QA 2. (Feb 08) A question of shame

A Cape Town woman, convicted – yet again – of fraud, was sentenced to stand in a public street wearing a sign that listed her crimes, and apologise to those she had harmed. A higher court reviewing the sentence overturned it on the grounds that such public shaming violated the constitutional principle of human dignity.

A preacher on the train was shouting about violent crime in the townships. How can these people do such terrible things? he asked. His answer: Because they have no shame.

A friend of mine said that shame is always useless and we should learn to get by without it. (Contrary to the preacher, he would have us all be shameless!)

“Shame” is concerned with deficiencies in one’s honour or worthiness. The tricky thing about self-worth, however, is that it is also dependent on how one is valued by others. So: by whose lights is our worth being measured?

I feel shame when, by my conduct or choices, I have dishonoured or devalued some better sense of myself. I (this sovereign subject who believes she could do better) am ashamed of myself (the one who failed to). But this split is not alienating. Both the bad performance and the higher ideal are my own. Can I make progress without the negative motivation of shame? Of course. There needn’t be a lot of drama to it. And there should, I think, also be space for gentleness with oneself, to err being human and all that.

It’s a different matter when shame is imposed according to values or beliefs that are not my own, or those to which I never seem able to measure up. Someone, or something, has claimed the authority to judge both my conduct and my inner vision of myself. Intrinsically alienating, this is all about coercion, not love. One learns humiliation, not humility. This is the ugly use of shame that often makes childhood such a misery, that the high court overruled in the name of dignity, and that my friend believes we should do without. Such shaming can break us, or it can call forth the violent “shamelessness” the preacher spoke of: a perverse resistance, swollen by injured pride, as if all there was to live up to, finally, was one’s own disgrace or disrepute.

I’m seriously leaning toward my friend’s point of view. Still, I find I want to defend a modest sense of shame. It seems to mark a divide between honour and pride that matters. When my pride goeth before my downfall, the shame of the fall can soften my unwarranted conceit, opening a shamefast possibility of grace and gratitude. But this is a tender and private thing, and nobody’s business but my own.

© 2008

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