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Embarrassment Vs. Shame

BY Simcha Fisher

| Posted 1/9/14 at 2:52 PM

 

Recently, a mom used social media to teach her erring daughter a lesson.  She posted a picture of the girl holding a sign saying something like, "Since I use social media to bully people, I'm obviously not mature enough to have a smartphone, so I'm selling it and donating the money to an anti-bullying cause."  I forget the exact words, but there have been plenty of similar cases in the last several years.  The parents who mete out this type of punishment are hailed as strong, take-charge types who will save us from a generation of entitled brats.

Yesterday, Matt Archbold came out in favor of public shamings like these.  He says,

[W]hat's wrong with shame? I mean, does anyone think that young girls are experiencing too much shame in today's culture? No. Shame is practically extinct today.

(I assume he says "young girls" rather than "boys and girls" because the story happens to be about a girl, and not because he thinks girls are especially guilty.)

Today, any sense of shame is viewed as puritanical, if not evil.

It can safely be said that recent generations are notoriously unashamed. Look at most apologies nowadays. Hardly anyone says they're ashamed of themselves for their actions. You see, that would require some standard you're judging yourself against. But nowadays people don't believe there is ONE standard. There's as many standards as there are people so now apologies are only directed at those who may have taken offense. So it's not something you did anymore, it's something they did for which you're sorry. Does that make sense?

Kinda. But I think he's being sloppy where it's important to be precise.  Here's what I mean.

When kids hold signs detailing their transgressions in public, what they are experiencing is probably embarrassment -- which is not the same as shame.  We feel embarrassment when we are caught doing something that we know is wrong or stupid or uncool or just private.  Embarrassment is all about being seen by somebody who will disapprove, even if what we're doing is not objectively wrong: picking our teeth, singing in a goofy voice, scratching like a chimpanzee.  Embarrassment doesn't, in itself, make us learn or acknowledge anything about the morality of our behavior.  We just didn't want to be seen doing it.

But shame is something different.   Shame is about our consciences; it is about being naked before God.  Notice that we sometimes feel shame when we are alone in a room, doing or thinking something we know we should not -- even if we know there is no way we will ever be caught at it.  Embarrassment is about being caught; shame is about the behavior itself.

I am not sure if Archbold would find the distinction important.  As long as there is some deterrent, whether it's embarrassment or shame, who cares? If it keeps you from doing something you shouldn't do, then it's working.  He says,

If I were to make any suggestion to the 21st century it would be to bring back shame. Shame is an acknowledgement that we have done something wrong. Shame is accepting that our actions have distanced us from God. By rejecting the necessity of shame we are, in effect, rejecting the concept of sin. To do that would be a shame!

Well, maybe. But here is why it is important to make a distinction between embarrassment and shame.  It is very easy to build a society on the notion that we should avoid embarrassment, without ever instilling a sense of sin (or a lesson about redemption).  Humiliate someone in public, and he may very well simply learn the lesson that he needs to hide his transgressions much more craftily.  

A woman who came of age in the 50's told me that, when she was a teenager, her atheist mother told her not to get into a compromising situation with a boy . . . because it would ruin her reputation.  Not because it was objectively wrong, not because sex is sacred, not because she might get pregnant, not because she would get hurt, and not because she was worthwhile and valuable in the eyes of God or her parents . . . but because it would ruin her reputation.

You may ask, as Archbold does, what is wrong with this?  If it works, it works.  When it was considered shameful and embarrassing to have a child out of wedlock, girls fought a lot harder for their virginity, and boys wanted to be thought of as gentlemen, not cads.  Children were not stranded in single-parent families, and women were not abandoned, because pregnant girls got married, period.

So, yes, in the past, there were lower unwed pregnancy rates.  But there were also secret abortions and miserable, abusive marriages between people who "had" to get married.  Go a little further back or further East, and we find ostracism or "honor killing" of rape victims, and secret or even public infanticide.   Up until very recently, innocent children were called "!@#$%" and were denied employment or inheritances.  The mother was considered ruined for life; the child was considered unworthy by definition. 

These are the products of structuring society upon a fear of embarrassment, rather than a love of virtue -- and a belief in redemption.

You may think it's a tolerable trade-off:  some people get hurt disproportionately, but the benefits to the rest of society make it worth while.  Well, think again.  If you are willing to hurt someone innocent, you will eventually hurt society as a whole.  The fifties was a decade fixated on avoiding embarrassment.  The libertine sixties, and the subsequent acceptance of abortion as a way of dealing with sexual libertinism -- these are a result of the fifties, not an aberration.  The fear of embarrassment works, until it doesn't work, and then you have something far, far worse . . . like what we have today.

So no, I can't agree that we should bring back shame -- if by "shame" we mean public humiliation as a complete strategy.  Shame and embarrassment often go together, but they are not the same, and they are not equally valuable.  Let's be very careful that we aren't settling for embarrassment alone, when what we want is true shame -- which always leaves room for justice, mercy, and repentance.