Notes on Shame

No, not notes on the movie where you get to see Michael Fassbender’s pendulous dong. Sorry to disappoint. What I want to talk about is the feeling and the concept of shame.


Like Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest —or if you want a more low brow cultural touchstone, Sloth from The Goonies — shame is this misshapen, misunderstood thing. We don’t want to acknowledge it, we want to suppress it, keep out of sight, but it nevertheless serves a crucial purpose. Probably more crucial than we realise. This is why I feel ambivalent about social movements, particularly online, that want to do away with shame and “stigma.”


For some movements, this might be a necessary precondition for advancement. HIV activism, for example, oscillates between emphasising the availability of treatment and healthcare to a campaign against social stigma of HIV positive individuals.


Shame and desire go hand in hand. They’re like dancing partners. We often talk about shame as something that wants to shackle or cripple desire. But shame is also a kind of desire. It’s a desire for concealment. A desire not directed towards an object, but away from the object that is ourselves.


Darwin noted this ‘peculiar desire for concealment’ in 1872, after realising humans are the only animals that blush. The only animals that come close to outwardly displaying a sense of shame are dogs, and the degree to which you could argue that is a result of their domestication, their interactions with us.


When people talk of a shame spiral, what they’re identifying is the shamefulness of shame. That shame itself is abject. It must be ejected constantly, sucked out like venom and spat into the dirt so you can get on with your life. Keeping shame is shameful.


Many want to proclaim we live in the age of the narcissist. I’ve my doubts — my suspicion is there’s no more or less narcissism than earlier times, it’s just the technology magnifies it — but if you accept the claim, then the shamefulness of shame becomes much more comprehensible.


The narcissist resents shame because it is the one thing they cannot show off. They are happy to display other emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, because it strengthens them and their self-image. One of the things shame does is undermines. The narcissist’s personality is pristine, and shame is the dirtiest of qualities.


When we say “don’t slut/fat/whatever shame me” we’re implying shame is dirty and we don’t want to feel dirty or worthless. We don’t want to be marked with shame. That our keeping it is partially caused by others.


The corrective to body shame isn’t to say all bodies are beautiful. If all bodies are beautiful, then none of them are. Shame is a feeling, but it’s also a cultural practice. If we lived in a body-positive utopia, or Shangri-Large, if you will, where plus size models graced magazine screens, and fat actresses were considered appealing and not just comic relief, shame might no longer exist as a cultural practice, but it would still exist as a feeling.


Take white men. Empowered and dominant in so many ways, with the majority of cultural representation. Yet they can and do still feel shame. Cultural forces can help, but they are not enough.


Ever heard of ‘pup play’? It’s a mostly queer BDSM practice where one partner takes the role of a submissive ‘pup’, sometimes complete with leather harness, dog paws and a dog mask, while the other partner takes the role of the master. I guess it’s a more visually striking example of submission and dominance practice. It performs a sort of ‘shame jujutsu,’ using the weight of shame against itself. Submissiveness is shamed in wider culture, particularly for men, but in this sort of activity it is celebrated. Shame is redirected, not ejected.


I don’t think we will ever be rid of shame. And I don’t think this is an altogether negative thing. Don’t be ashamed of your shame. Or do? I wouldn’t want to shame-shame you.


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