The other day, I was eating a burrito and a bit fell on my shirt. Instantly, the vision of Mrs. K at her garage door when I’d come by to play came into my mind. “Let me see if I can tell what you had for breakfast,” she said. “Let’s see, Eggs, potatoes, toast …” Of course she was shaming me for not being clean, and shaming my mother for having let me out of the house without being clean. That was fifty years ago, and it still pops into my mind every time I spill some food on myself.

I don’t recall it bothering me then, but obviously it did since I’ve stored that memory away with the same recall as I have for the first time I viewed a dead body at a wake, Mrs. Chaffin, my first grade teacher who died of an inoperable brain tumor near the end of the school year. That’s a beautiful memory, really – she was very pretty even in death, and the memory doesn’t haunt me, it’s just one I can recall at will and see in my mind.

Shame and being ashamed are moral and social constructs that are supposed to act like those bowling-alley bumpers we put in the gutter when kids bowl (by the way, I could use that too because watching me bowl is certainly a comic affair). But a gutter ball is more of an embarrassment than enduring shame. Still, the societal aim of “shaming someone” is to keep us from becoming gutter balls. Pride is supposed to be the opposite of shame, but often it’s a compensating factor not an absence of the feeling. Or, perhaps like me, you don’t experience pride much. Why? Well, I know there’s not much extraordinary about me, not in comparison with you. We’re all rather extraordinary, really. Give Young’s the Shack a read sometime if your a Christian anyway.

Shame is a confusing topic and a lot of people are impacted, so I thought I’d take a closer look, and that’s what this post is about. Like most of my writings, I’ve struggled with this post now for over a month trying to contain it to the matter at hand and limit it to a discussion and not a dissertation.

Shames

In my experience, there are two main sources of shame: action/inaction and state of being. Sometimes we are or should be ashamed of what we’ve done or failed to do, and sometimes we’re made to feel shame for being who we are. Shame is a self recriminating feeling of lesser worth; it is not remorse or regret but, rather, a deeper feeling that one is not, for lack of a better term, as human as other people in some respect. Unlike the specificity of a heated conversation which one regrets and makes amends for, shame takes on a permanence like my experience with Mrs. K. It is a horrible thing to be ashamed, and fear of shame can be both a strong motivator and a weapon of oppression.

I have elsewhere written “It is little wonder, then, that I feel such passion and empathy for others whom society rejects, for even in my privileged state, I understand what it is to feel compelled to prove one’s worth.” but there’s a big difference between societal rejection and the internal strife caused by shame. In other words, not other people thinking that we should be ashamed but, rather, about us actually being ashamed.

Honor

Most social structures that I’m familiar with have a concept of honor, or dignity in a broad range like the Latin dignitas perhaps best put by the ancient Jewish concept that a life well lived results in one’s name being worth more at death than birth. Julius Caesar writes much about actions taken to protect and embellish his dignitas, and we all know about good and bad things, even horrific things, done to achieve honorable status or to prevent being dishonored.

Honor based systems are still with us, and they generally created ranks or classes in society. Sometimes honorific titles are received in society even as they are in war, sometimes grants and gifts are established as they are in feudal societies. Mostly, in the west at least, this is now a social construct not directly related to receipt of power or wealth. However, its vestiges remain with us sometimes to our detriment in the lingering patristic notions that women cannot bring or attain honor except in extraordinary circumstances and children can only bring honor if they become honorable as adults.

The type of shame I want to talk about is not loss of dignitas, and generally applies to common people who would never be seeking anything like that. I suppose it’s fair to say that part of our problem today is that some people believe that accepting and supporting people whose lives do not accrue some additional personal dignitas in popular sentiment to the acceptor /supporter is seen as a dishonorable thing to do, causing overmuch constraint on changes that appear, to me, to be necessary. It may be worth noting that this is one reason that charity, in the Christian view anyway, live in anonymity: if merits to one’s dignitas are accrued, there’s nothing wrong with that but this is being a benefactor not being charitable.

Anyway, some treatment of honor was necessary lest one think I was not aware of it. In today’s world this is indeed a problem, but given the status of influencers, celebrities, sports figures, politicians, and other people with horrible social behaviors, criminal acts aplenty, and justice seemingly ignoring their antics, it seems to me that any notion of honor as means of civil stratification with the honorable also being law abiding and worthy of trust has long since become absurd and irrelevant. Money talks, and many of those with money have no shame even though they certainly should.

Happily, it is the common person, the backbone of society, that we here address.

The Good Shame

Is there such a thing as a good shame? I mean while it is a good thing to be motivated to avoid “gutter ball” shame, when that fails, is the resulting shame a good thing?

Aristotle notes that people in their prime, say 35 or so, make the best rulers because they know enough to make good decisions, they’ve grown through their years of reckless abandon, and they’ve not yet entered the category of older folks who’ve encountered so many mistakes that they have sympathy for just about everyone. I’m in that latter category, and I don’t think that a state of enduring shame for anyone is a good thing, ever. It is incredibly destructive and, where it is inescapable, I think that it leads to wide swaths of damage and cultural degradation.

Short term shame, shame that you just got away without paying your bill by accident, or that you were cross with a cashier, or that you trod on someone’s foot, or broke in line, or any of a number of things that your conscience will demand that you rectify is a good thing indeed. That which can be undone by the person who brings shame upon themselves for being a jerk should be undone. Shame that causes you to tell the truth when asked, that leads you to testify for or against someone, this, too is good and this, too, passes.

Nonetheless, unremitting unresolvable shame seems bad because it creates a form of servitude and horrible mental anguish. Remember, I’m keeping remorse as separable from shame. Those committing crimes need to admit to them, do what they can to rectify damage done, and express remorse but enduring shame for free persons is not a good thing.

The Bad Shame

Shame and fear of shame are demonstrably bad when they lead to decreased functional abilities in activities of daily life and / or physical decline of an individual and / or impact the well being of others. Quite often, fear of such shame prevents medical treatment which is why we often discuss this problem as stigma or stigmatization especially when it comes to conditions occurring due to sexual relations, but certainly not exclusively so – stigma attaches, for instance, to individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 in some cases, or smokers for that matter.

Perhaps the most obvious examples are the various ailments transmitted through sexual intimacy. In my youth, these were called venereal (related to sexual desire or sexual intercourse) diseases. That name was changed to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) partially to be correct because not all such diseases require sexual intercourse and partially to destigmatize the conditions. Now such conditions are often termed sexually transmitted infections (STIs) again softening the tone and lessening the stigma. To be clear, there is a difference between an infection and a disease. That which is present but doing no harm is an infection. Once it starts doing harm, it becomes a disease, an infectious disease. Then again, crabs or pubic lice, often transmitted sexually, are not an infection but are, rather, a parasite, an infestation.

But removing stigma and fear, while it promotes treatment and thereby also interrupts the spread of disease, normalizes the behaviors and age categories that gave opportunistic disease what it need to spread. For a broad range of things that the young experiment with, including their bodies, I think that we need to rethink what normal should be. Shouldn’t we expect some level of experimentation from our young people and help them learn through that experimentation while they are still in the nest? Shouldn’t we teach them and mentor them through this phase of life and instill accountability and, yes, shame for being unaccountable for their actions?

Give it some thought.

The Ugly Shame

How horrible is it to create a culture in which people feel ashamed, less human, less worthy, not because of word or deed but because of who they are? Humanity has struggled with this problem, and viewed various demarcations as some sort of necessity to support culture since the start, but as smart and wise as we are, we’ve failed to eradicate the notion that people should “keep their place”, that some people are children of a lesser god simply because of who they are, the educational attainment, their culture, or how they express who they are provided that these things do not pose a danger to others.

This is a world wide, cross-cultural ugliness, not an exclusively American problem. I’ve written on the need for equity, the problems with privilege, and being loved for who you are elsewhere on this blog, as linked. What I want to focus on here is the results of the shame imposed by society and how to turn that around to a societal accountability to vanquish the fruit of that shame.

Existential shame of certain groups and the ability of those without the associated stigma to use that shame or threat of outing of a shameful condition results in perpetuation of the dehumanizing state, gives the elite the ability to control, extort, and virtually enslave large groups of people, and it also creates subcultures within society that are often very violent and essentially lawless.

The primary poison fruit of shame is cultural acceptance of a lesser state resulting in the loss of hope. From this source flows unspeakable horrors.

In a society that is dealing with the results of dehumanizing people through prejudice induced shame, it is ironic that the call for change often comes through attempts to make people ashamed of who they are and the past deeds of their ancestors. There is a big difference between cessation of ancestral glorification and making people ashamed of who they are and where they came from. To create new unresolvable shame is to broaden the scope of the problem, not to resolve it; it smacks of vengeance and retribution, not correction and improvement. Clearly, symbols of oppression and repression, panegyrics fawning over brutal thugs like Christopher Columbus, and the like need relocation to educational venues regarding what went wrong and perhaps private collections. But shame is an entirely different matter.

In truth, then, shame is a barrier between “us” and “them”.

Prisoners Of Our OWN Folly

The oracle at Delphi tells us “know thyself” and knowing one’s foe is also a longstanding tenet of wisdom. People are different, they have different cultures. Sometimes they say bad things. Sometimes they do bad things. The old adage that I was taught “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” is simply not true, yet restricting freedom of speech, of the press, or of expression suppresses discussion and debate, takes voice away from the oppressed, and treats the folly of our shaming without the serious attention needed to improve. In a strange way, we continue to think that “see no evil, hear no evil, see no evil” wards off evil which makes us prisoners of a continuing folly made manifest by our stubborn resistance to recognizing what we’ve created and the evil thriving in our midst.

Where shame and shaming creates an lesser state of existences for classes and individual humans who pose no threat to others in society, shame allows the other to openly denigrate and despise the shamed because popular sentimentality and not reason determines what is permissible and what is not. This creates validated shameless bigotry and we often see this in the media and on social media, shame by association, hyperbole, and numerous other means of conveying otherness and a lesser state of being human, quite similar to the caricatures of Japanese persons in WWII, African American persons by White people in black face, the ever present “gay acting” villain, the Jew, the Arab, the Native American, and other stereotypical renderings that seek to do damage to a group, or do damage due to the privilege of those conveying a message that even they do not understand. Clearly, our differences do create comic situations; it is when the comedy is repeatedly focused at the expense of a specific group that we should become concerned, especially when the comedian is not a member of the group being poked at.

What should be done? This post offers but one solution – you, and the first step in the solution is to agree that a problem exists. Here I offer poetry.

Frost’s Mending Wall ponders:

“He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.”

This is our errand, to put that question in other people’s heads and ask why society fails to act. Examples will be view but the problems are many.

Prison Stigma

Stigma attaches to people with a criminal past and the presumption that a criminal past means that they are in some way a danger. The numbers in the United States are enormous, we’ve about 2.3 Million people in prisons or jails at any given time, about 450,000 of which are being held prior to trial and are therefore not yet deemed guilty.

There are about 4.9 million free people who have done prison time for felonies and about 19 million convicted of felonies in our population including those who served no time. In all, there are about 77 million people in these United States with criminal records (see that link for my source information). That means of the 330 Million of us, about 6% are convicted felons and 23% have a criminal history. Moreover, there are about 752,000 registered sex offenders or 0.2%: 2 per thousand and some states now require registration of violent offenders and drug/narcotics offenders as well. Where these registries are public, I personally believe they constitute cruel and usual punishment and find it paradoxical that the Texas database shows the location of high risk sex offenders which, one supposes and if they pose high risk, should still be incarcerated. But we must understand that the law is not prescient; it imposes punishments for what has been done, not restrictions for potential future outcomes which requires a police state even more intrusive than China and even so, people will do as they please from time to time.

The prisoner and released population of people with criminal histories walking about is disproportionately biased toward people of color, and at least I am convinced that the proportions are not due to innate characteristics of the people but, rather, to entire cultures that spring up in impoverished areas where hope is lost, cash is hard to come by, and law enforcement is much more strict. In some parts of American Culture, having a criminal record is a good thing because it brings “street cred” – credibility and credentials in being part of a counter-culture borne of horrific societal mistakes past and present.

All of these people face enduring discrimination and shame as a result of their past deeds. Jobs, housing, loans, and lots of other things are harder to come by if they are possible at all. People on various registries are restricted in where they can live and go, are subject to random police check-ups, and where registries are public, they are subject to all sorts of harassment and even physical violence from the population informed by the registry of where they live, who they are, and what they were convicted of. While statistics on registries as a deterrent indicate some efficacy in decreasing sex crimes, for those who have committed such crimes public registries demonstrably increase the rate of recidivism.

This situation needs urgent tending because these United States have the highest incarceration rate in the world and therefore also the highest proportion of released persons with criminal records in the world. This is a major problem in many areas, and it must be faced and dealt with. Likewise, the problem, the fact, that those with good legal representation from the first question asked fare better than those without undermines the very concept of justice in America.

Poverty Stigma

poor in homes

Tevye in Fiddler On the Roof says, to God, “I realize it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either” as he leads into the song “If I were a Rich Man“. But in our society, shame is cast upon those who apply for and receive government assistance, the poorest members of our society excepting the homeless, our next topic. People cast aspersions on this group of people through the notion that the system is being abused, that fraud is widespread, and that tax money is not being used as intended. The significant instances of such abuse make headlines while the millions of instances of proper use of the funds go unreported because things working the way they should work are not newsworthy. In this way, people are shamed for being poor and for getting help to exist and perhaps even thrive.

Moreover, credit scoring is become ubiquitous. Those without good credit pay higher rates for insurance as well as higher interest rates: title loans run 25% per month or 300% APR, across the board. Just take a look at what was offered on the web 12/27/2020:

Now compare that with the ranges for better credit:

The United States used to regulate credit interest rates on a state by state basis, a practice that was overturned in 1978 by the Marquette Decision of the Supreme Court. This case was mounted during times of very high inflation (I recall my company then getting paid 20% on a certificate of deposit, for instance). The basis of that ruling is the commerce clause whereby nationally registered banks are not subjected to state interest rate regulations. In effect, this removed all usury (excessive interest rate) protections unless they are passed by the federal government, a regulation that has not occurred. In effect, it leaves all interest rates unregulated except by competition.

Homeless Poor

On any given day, point estimates are that about 553,000 people in the United States are homeless, 358,000 staying the night in shelters and the rest on the street. Of those 553,000, about 21% are under eighteen. Around half of our foster care children become homeless for a time when they reach 18 and the care expires, and about 30% of the homeless were in foster care at one point.

We tell ourselves stories that these people have something wrong with them, but the data shows us that the primary cause of family homelessness is a lack of affordable housing exacerbated by unemployment, poverty in general and low wages. Single person homelessness is similar, but mental illness and substance abuse follow poverty as causes. Moreover, single women are most likely to be homeless due to domestic violence and abuse.

Not all of these people are homeless for long periods, indeed many are resituated rapidly, but the story that we tell ourselves is shockingly false, and the shame associated with not having an address is enormous. Below is a map from The National Alliance to End Homelessness. The highest rate of homelessness in the country is in our capitol, Washington DC at 93 homeless persons per 10,000 residents. It should be clear from this map that housing costs weigh heavily on homeless rates.

The fact that the highest homeless rate in the United States exists where our government sits should be shameful to us all.

Other Stigmas

There are so many sources of enduring shame imposed by our society that just enumerating them is an impossible task. We shame the victims of rape, people who don’t speak English, people who dress according to their religious beliefs, the LGBTQ community, and seemingly on without limit and for no good reason. I have no intention of trying to complete the list or discuss it because that’s too much for a post and few have interest in it in the first place.

Suffice it to say that people in America and throughout the world suffer as a result.

Conclusion

In this post, I have tried to comply with Robert Frost’s Mending Wall idea to put a few notions in your mind with what may be surprising, even shocking data regarding convicted criminals and the poor. We accept the fate of others, and even ourselves, far too easily and make up stories, absurd “every knows that” fictions about why it is so and why action is futile. I have also refrained from suggesting solutions because we must first agree that there are problems before suggesting that effort be spent solving them.

I hope a few people will think about shame, how heavy a hammer it is in the hands of the oppressor, and how easily the oppressed can become the oppressor using shame to extort. There are situations, very rare situations, where the ends truly justify otherwise repugnant means used to attain them. As we stand, our nation and even the world is in great peril due to such repugnant means widely used and not justified. Shame is but one of those tools that needs to perish and be replaced with individual accountability, with a conscience, with hard work actually paying off in the end.

As usual, I learned a lot writing this post. I suggest you consider taking some time on an issue that concerns or, better, frustrates you and that you study through it to understand what you can, trying to use information from domains like .gov and .edu or other credible sources. One can constrain google searches using the site parameter, for instance, googling “homelessness site:.gov” will bring up information from .gov sites on homelessness. Give it a shot if you like. This is one way to hunt for wisdom and to challenge our thinking.

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