Yesterday, I happened to receive a comment on one of my entries  from someone who was raised as a Christian but who now considers himself a rationalist and has written a rather pointed and provocative post on issues of shame as they relate to such areas as masturbation, incest, and pedophilia , arguing that the horror that people view those matters is inappropriate because they are entirely natural in some cultures. To be sure, numerous royal families, from the Ptolemys in Hellenisitic Egypt to the Spanish Hapsburgs, practiced forms of endogamy, as did the patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it should be noted. Still other cultures, like that of ancient Greece, had established customs in which mentoring took place in the context of sexual relationships. A lot of what we judge as unnatural was (and is) in fact natural to others. Similarly, there exists in many self-professed Christian circles a certain hostility to proper sexuality, one which considers sex of any kind to be at best a necessary evil, and sexuality of any kind to be a matter of intense danger.
Despite my own scarcity of experience in matters of sexuality (and most of that experience, it should be noted, was a very long time ago, was against my will, and was extremely traumatizing), it is a subject that I write about from time to time. In many ways, when people think of questions of shame, it is instinctively to questions of sexuality that they go. That tendency, though, says more about our own fixation with such matters as a culture than it does about shame itself. If we want to discuss the legitimacy of shame, we have to remove it from the provocative content which is usually attached to shame, and we have to examine it within its emotional and social context. After all, shame is related to a host of other feelings and issues like dishonor, humiliation, and embarrassment, and it is in these areas where we can better understand shame itself and its useful purposes, rather than focusing on the salacious matters that people tend to be ashamed of, or not. After all, shame, as it is exists (or does not exist) for each person, does so based on his or her conscience, and that is a personal matter. Yet shame in the larger sense is not a matter of the individual, but rather a matter of the connection between the individual and others, a recognition that one’s actions have violated social norms and brought dishonor and embarrassment to oneself, to one’s family, to one’s community, and so on.
As Americans, and to a lesser extent contemporaries of the world at large in other countries, we are prone to thinking of ourselves as individuals. While I am aware that a significant portion of my readers are from other countries, as an American myself (albeit one who has lived and traveled abroad), I tend to most readily identify with my own particular culture and so I write from this perspective. Shame is a reminder, though, that we are not merely individuals, but we are part of larger groups that make restrictive moral claims on our conduct. This is, I feel at pains to comment, not merely a matter about which the religious are concerned. Shame, in fact, is a pretty universal aspect of the social order of humanity, and cultures with very different social norms still utilize shame as a way of policing conduct that is viewed improper and unacceptable within that particular group of culture. For example, growing up as an impoverished child among more wealthy classmates, I was commonly made to feel ashamed at my clothing, given the fact that I wore hand-me-downs, clothes sewn by relatives, or clothing purchased from various thrift stores, and was hopelessly unable to compete with my more stylish and image-conscious peers. Here the embarrassment came from failing to live up to the material standard of those around me, and not anything that was moral, per se.
The issue of shame is also subject to a great degree of hypocrisy. For one, those who readily adopt shame as a technique for influencing or dominating others do not tend to like to feel ashamed themselves. For example, during the Hellenistic period, many cities in the Levant added gynmasiums, where Greek-influenced people were prone to adore the male nude body in various feats of athletics. Jews, as a result of the ritual commandment of circumcision, were made to feel ashamed by their heathen neighbors for this visible distinction in such circumstances. Yet, these same people did not hesitate to seek to shame others, like the early Christians, through an abuse of petitions to civil governments, leading to imprisonment, scourgings, and public mocking, and the threat of death by a lynch mob, or even the tampering of synagogue procedures to make it impossible for a believer of Christ to worship with non-believing Jews. People, or groups, who suffer from shame as a result of the way that their conduct or identity is stigmatized often seek to pull on the heartstrings of others, to make others feel guilty for how such people have suffered in the past, and yet such people are not immune themselves from making others feel ashamed in disapproval when they have some kind of institutional or social power.
In some cases, shame can be a good thing, if we are ashamed for the right things for the right reasons, and are motivated by that shame to genuinely repent and seek to be made right. Shame can be a good thing if it is operational in nature, and allows for the opportunity for that shame to be removed. Admittedly, this is not an easy matter. As shame is an aspect of our consciences, if our conscience is sufficiently sensitive and sufficiently well in tune with what is right and proper, then it can be an accurate guide for our conduct, and useful in reminding us where we fall short. The problem is that our consciences are either too sensitive, leading us to suffer a great deal even where we have not sinned, and that our consciences, and the consciences of our societies, are not well in tune with God’s ways, leading people not to be ashamed of what is shameful conduct in the eyes of God, and also leading people to be ashamed when they do right if what they do right happens to cross over the lines of what is comfortable within a given society. It is, in short, the lack of congruence between our consciences and the standards by which we are judged by others, and between the standards of others and the standards of God, that creates the negative aspect of shame—if there was proper alignment in these areas, we would have no hesitation that our own conscience would lead us to be in accordance with God and with other people, but that lack of agreement as to what is and what is not shameful leads everyone to suffer in some fashion, whether that suffering is in social exclusion, rudeness, offense, or judgment of some kind.
At its heart, the problems we have with shame are problems of authority. And it is precisely that sort of problem that is the least amenable to improvement, not least because questions of authority are not subject to compromise and involve identity commitments of the highest order. When we combine that with a growing hostility held by people at large to feel ashamed by anything that they desire to do, and the recipe is made for immense unhappiness and struggle and division within society. There are times when it is immensely unjust to feel ashamed. No child, for example, should ever feel ashamed about something they had no choice in, no opportunity for escape, and no protection from the wicked behavior of others. Yet to protect others requires that we have a just standard from which to judge what is and what is not acceptable, for there are also many occasions where people sin in ignorance because their consciences have not been tuned sensitively enough to realize where they tread on the sensitivities of others. Given that none of us seem likely to refuse to use shame as a way of governing the behaviors of others, especially the public expression of them, we would all do well to become gracious enough to provide others with a way out of embarrassing situations that allows everyone to save face, and allows offenses to be wiped away. It is only in an atmosphere of respect, of mutual concern, of open communication, and of graciousness and a willingness to be merciful and generous to others that we can avoid the poisonous effects of shame on ourselves and others. For us to create that sort of atmosphere, we must become better people than we now are. Are we up for the challenge?