that without being directly involved. A politician, then, may find himself ashamed of something he didn't do, nor was aware of while it was happening. For example, if George Bush is genuinely unaware of his country's soldiers doing shameful things to prisoners, and then finds out about it and the shameful deeds become public knowledge, the President is expected to address the nation about these events—as if the burden of shame fell on his own shoulders. As Hatfield puts it near the end of her piece, the speaker here seeks relief of his or her own projections by addressing the source of the shame.

Of course, we are not suggesting that only a politician experiences shame by association. Nearly every human being may experience shame by association, such as when a relative does something that puts the family name to shame. Political shame, however, comes with a bigger burden. Politics involves so many complex issues and affects so many people that it is virtually impossible for any politician to feel shame for something during his time in office. This is not to say that politics is necessarily a shameful occupation and that no one should participate in it, but rather that it is sphere of human activity where shit is bound to happen anytime, even if the shameful politician is the most virtuous person of all.

In closing, I will comment on the blocked terms and images, and consider their significance for how we think of the concept of shame in everyday life.

Often used as a synonym for regret and shame, embarrassment conveys the point that the person has a sense of selfhood and does not like to have it damaged. The phrase “I was embarrassed” means that the person should not have experienced what was experienced because it does not fit their own self-image. In shame, however, the ego brought to a low-point. A shameful person is not just embarrassed—that is, with a sense of dignity intact—but feels a weight that puts his very identity in question.
Guilty is what we call the person who is directly responsible for an act, so it does not cover what I have called ‘shame by association’. Nevertheless, the moral use of the term ‘shame’ often finds itself tangled up with the concept of guilt, which brings with it other concepts that may not belong with the very concept of shame. Shame itself is not strictly legal nor moral, but may certainly find itself at times mixed in with legal and moral issues.
Perhaps this is the single word that captures all of the pieces submitted to this edition of Ballicatter. From Pawlowich failed hockey career and Hatfield's key lime pie to Healy's “dismissed as not really happening” and Hawkins' shock of difference, scandal refers to something that should not have happened, or something that should not have been the case.
As with certain other words, these are blocked because of the implicit meanings they impose on our discourse. ‘Redfaced’ is not simply the color of a face, but a criterion that allows us to judge what a person is thinking or feeling. Redfacedness, however, could be caused by anything such as anger or sadness. The concept of redfacedness, then, does not help us clarify the possible occurrence of shame in another person. The idea of transparency, likewise, implies that we can see right through the person and announce what is going on in his mind. Such a concept cannot provide us with the analytic precision we seek. Finally, ‘appearances’ only provide us with what seems to be the case, and divert our attention away from the essence of shame. Note that in my analysis when I use ‘phenomenon’ I do not mean by it ‘appearances’, but rather something that is given in itself as a fact.
I put the dignity and character blocked terms together, for they are terms connected with virtue, and so they take the emphasis off of the act or the event and refer to the habitual dispositions that may lead to such acts. A person who is ashamed finds his actual existence at odds with what he should be. These blocked terms, however, do not refer to the what-ness, or essentia, of a person but rather the way of existing, the existentia. An analysis of the person's existentia may help us understand how a person may be lead to do what is considered shameful, but it does not allow us to describe the very essence—essentia—of shame as it is lived in the present.
A person is said to be accountable for his actions, so ‘accountability’ refers to one's capacity to respond. Once again, this term invokes certain legal and moral concepts that may potentially disrupt our analysis of the logic of shame.
We seek to describe shame as it is lived, as it is experienced. Theological discourse is to be bracketed in favor of an honest description of the way things actually to appear to us, regardless of whether one is religious or not.