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Shame

I was a handful for my mother growing up. Many parents struggle to teach and discipline their children, and mine were no different. Parenting struggles aside, I was an especially difficult child because I seemingly lacked the capacity to feel shame. For traditional Asian parents, this was a strange and frustrating situation.

To be clear, I do have the capacity to feel shame, and have felt it on a few occasions. For example, I felt a sense of deep shame 2 months ago when my 13 year old nephew narrowly beat my high score on Fruit Ninja. All kidding aside, I understand that shame is a necessary feeling from time to time–what my family did not understand was why my capacity to feel it was so much lower than almost everybody else they knew. This meant that shame as discipline would not be effective on someone like me, for better or for worse. Since I was near impervious to social embarrassment, my mother had to resort to mild physical violence (mild because I got hit, but never got physically injured) to get me in line. That said, all it did was instill feelings of resentment and inspire plans for retaliation, which I know was never the intention–the goal was to convince me of my place, which obviously didn’t take. It triggered a cycle of ever rising transgressions, that led to escalating physical punishment, until I just got too big to hit. Looking back, I admit that I was an insufferable punk–but I had good reasons to be, I swear 😉 ! I rightly saw the shame bullshit for what it was: an attempt for authorities to get you to do what they want without having to come up with actual reasons, or because they didn’t want to exert the effort of beating you into compliance. It wasn’t about right or wrong, it was about upholding the status quo regardless of fairness or lack thereof.

For more socially minded personalities, the punishment of social ostracism and shame is enough to get them in line, morality be damned. I somewhat understand this on an evolutionary perspective, because human beings are social animals who are extremely interdependent on each other for survival and prosperity. When your survival prospects are threatened, principles and virtue can seem like superfluous luxuries. Most people will follow authority by default if they think it’s the only way to ensure their survival–so if someone buckles down under the threat of shame or ostracism, it’s simply because it was historically a life or death situation. Social death often resulted in physical death, since being cast out on your own meant starvation, death from predation, and an early end from violence or loneliness. Today, the physical consequences of shame are nowhere near as severe, and it’s not a life or death issue (at least most of the time in developed countries). Despite this progress, it can still invoke crippling feelings of anxiety and despair in many people, just like it used to for their ancestors.

Now that I’m much older, I’m a bit more ambivalent about shame. I was much more reactionary in my salad days and was strictly anti-shame. I’m certainly not pro-shame now, but I do see its usefulness from time to time. With age comes nuance, and in time I came to realize that my seeming immunity to shame was simply a misunderstanding–my family’s values are very different from mine, and they had attempted to shame me using values I never even believed in. For society to successfully shame a member, that member must buy into the values that society upholds. Unfortunately for my parents, the values I adopted are very different from theirs–hence the fruitless attempts to “embarrass me” into line.

I’m not so gung-ho anti-social control these days, because a civilization with good values should have non-violent means of convincing its members to act accordingly. Obviously, I’m still against “conditioning and manipulating” to fraudulently obtain compliance, just as much as I am against using violence to enforce obedience. That said, there’s nothing wrong with creating a non-violent, transparent, and democratic method of social control to uphold proper social values such as fairness, compassion, opportunity, empathy, knowledge, and shared prosperity. It is then that shame can be employed in a proper and productive context.

Perhaps shame can be positive if it can inspire REAL virtuous behavior. In my fantasy world, Hillary Clinton would be ashamed about her role in pushing the Iraq invasion and as a result, relaunches herself as a true peace/anti-imperialist candidate. Dick Cheney would deeply regret the CIA torture program, and decides to turn over a new leaf by working to abolish torture and close Guantanamo Bay for good. Barack Obama would respond by ending the drone assassination program immediately, and decides to disobey his corporate patrons by pledging to block the TPP and TTIP. The chain reaction of shame spreads into both houses of Congress, who immediately reverse all the social program cuts that was passed in the last budget. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts immediately resign, allowing the nomination of actual progressive judges.

But alas, shame would probably have the same impact on them as it did on me, which was negligible at best (and that’s being generous). The power of shame begins and ends with the mind–whether it’s freedom from guilt or life imprisonment by remorse, the choice is ultimately up to us.

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