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Shame is Power

 

 

Dear Readers,

 

You’ve been killing it with the amazing comments and I don’t know why it took me so long to get back to blogging. I love you all.

So what I realized soon after posting my last blog is that I didn’t sufficiently set the table for a discussion about group shame. I’m going to write today about how I see shame as a form of soft power, and next time I have time to write – I’m hoping it’s tomorrow – I’ll write about this kind of soft power that shame inhabits versus other kinds of power structures, especially free market incentives. Then after that I’ll circle back to group shame and address many of the excellent suggestions and comments you guys have made. Thanks again.

 

Cathy

 


 

Shame is power. It’s a specific kind of informal, soft power, that I believe is overlooked but is incredibly influential. It explains unexplained, important trends that we are so familiar with we can barely see them, even when we look.

I have plenty of examples of this, of course, because shame is also omnipresent.

So, for example, take a look at this recent article about Japanese hikikomori, the (almost entirely male) adult, jobless recluses that typically spend their lives on the internet and live with their parents or other family members. They are highly stigmatized – shamed into staying reclusive, in other words – and even their families are so ashamed of them that they rarely discuss the problem.

They’re coming up right now as a topic for two reasons: first, because there’s a lot of them, and they’re getting older, and their parents won’t be here forever to look after them, so it’s unclear what will happen to them, and second because one of them went berserk and stabbed some kids a couple of weeks ago and, even though they as a group are not violent criminals, it’s the nature of a stigmatized and shamed group to be also criminalized.

These two things: an undue burden on their family, and on society, and a potential violent threat, will no doubt both deepen their shame – and thus the power that keeps these unfortunate individuals apart from the rest of society.

To see the power of shame as it is exerted on the hikikomori, and to test it, imagine if there were other similarly sized (estimated at 1 in 60 of working age, or 1.2 million in Japan) subpopulations of people whose lives were so disconnected and impoverished. Imagine, in particular, that otherwise perfectly “normal” people suddenly found themselves suddenly unable to leave their room and behave effectively and go to their jobs, but this time for physical rather than mental and psychological reasons. That would be a national health crisis, and my guess is we’d get to work trying to solve the problem. We’d talk about it a lot, and we wouldn’t blame the victims. We’d establish programs to help their families.

 


 

I gave a couple of examples last time of shame. One of them was sexual assault in the military. Take a look at this article about Senator Martha McSally, who described her sexual assault in the Air Force:

She said she did not immediately report the attacks because she “didn’t trust the system at the time.” Later, when she began talking about them, she said she was so horrified about how her account was handled that she thought about quitting the Air Force. “Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again,” Ms. McSally said.

That is power. The system itself perpetrated shame on the victims of sexual assault, keeping them in line and silent about their suffering and trauma.

Not all suffering and trauma is shaming. We celebrate members of the military who are wounded in combat. What’s the difference? It’s shame that keeps abuse victims quiet. Shame has an amazing power of coercive silence, and it works systematically in certain specific ways on certain specific people.

 


 

Two last comments.

First, power is easier to identify when it’s measurable and formal. Shame is impossible to measure directly, except in oneself and even then it’s accompanied by a form of amnesia that makes us want to think about something else. Shame is also inherently informal. As soon as it’s written down and formalized as rules, it’s no longer exactly shame but instead takes on a form of institutionalized power. That’s not to say that institutionalized power cannot be shaming, because we already saw it can with sexual assault in the military.

Second, power is easier to identify when it forces us to do something that we otherwise wouldn’t do. Shame isn’t always like that. Instead, shame often forces us not to do something we otherwise would do. We would complain, cry out that we are suffering or traumatized, but instead we are shamed into thinking it’s our fault that we are suffering, and we should constrain ourselves by any means necessary, and stay silent. How do you measure what’s not happening because of shame?

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