Let’s Hear it for Shame III: Blaming Shame

Kids often cry, but sometimes they should cry.
“Let’s Hear it for Shame,” a Five Part Series

At the risk of sounding like the old fogey that I am (80 years old, after all), I offer my thoughts on the passing of a key social tool. ?Let?s Hear It For Shame? is the title of this five-part series.

  1. The Shame Game
  2. Once Upon a Time
  3. Blaming Shame
  4. In Place of Shame
  5. Retrieving the Old Tool

III: Blaming Shame

Today, when word of our foibles can travel so far, the use of shame for any reason whatsoever is suspect.

In the eyes of many today, the use of shame to punish misbehavior has itself become shameful. Part of this current reaction might be attributed to the enormous outreach of social media. Back in pre-Internet days, the scolding of a student who had misbehaved was heard by others in the class, rarely by the entire school.  Classmates of the student were expected to learn something from this example, but word of what had gone on was certainly not intended to reach the other side of country via a posting on YouTube.

Back in the late Middle Ages, of course, the worst offenses were punished by putting the offender in a wooden stockade to be the butt of scorn in the entire village. But that shaming device, used only in select circumstances, went out of fashion centuries ago.

Today, with the rise of Internet, we have developed the equivalent of putting a person in stocks for the whole world to see. Worse still, the reason for embarrassing the victim may be silly or vengeful?not any offense given to the community, but merely the whim of an ex-boyfriend or the retaliation of a jilted lover.

But apart from the enormous outreach that shame can have, there are other stronger objections to its use today. We now seem to have become as fastidious about the use of shame as we have to possible infection by germs. Parents in our age hover over their children in their intent to protect them from every type of danger. According to press reports, many parents are so determined to protect their children from bacterial infection that they deny them the freedom to play in the dirt as we elders did when we were young. Perhaps parents have come to regard shaming as the psychological equivalent of bodily infection: a slight injury to the pride that can lead to seriously damaged self-esteem. 

Then, too, today we are more alert to the patterns of abuse that develop over the course of time. Spouse abuse, for instance, often begins with silent dismissal but soon evolves into what could be called verbal abuse. This, in turn, may escalate into physical mistreatment: slaps, punches, or even more violent treatment. A modest dose of shame commonly marks the start of this downward spiral.

In the eyes of many today, shaming is seen as the seemingly insignificant act that transmits a disease or marks the beginning of a pattern that can lead to the destruction of a human being. Of course, the shaming act may not lead to such an end at all. But why take the chance, many of us feel. ?What doesn?t kill us makes us stronger? may have become a popular adage in our day, but it probably offers small comfort to most modern parents, who fear the worst for their children.

Our tendency to demonize shaming in all its various shapes and forms raises an important question. In our zeal to rid our social world of shame, are we possibly jettisoning one of the most important social tools at our disposal?  If so, then we will be invariably be compelled to rely on other, stronger weapons that may be more damaging to all parties in the long run.

Kids often cry, but sometimes they should cry.
Kids often cry, but sometimes they should cry.

Got Something to Say? Go For It!

About the author

Francis X. Hezel, SJ
Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Francis X. Hezel, SJ, is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Micronesia since 1963. At different times he has served as high school teacher, school administrator, pastor, and regional superior to the Jesuits of Micronesia. He spent thirty years directing the Micronesian Seminar, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Pohnpei, Micronesia. He has written and spoken widely about social change and its impact on island societies. He has also written several books on Micronesian history, including The First Taint of Civilization, Strangers in Their Own Land, and The New Shape of Old Island Cultures. His most recent book, Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture, is available through University of Hawaii Press.