Keywords: Tom Scheff; shame; loss of face; embarrassment; humiliation; Greeks; Homer; Howard Becker; commitment; throw good money after bad; George Lincoln Rockwell; American Nazi; L. Ron Hubbard; Scientology; deviance; civil inattention; Goffman.
Tom Scheff writes about the sociology of emotion. He pointed out something a while ago that’s far more important than people generally acknowledge. He says that the most powerful emotion in shaping our lives is shame – or rather our desire to avoid and suppress it. Not guilt but shame — a loss of credibility in the eyes of others. Loss of face. Moreover, he points out that when shame arises in a social situation, almost nobody points it out. Even psychiatrists rarely draw attention to it in a therapy session but instead help the patient cover it up. That tendency refers to a concept that Goffman introduced — “civil inattention.” If you’re caught doing something embarrassing, people will look away until you’ve recovered and will appear not to have noticed. That’s an important social obligation.
The truth is, whenever shame arises, it is a terrible problem, and pointing it out only makes it worse. Even anger is more acceptable and, as Scheff notes, it is often aroused as a way of hiding shame. We’d much rather be angry than humiliated. His interesting book Bloody Revenge explores historical cases in which whole societies cover up their shame by belligerence. For example, World War I arose like that. He quotes letters exchanged during the pre-war period showing that what people were feeling was that their nation’s “honor” was in jeopardy, and the way to avoid mentioning that was to work up rage.
I think that it’s true — shame is a terrible experience, one that we’d vastly prefer to suppress than almost any other, including guilt. We want honor, dignity, credibility in the eyes of others. So we hide embarrassment if we can. Yet it can come flooding up, even when we’re alone, and we may mutter something aloud or clench our fists and tighten our abdomen until we can subdue it again.
Certain cultures are supposedly more sensitive to shame than others: Japan, for example. And China. Also, the ancient Greeks were motivated by shame issues far more than by guilt. The warrior culture of Homer’s epics, for example, rarely reflected about moral obligations. They were driven primarily by a desire to look good, to win praise as heroic fighters. But that doesn’t mean that we today are much less oriented toward shame ourselves; we are. But we try to re-frame any aspersion on our honor as an issue of morality (guilt) rather than social esteem (shame).
My friend Paul Ekman pays a lot of attention to using proper terminology about affects. He’s a top psychologist specializing in emotion, and he insists that emotions are very brief things, lasting only a moment or at most a few minutes. I don’t think shame is so fleeting.
Also, according to therapists, if you want to reduce the power of an old traumatic memory, you can do so by re-living it a few times, feeling the full force of its power, and eventually it will wane. Again, I don’t think that’s true of shame. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, full of shame about something embarrassing that I said or did sixty years ago. Usually I try to lie still and stay with it until it goes away; that takes an hour or so, and even so the feeling of shame never diminishes. When I recall it the next time, a month or a year later, it is still intense. I have asked other people whether they have such collections of shameful memories and they always admit that they do, so apparently I’m not unusual.
If the emotional management of a memory at midnight is a psychological problem, the public management of disgrace is a social problem — one that can even assume historic proportions. This happens because of the normal human tendency to get “stuck with one’s own story.” So far as I know, everyone does it – not just screwed-up individuals. Commitment usually is not a mental decision but rather an objective situation that happens to us.
On this point, the sociologist Howard Becker once wrote a brilliant article called “Notes Toward a Concept of Commitment.” He pointed out that commitment often happens unintentionally. We become constrained by the consequences of our own decisions – even decisions that we did not fully comprehend at the time. For example, we can paint ourselves into a corner. Or we can dally too long in deciding to quit an unpleasant job, so that we’ve built up too large a pension fund that is not portable and thus no longer can afford to change jobs. Commitment is the recognition that we’re stuck with some bad decisions we made and cannot now undo.
Another example: I never began Peace Magazine with the intention of spending the rest of my life on it. The commitment was something that happened to me, not something I consciously chose. I began putting time and money into it until finally I’d invested more than I could afford to lose. I’d also forgone important professional opportunities for the sake of the magazine, and I could no longer catch up with my colleagues. This experience taught me the meaning of having to “throw good money after bad” to keep from losing everything already invested. I don' regret it now, but I'd never have set out to do this with my life.
On the other hand, commitment can be created intentionally as an objective circumstance, by making a “side bet.” Suppose, for example, I want to quit smoking, but I know my own weakness. I change my future incentives by putting $5000 in escrow, authorizing you to donate it to a charity if ever again you discover that I have smoked. This objectively changes the payoff for my future behavior, thus keeping me committed even if my good intention wanes.
Even short of placing monetary side bets, we can commit to a future plan by declaring our intentions in such a public way that we will feel shamed by the failure to carry it out. This probably works only when the expected shame is certain to be intense.
I remember reading a Sunday magazine article many years ago about George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party back in the 1960s. (See photo.) The author had known Rockwell as a flamboyant youth who enjoyed shocking people and was always “on stage.” He would pretend to hold all kinds of outrageous opinions for a while. People who knew him would just grin and let his absurd arguments pass without comment. But he did it once too often. In the company of some people who didn’t know him, he claimed to admire Hitlerd. Instead of laughing at his act, these strangers took him seriously and were appalled. Rockwell couldn’t bring himself to stop and say that he was just kidding, so he kept it up. The more his reputation grew, the harder it became to back down. He found himself committed to this act, not intentionally, but because others took it seriously. He proselytized, building up a group of self-proclaimed Nazi followers who marched in racist parades with him. Too proud to retract anything, he pretended to feel no shame but flaunted his defiance, strutting on the political stage several years until finally he was shot dead in the street, a tragic victim of his own hyperbole.
I fully understand being trapped by defending a public persona of my own injudicious creation. Indeed, something similar actually happened to me long ago when, for about three years, I became a Scientologist. Here’s how it happened. I was married to Bob Spencer. (Even my marriage was not exactly intended — a commitment resulting from circumstances that made it hard to break up – but that’s another story.). Bob was a psychology graduate student who dabbled in Dianetics, and so I followed him into that experimentation, which was not initially altogether preposterous. The theory held that we retain unconscious memories of traumas, including prenatal ones, that still influence our lives. Though I never benefited from the effort to recover such memories, I do remain open to the possibility that there is some truth in the theory. (For example, I am claustrophobic — a problem that may have originated in the birth trauma.) Anyway, the experimentation seemed harmless at first.
It might have remained harmless had we not committed ourselves, “burning our bridges behind ourselves” by making public lifestyle changes that were hard to reverse. Bob left university and wanted to go to Phoenix, where L. Ron Hubbardwas teaching a growing flock of disciples. Though our marriage was already rocky, I went along, alarming my friends and family, who were quick to classify this practice as a cult. It soon became apparent that they were correct, for the Dianetics became Scientology — an increasingly outlandish exploration of past lives in other solar systems. Bob moved away, leaving me in Phoenix without resources. The wilder Hubbard’s publicized theories became, the more one was ostracized for holding to them, and hence the more mutually dependent we Scientologists became. The practice itself was neither harmful nor beneficial, but the shame of becoming a deviant community was exceedingly harmful. In my mind’s imagery, I see it as an ice floe that I heedlessly walked onto just before it broke off and started floating away. There was no easy way to return to land.
Shame is disreputable status that virtually everyone, however rational, can acquire. Adopt an odd position on any issue and it may happen to you quicker than you imagine. Deviance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. More than anything else, it is a condition of impaired conversational status. If you discredit yourself by espousing an off-beat theory, others will tolerate you and discuss it with you rationally — up to a certain point. If the evidence runs against your position and you cannot be dissuaded by reasoning, however, a time will come when others discount your comments. Once labeled as a “crank,” you will be excluded from serious discourse. This can be extremely hard to reverse, for every reputation takes on a life of its own, A frank foreswearing of the deviant ideology will restore your membership in normal society, but only with a substantial loss of prestige. Everyone remembers your past poor judgment and wonders whether your present normality is entirely reliable. It’s hardly surprising that most people’s opinions match the consensus of others more than their independent reflection.
At one extreme there’s the pathology of “mind control,” where the group demands excessive conformity. At the other extreme, there’s the pathology of the committed crank ideologue who cannot reconsider the deviant position that he has taken. Discredited for his extreme views, he feels shame — yet he would feel even more intense shame if he backed down and admitted his errors. Hence, like George Lincoln Rockwell, he is stuck with his story.
The trouble is, there is no easy way of helping an ideological crank surmount his deviant status. It does no good to remind him that he’s becoming regarded as a crank — that only increases the amount of shame that he’ll have to incur by renouncing his wacky views. On the other hand, reasoning with him won’t work either, for the nature of his predicament is that he’s stuck with his previous story and must defend it at all costs. Probably the kindest way of helping him recover his credibility is to practice “civil inattention” by acting as if his disgraceful blooper or ideology were too trivial even to notice.
This can be hard to do – and even so it may not work. I am dealing with two friends right now who are in that position. On matters of climate change and energy policy, both of them initially took positions that were significantly off-beat but still arguable at a time when the evidence was less complete than now. One of them, for example, believes that there is no such thing as climate change, and insofar as there is any warming of the planet at all, it is caused by the sun, not people. Over time, as more evidence has accumulated, scientists have almost universally reached a consensus and my friend has been “stuck with his story.” To recant would be even more humiliating than to continue defending it. Over time, his view has skidded into the category of “crackpot ideologies.” However, I don’t want to say so because that would emphasize how far his ice floe has drifted away from mainstream science — and hence how humiliating his renunciation would be.
How do you help people get off a losing ideology without losing face? Help me if you know how.