When is it okay to shame another person?
Unthinkable: Shame has a ‘Newtonian force’ for good or bad, says Prof Sally R Munt
Pointing the finger: Shame is necessary, because it enforces essential social morals. But endless shame is emotional cruelty. Photograph: Getty Images
Many of the social advances of recent years have been exercises in shame-removal. The shame surrounding unmarried motherhood, divorce and homosexuality, for example, have gradually been replaced with tolerance and pride in diversity.
Yet shame remains ever present in society, and for good reason. To be utterly shameless is to be outside the influence of morality.
Think of the behaviour of someone like Donald Trump. If all of us were so indifferent to being ashamed, what chance would we have of tackling humanity’s greatest problems?
So when is shame good and when is it bad? Feminist academic and author Prof Sally R Munt is well-placed to answer, having explored the phenomenon of shame within minority communities, including among emigrants.
Healthy shame, we might say, has a particular duration
The University of Sussex-based professor, who is also a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, is giving a keynote address in Dublin on Thursday evening at a conference on Gender, Sex, and Shame in Ireland. In advance, she spoke to Unthinkable.
You’ve done a lot of work with refugees and asylum seekers. How does shame manifest itself among such individuals?
Sally R Munt: “Well, first of all let’s put shame where shame is due: Europe’s strategic abandonment of refugees, to watch them drown via drones in the Mediterranean sea, is an act of shameful cruelty.
“Currently, Europe pursues humanist ideals in its rhetoric, while privately funding appalling suffering at its borders . . . The cloak of colonialism persists, to our mutual shame.
“Many asylum seekers do internalise a sense of shame that is an outcome of being stateless and legally worthless. Many have also been the victims of – frequently sexual – torture, which can also translocate into profound feelings of shame. The casual racism they then encounter in their host countries can reinforce these feelings, but also state policies do it too by refusing them the possibility of working, of fully participating in the social sphere.
“But, out of shame can come great dignity too. Many of the people I’ve worked with demonstrate a calm dignity that is demonstrative of resolved shame; they have come to terms with their journey and that can be transformative.
“In my work I’ve found that refugees often embrace their found nationalities with pride. To use an Irish parallel, perhaps there’s no one more American than an Irish American.”
To what extend does shame come from within, as opposed to being something inflicted on you by others?
“Shame is something that is laid upon us by others, and if that is done violently enough, or for long enough, that can be internalised so that the person can be said to be living in a state of shame, a toxic ontology of shame.
“I have written about the Newtonian force of shame, that to be shamed is like a slap to the face, which propels the person away, loosening the attachment to a social body.
“Shame and connection are intrinsically linked, so if you shame someone, you are affectively and forcefully disattaching them. What happens next, when the person is shamed, is a moment of critical indeterminacy. The person may be able to resolve their shame, and turn back for readmission, reacceptance, or they may turn away altogether.
“Shamed persons can find connections to each other and create new kinds of affinities. In that sense, shame always has creative potential.”
Is shame always a bad thing? Or how does one distinguish between good shame and bad shame?
“No I don’t believe shame is always a bad thing. Shame is necessary, because it enforces essential social morals. Healthy shame, we might say, has a particular duration. After the immoral or unethical act, the person should be shunned, be turned away, until they realise the consequences of their actions. But once they have accepted this and asked for forgiveness, they should be fully reintegrated as they have recuperated themselves.
“For me, the idea of the duration of shame is a vital point. Shaming should have an end, or a resolution, if you will. Endless shame, is perhaps ‘bad shame’. Never allowing the person to attempt redress, or punishing them with endless withdrawal, coldness, are forms of emotional cruelty.
“Shame is highly political and it has an important social function. One of the problems with narcissists such as Donald Trump – or ‘45’ as my American friends prefer to call him [to avoid having to invoke his name] – is that he is so volatile precisely because of his amorality. He cannot be effectively shamed as he routinely refuses the codes of civil society.”
How is shame weaponised in Ireland today?
“Shame has deeply Christian roots in our cultures, and God has been weaponised by shame, particularly in the disciplining of women. I see discourses of national shame in Ireland as being in a continuum. More recently, the Catholic Church in Ireland has been roundly shamed for its historical abuse, as the nation has embraced more secular, neoliberal principles. Now it is the church being shamed, the weapon of shame has been turned against it.
“Ireland is still grappling with issues of accountability. The exposure of the fates of the Tuam babies is thanks to the tireless work of historian Catherine Corless, and there are others too, particularly journalists, historians and academics, who labour to uncover Ireland’s atrocities. It is right that such histories of abuse be shamed, and their emotional legacies openly confronted.
“In Ireland, the dramatic shift in attitudes toward gay marriage and abortion, I think are . . . examples of cultural shifts that have come out of the acceptance of shame and the desire to be different, to adhere to inclusive humanity, to reconnect.”
* Prof Sally R Munt will speak at the Gender, Sex, and Shame in Ireland conference at University College Dublin on Thursday, September 5th. For details on the event, organised by the Centre for Gender, Feminisms and Sexualities, and the UCD Humanities Institute, see: https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/gender-sex-and-shame-in-ireland-tickets-68605433699
Ask a sage
Question: How do I stop feeling ashamed?
Simone Weil replies: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.”