The Use and Misuse of Shame

Most people feel the need to do what is right.  This need is so universal across cultures that it is probably genetically wired into the human brain.  How could such a trait - the sense of right and wrong - have evolved?  What purpose did it serve?

During most of the span of Homo Sapiens on Earth, individuals lived and functioned not alone but in nomadic tribes which depended on cooperation for survival.  Behavior which compromised that cooperation threatened survival of all the individuals in the tribe. If one tribal member stole from another, resentment and mistrust would arise.  In an emergency this might mean the difference between survival and extinction.  The sense of right and wrong, of pride and shame, may have been one of the mechanisms for fostering cooperation which evolved in mankind.  An individual who violated the norms of the tribe was made to feel shame for his acts.  This remorse was not only painful, but weakened the shamed individual so that he could not defy those supporting the norms.  In trial by combat, the one whose cause was Just really was more likely to win. The ability of individuals to feel pride and shame helped the tribe to survive.

One of the redeeming features of shame as discussed above is that an individual feels shame for something he has done.  By changing his behavior, he can recover his pride.  Unfortunately, this characteristic of men that they are weakened by shame can be used by ambitious individuals to gain power over others.  This is accomplished by imposing shame not for what someone has done, but for what someone is.  If a person with black skin can be made to feel shame for his skin color, it is an enduring shame which cannot be removed by anything he does.  It permanently weakens him.  Priests have used shame to bolster their power for thousands of years.  The concept of  original sin - that we are all shamed by the acts of Adam and Eve - is another example of a shame which cannot be removed by anything the individual does.

Another method of imposing shame for personal ends is the imposition of standards that can never be satisfied, such as the idea that it is sinful to harbor carnal thoughts about women, or that it is wrong to wish to be wealthy.  A person can control his actions, but not his thoughts.  This method of imposing shame is really a variation of the first, since it is the nature of young men to think of women, and of poor men to think of bettering themselves.

Yet another variation of the basic method of imposing shame is to convince individuals that they are stupid, ignorant, or insensitive.  A primary function of jargon is to make outsiders feel stupid.  A person who feels stupid is shamed into silence.  This was why Latin was retained in the Catholic Church (and to this day by doctors in writing prescriptions) long after it ceased to be understood by laymen.

Although most of the above examples have been drawn from organized religion, the practice of seeking personal power through imposition of shame is today most widely used by groups seeking power through political means.  Radical environmentalists go so far as to declare it is shameful to even exist, since in doing so humans are displacing other more "natural" creatures.  Racist spokesmen declare that people with white skin should be ashamed of themselves not for what they have done, but for what their ancestors did.  "Spokesmen" for the poor blame the rich (those who create wealth and jobs) for being rich (and not for anything they did).  AIDS groups endeavor to shame non-homosexuals for "homophobia".

If a group succeeds in shaming the rest of society, it can win for itself through the political process huge amounts of tax money, and tie its opponents up with regulations.  AIDS, a disease brought on individuals by their own behavior, is funded by billions of dollars more than are inherited diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Huntington's disease.  Minority contractors win huge contracts because their skin is a certain color.  Rich people submit to huge taxes and give their money to foundations that castigate wealth.  Environmental organizations win government grants to study environmental "crises".

Why don't people defend themselves against this sort of attack?  There are a number of reasons. The attack is often indirect, on a class of people rather than on oneself personally.  Sometimes people are so undermined by their upbringing that they have little confidence in their own worth.  Nearly always, they lack arguments to counter the attack.  Usually the attack is so relentless that they lose the battle, accepting their guilt, before ever realizing they are under attack.

A prime culprit in aiding moral attacks of this kind is the mass media.  Newspapers and magazines depend on conflict for their existence.  If there is not enough news, they make news.  If there is not enough conflict, they foment conflict.  Groups wishing to create conflict and place blame have a natural ally in the press.

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