Kimveer Gill finally got the recognition he craved — sort of. And for two days the newspapers have been full of articles attempting to explain his murderous rampage at Dawson College in Montreal. Now it’s my turn. Other people say they cannot imagine what prompted him to do such terrible things. I can. Easily. It was shame. I have felt it many times and I know how it is suppressed: with hatred.
Oddly, I have read not a single article in which the word “shame” or “humiliation” or “embarrassment” is invoked to explain Gill’s motivation. This denial is part of the problem. We live with shame all the time, barely avoiding it or hiding it in our dealings with others, yet we hardly ever acknowledge that we’re experiencing it ourselves, nor do we notice it in others.
Anthropologists (I don’t know which one first) have distinguished between cultures of shame and of guilt. Such traditional societies as ancient Greece and Iceland are now called cultures of shame. To them, honor meant everything. They could not imagine holding a satisfactory opinion of themselves that ran contrary to the opinions of others. Self-esteem was inevitably based on the esteem of others. Whether one felt pride or disgrace, it was always a reflection of the judgments of others.
Shame is clearly a bodily emotion, usually described from observers in terms of a shrinking posture, aversion of the eyes, stinging blush on the cheeks, stammering flustered rush of loud speech. I don’t know what combination of biochemicals are flooding the body during an extreme moment of embarrassment, but no doubt some pharmacologist will identify them within a few years. Whatever they may be, they create an exceedingly unpleasant experience for the humiliated subject.
By some accounts, we modern people have replaced shame with guilt as the key emotion involved in social control. We feel guilty (or at least we should) when we know that we have done something morally wrong. That is different from shame. We may feel remorse for having harmed another person even if no one else has heard about our wrongdoing. But we feel shame only when viewing ourselves through the eyes of others, even when our behavior has not been immoral at all. For example, a man who discovers in public that his fly is unzipped will feel shame. A person who makes an obvious “Freudian slip” in a social situation will be humiliated by the gaffe, though there is nothing immoral about it.
Someone may be deliberately shamed by another person without having earned it morally, as in the case of a female rape victim, whose entire family (in some societies) is dishonored along with her by this attack. If there is any guilt in such an interaction, it can only be on the part of the rapist, not the person(s) he has humiliated.
One cannot avoid feeling shame when others regard one unfavorably, even if one is behaving with scrupulous morality. For example, during World War II conscientious objectors were jailed and treated as common criminals. They felt shame, even though they were not at all guilty of anything. I would like therefore to keep the concepts of shame and guilt separate rather than conflate them, though in many cases the two emotions occur together.
Yet some of the most interesting writers on the sociology of emotion do conflate guilt and shame. I am especially thinking of a wonderful chapter on shame by Thomas J. Scheff(see photo) in his book, Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, and War. Scheff draws on previous work by a psychoanalyst, H. R. Lewis, Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. The noteworthy point that Lewis makes is that it has become universal in modern society to deny or hide shame, and to pretend it is not happening when we see it in others. Scheff writes:
“Lewis’s work suggests that shame is a haunting presence in psychotherapy that is usually hidden, disguised, or ignored by both patient and therapist. …[M]ost therapists are unaware of pride and shame in therapy, even though they may turn out to be crucial elements in treatment: Like the patient and most other adults, the therapist is accustomed to ignoring the manifestations of these emotions.”
Scheff is right in calling shame and pride the “master emotions.” They are often present, and when they are not actually being felt, we are aware that we are risking them in every encounter with others. Erving Goffman called this precarious social management the “presentation of self in everyday life,” where even a slight awkwardness of gesture may create an unfavorable impression of oneself in the eyes of others. Goffman also pointed out that courtesy often amounts to what he called “civil inattention” when we pretend not to have noticed another person’s gaffe. We are particularly scrupulous about avoiding mention of actual shame whenever it is occurring.
As for the journalists explaining Kimveer Gill’s shootings, they readily describe him as an unpopular fellow, disliked by his peers in school and excluded from sociable relations. This is, indeed, perfectly typical for mass murderers: they are isolated, though they may have tried unsuccessfully in numerous ways to overcome their own pariah status. If “isolation” is an acceptable explanation for their deeds, “shame” is not.
Yet as Scheff points out, the experience of shame and its opposite, pride, are ubiquitous feelings in everyday life (even in so-called “guilt societies”) and they represent a person’s sense of comfort or discomfort with his degree of closeness to others. One's experience of too much closeness is felt as “exposure” — as when one is seen naked in a situation where privacy should have been protected. But too much social distance can also be humiliating, as when one is rejected or ignored in a group,
Kimveer Gill was excluded. Had he graduated from high school, he might have been enrolled as a Dawson College student himself on that fateful day. What he was feeling was shame about his exclusion. And he masked his shame, as most of us do from time to time, by feeling anger.
The most interesting observation of Scheff’s has to do with the cycles of anger and shame that recur endlessly, so long as the shame is not acknowledged. I agree with him completely that it is common to disguise shame by a phase of rage or hatred. Indeed, Scheff’s book is about warfare, which he attributes to national humiliation that a political leader can mobilize by attacking an enemy country. Hitler supposedly spoke to something profoundly important in the German psyche, the wounded sense of pride that came from the ignominy imposed on them by the Versailles Treaty. Such shame converts easily into aggression.
Social isolation, in itself, is no problem. Hermits may even seek solitude in the woods. It is the stigmatized isolation that comes from the exclusion from desired society that brings shame, and this shame is followed at least by resentment, if not indeed murderous hatred.
Ways of managing shame differ. Some people defy those who exclude them. For example, I knew a man about ten years ago who was smart enough to be part of the Peace Magazine editorial group, but personally filthy. He reeked, probably because he was living in a sewer someplace or on the sidewalk. He insisted on joining groups, even while he spoke openly about how every group tried to get rid of him. He joined a delegation of Canadians on a peace conference to Europe. His shame-management technique amounted to a declaration of shamelessness; he knew that he was expected to be embarrassed enough to go take a bath and buy some decent clothes, but he refused to do so.
Shamelessness is a pose, a pretense that one does not know or care what others think. Janet Jackson’s "wardrobe malfunction” a couple of years ago was apparently a staged event when her breast became “accidentally” exposed on television during the most widely viewed sports event of the year.
I watched a new television show the other night that had some attractive qualities. It was meant to copy Northern Exposure in a thousand different ways. However, the protagonist was a beautiful New York woman who learned that her fiancé was unfaithful. She was in a little town in Alaska, where she got thoroughly drunk and gave a public lecture while intoxicated. This initial episode was watched closely by Northern Exposure fans, who discussed it by email the next day. What we agreed was that every normal person would feel mortified if we had behaved as this woman did. She did not. The alcoholic bender was one thing — we might have forgiven her for that — but the lack of embarrassment about it was quite another thing, and we could not respect her, having seen her shamelessness.
Yet we all portray ourselves sometimes as unfazed by shame. We certainly do not always acknowledge our own embarrassment, whether or not we go through the next, more dangerous phase of it: the shame-to-anger cycle.
I think Kimveer Gill went through that cycle and got trapped in it. Scheff claims that unacknowledged shame does have that effect, and that it feeds on itself and becomes unending. I can believe that. I imagine Gill must have been trying for a year at least to cope with the shame and hatred cycle, yet he was unable to break out of it. One tactic then is to “embrace” the hatred, as Gill did. Instead of trying to end his hatred, he came to suppress his desire to belong, his desire for solidarity and affirmation within society. Adopting the Goth costume and culture are ways in which one can deny any desire to be accepted in society.
Surely that mechanism of self-protection is increasing in contemporary Western society; witness the prevalence of piercings and tattoos, for example. These young people do not mutilate their bodies because they find it beautiful. They do it because it is ugly, and thus it reflects their contempt for the social ideals that they can never attain, and from which they are shamefully excluded. Likewise, Gill’s Gothic lifestyle, his expressions of hatred, were designed to enable him to deny caring about the opinions of others – especially the conventional young people who were admitted to a CEGEP from which he was excluded. This makes perfect sense to me. I’ve felt shame sometimes too, and I too have tried to hide it.
In fact, the only implausible aspect of Scheff’s theory is his proposed solution. He maintains that the only way to handle shame is to acknowledge it, feel it, apologize for one’s failings, and then discharge the emotion until it is gone. That’s a notion of therapy that I no longer share. For one thing, apologies are inappropriate for many shameful events. One would not apologize for a Freudian slip, for example. Apologies are ways of acknowledging culpability, but shame is not always related to guilt.
For another thing, I don’t believed in catharsis. Feeling a negative emotion doesn’t make it go away. It can stay there for the rest of your life, popping into awareness every now and then to ruin a perfectly good day. Acknowledging it doesn’t help. In fact, it probably bothers other people more than it allows them to get over their bad opinion of you. I don’t think anyone likes to see another person in a state of humiliation. Even more, though, we surely dislike seeing the rage that may be used to cover shame up. If “civil inattention” can be maintained, that’s the optimum response to an awkward moment, but sometimes it is impossible to pretend that everyone is behaving normally and acceptably. Confrontations sometimes do occur for which no etiquette coach can provide happy solutions. I'm not sure any of us could have helped Kimveer Gill solve his shame-management problem.