Shame

With little time to blog as this year comes to an end, it’s tempting to do a run-down of some of the good news that’s come our way (like the recent reversal of that outrageous vote within the graduate student union in California to join the BDS “movement”) as well as ominous tidings (such as the mindless embrace of anti-Israelism by various campus protest movements and academic organizations).

But even when we win a vote, the forces of darkness win a country.   As the maelstrom in the Middle East spreads, as murderous tactics used against Jews in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for decades get implemented in Paris and California, and as those who could stop it do nothing, we need to maintain our humility over how much anti-BDS efforts (and BDS itself) can really impact geopolitical events.

We also need to spend some time figuring out what might really be going on (beyond general mayhem), so that those who eventually must understand and rectify what’s gone wrong with the world will have something to work with (preferably before we have to first dig ourselves out of the rubble).

This longish series tried to explain the “War against the Jews” by fusing together the ideas of Ruth Wisse (who coined that phrase) and Lee Harris (whose work is being tapped every time I’ve talked about ruthlessness or fantasy politics).

But Harris’ writing also talks about another human factor often ignored or minimized when discussing society and politics: the role of shame.

Shame is one of the stranger products of human evolution, a process whereby doing or thinking something actually triggers a physiological reaction, including flushing, sweat and physical discomfort.  The pain associated with feeling shame tends to be less intense than what you’d get if you do something stupid, like touching a hot pan or stepping on a rake.  But it seems to stay with us much, much longer.  In fact, I suspect many of you reading this can trigger an internal shame reaction by simply dredging up memory of shameful misbehavior from decades past.

While physical pain is designed to prevent us from doing things to harm ourselves (like getting burned or whacked by the aforementioned hot pan and rake), shame can only be triggered by our behavior vis-à-vis other people.  This seems to indicate that evolution has left us with physiology hard wired to choose some ways to act over others, and to feel visceral pain when we stray off that path.

Now a few peculiar souls seem to have been born without such wiring, like some people are born without sight or all their limbs.  We call these folks sociopaths and while they don’t suffer the same shame impulses as do you or I when we cause harm to others, their behavior tends to catch up with them in other ways, especially when it comes to forming relationships that require empathy and caring.

This might explain why sociopathology has not become a dominant trait since even if the shameless might be able to get away with more aggression than those who restrain themselves, it is difficult for them to forge the kind of loving relationships that normally precede procreation, making the truly shameless a barren line.

I’ve sometimes referred to the BDS “movement” as sociopathic since its adherents demonstrate such total disregard for the harm they cause others.  But even if there are some people who fit this diagnosis within BDSer ranks, it’s quite difficult to turn a normal person (never mind a group of people or a society) wired to process the shame impulse into a beast who does not.

But if turning shame on and off is difficult, if not impossible, for a normal person, changing what people feel shameful about is simplicity itself.  In fact, it seems as though the shame impulse is neutral with regard to what social rules it enforces, which is why someone from one culture might feel shame for not doing what a member of another culture would be ashamed to even consider.

That series I wrote recently on the current campus culture wars provides an interesting case study of this phenomenon in action.  For the act people are being asked to be ashamed of is truly a shameful one (racism).  In fact, the shame reaction people feel when accused of even minor and unintentional behavior that could be perceived as racist (so-called “microaggressions”) is so powerful that one could claim revulsion to racism has become the norm on campus (and beyond) rather than racism itself.

Rather than celebrate this as a form of social progress (or at least analyze it in these terms), another group of seemingly shameless individuals (the Israel haters who are ever-ready to take advantage of someone else’s political momentum) have turned around to declare that anyone fighting racism who does not automatically embrace their positions should be ashamed of themselves for being Progressives in Everything but Palestine (PEPs).

But notice what happens when someone points out that the political actors the BDSers fight for and alongside represent the most brutal, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, reactionary forces on the face of the earth.  Not only do they not feel shame about such alliances, they try to get others to feel ashamed for even mentioning them.

Perhaps the shame response has been bred out of them.  But I strongly suspect that they have simply adopted a different social norm, one that says anything they do to push forward their cause is something to be proud of (no matter whom it might harm) while stopping to consider other factors (or other people) is considered shameful.

Last century, it was political ideology that generated the type of zeal needed to get people to take pride in behaving like monsters and feel ashamed for not doing so.  Today, remaining fragments of those ideologies have been blended with dangerous aspects of religion to create an even more toxic mix. And even if we can’t get people selling this poison to feel gut wrenching shame for doing so, it remains our duty to help others avoid feeling ashamed for not drinking it.

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