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The Cultivation of Shame

It is time we get over the outdated notion of being ashamed of shame.

“You need to hold your temper.”

It was a phrase I heard from my dad on numerous occasions when I was growing up. At the time, of course, I did not get the blacksmithing reference—the ability of metal to retain its shape and edge when under duress. But despite that, I did get the message: Anger is natural, but you can’t just lose your cool over every irritation that you encounter; you need to learn self-control.

So was my dad trampling all over my feelings? Was he scarring me for life? Was he emotionally manipulating me just to get me to behave? Was he tearing down my self-worth or devaluing me by foisting temperance on an intemperate little boy? Of course not. He was merely doing me the fatherly service of civilizing me—of training virtues where none had yet formed.

Anger is indeed a natural emotion, but teaching self-control is not emotional manipulation—it is emotional cultivation, for no young child knows well how to discern what kinds of things are worth being angry over. Neither was it detrimental to my self-worth, for no young child has an adequate sense of proportion. I can remember one episode when I freaked out over a popped balloon to the point where I wanted revenge on the one who accidentally popped it. Granted, that was one incredible balloon; but the perspective granted by maturity shows how childish and destructive my reaction was—not because of a loss of childlike wonder at simple things, but because of a gain of respect for family and neighbors. Indeed, what kind of sense of self-worth could I have had if I had never acquired that perspective? This kind of maturity does not simply happen—it is a gift from our parents that we receive through the way they raise us. Thankfully, very few people would ever advise a parent that they should never tell their child to hold their temper.

Teaching self-control is not emotional manipulation—it is emotional cultivation.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other phrases I heard from my parents. I believe, for example, that I heard “shame on you” from my mom from time to time. Now that I’m rapidly approaching the life stage that triggers unsolicited parenting advice, I’ve begun to hear that this is something one should never say to a child. Why not? Because it tears down their sense of self-worth. Because it is emotional manipulation to get them to behave. Because it scars children for life by trampling all over their feelings and by imprisoning them in social conformity. However, I don’t believe this is true for addressing feelings of shame any more than it is true for anger. On the contrary, removing the phrase from a parent’s lexicon can prevent maturity and the formation of virtues.

Like anger, shame is a natural emotion that everyone experiences, and we all experience both emotions for the same reason: Sometimes the moral law written on our hearts bumps up against reality. Though a child’s sense of right and wrong is unrefined, it exists from the earliest ages. Anger is triggered by perceived injustice, while perceived justice triggers feelings of magnanimity. Likewise, feelings of shame are triggered by perceived transgression while doing what we perceive as the right thing triggers feelings of pride. By itself, feeling shame is not right or wrong—it simply is. Shame is certainly a less pleasant emotion than anger is—righteous anger is something people are generally very comfortable with—but that does not mean the feeling must be avoided. It does, however, mean that shameful actions must be avoided. Like pain, shame is actually a good thing because it exists as a hedge against self-destruction.

I’ve begun to hear that this is something one should never say to a child. Why not?

But just as young children lack discernment when it comes to anger, so also, few young children have a good grasp on what kinds of things are shameful. This is something that parents must train and nourish. As a child, I did plenty of shameful things. Most of these I figured out for myself or caught on with some simple parental instruction. Other times, I needed to be straightforwardly told when shame was appropriate, and so I heard “shame on you.” Accordingly, far from resenting my mom for “shaming” me, I’m grateful to her. Where would I be if my sense of shame was left uncultivated? Would there even be any real significance to the feelings of self-worth possessed by an emotional barbarian who has no grasp on how to delineate sources of pride from sources of shame?

The consequences of negating shame can be easily seen in the area in which shame has been most intentionally negated: sexuality. Men and women are increasingly becoming sexually barbaric. Monogamous marriage having decades ago given way to successive polygamy (or, as it is less accurately known, serial monogamy), successive polygamy is quickly giving way to simple hook-ups—spontaneous sexual encounters with no spoken expectations of continuity. In other words, like a typical squirrel, smelling good and looking good during mating season is pretty much all there is to it for many young men and women. Though this is erroneously considered by many to be liberating, it has a remarkable tendency to inadvertently sound very unpleasant even as it is being extolled. This atrophy of chastity, though bad in and of itself, is accompanied by other types of harm: disease, depression, deliberate barrenness, children deprived of a stable home, and the murder of the inconveniently conceived. These changes in cultural attitudes toward children are particularly barbaric, for children represent the continuity of civilization.

Shame cannot be entirely expunged no matter how much effort is devoted to the task.

Unsurprisingly, most of civilized humanity has therefore historically recognized such behavior as shameful. Nevertheless, many sex-positive feminists and others have spent a great deal of effort trying to erase the feelings of shame that still tenaciously cling to contemporary sexual license. And yet, shame is a part of human nature. It cannot be entirely expunged no matter how much effort is devoted to the task. Unsurprisingly, studies show that such sexually barbaric behavior still tends to produce shame. Given that the sexual revolution was already old by the time today’s youth were even born, the go-to explanation that this persistent shame is a result of culturally entrenched sexual taboos is increasingly implausible.

Even where people seem to shamelessly embrace shameful behavior, it is usually the case that shame has been diverted rather than removed. Younger generations—young women in particular because of the way they are targeted by feminists—have been trained in some very peculiar kinds of shame.

One of the most common peculiar kinds of shame is shame at being ashamed.

One of the most common is shame at being ashamed. As the thrill of hooking-up wears thin and the emotional wounds deepen, many women end up forcing themselves to continue participating in that culture. After all, they have often been told that being a strong, independent, and sexually liberated woman depends on such participation. Anything else is prudish or puritanical—some of the worst kinds of insults that can be leveled today. And so it becomes a kind of responsibility. One of the reasons these hook-ups are so often drunken is not that drunkenness leads to irresponsibility, but that alcohol is needed as an anodyne against naturally occurring feelings of shame—not part of the fun, but a tool to be exploited. And so shame becomes inverted. Like a deadline that forces an industrious worker to drink coffee as she pulls an all-nighter, hook-ups become a responsibility that people are ashamed of not living up to, even if they need liquid encouragement.

Another common diversion of shame is shame over the provocation of shame. “Slut-shaming,” for example, has drawn a great deal of fire. Some of this is in response to instances of bullying and manipulation, and such instances are indeed wrong simply because they are bullying and manipulation. At the same time, however, many are accused of shaming simply because they have expressed the value of chastity or reminded someone of the existence of sexual morality. Such reminders may make the unchaste feel ashamed just as reminders about courage may make the cowardly feel ashamed or reminders about temperance may make the intemperate feel ashamed. Nevertheless, these reminders are not “shaming” in any negative sense. They do not bully; they civilize. They do not manipulate; they cultivate. They do not denigrate anyone’s humanity, but help transform immature humans into mature humans. And so, when these shame-provoking reminders are themselves shamed away, civilization and cultivation do not happen.

She rebels against the “douches” who are just “looking for someone to bang” by conforming to their expectations instead of the allegedly burdensome expectation of chastity.

Expectations of chastity having been denigrated because they were perceived to be burdensome, the corresponding shame which reinforced them was therefore attacked and displaced. The result was simply trading a sensible burden for an incoherent one. Young millennial Kristina describes the experience in a recent Rolling Stone feature. Because she became disillusioned with relationship prospects as a freshman in college after her experiences with “frat bros,” she trained herself to act like one of the same frat-bros that disillusioned her. Now she describes herself as a “sexual vulture” and before circling carcases, she “pre-games with a water bottle full of vodka tonic before moving on to the rugby house, where the sporty all-American type of guy that Kristina favors should be in abundance.” It is a story in which manufactured moxie blends with an undercurrent of despair to form a very convoluted confession. She rebels against the “douches” who are just “looking for someone to bang” by conforming to their expectations instead of the allegedly burdensome expectation of chastity. Though she now finds even the idea of dating and boyfriends distasteful and has given up on a sweetheart she’ll be with forever, she nevertheless wistfully hopes that servicing 29 guys and counting will turn out to be a great way to get the big wedding she’s always dreamed of. After all, she says of herself and her peers that “We’ll be so experienced in all the people that we don’t want, when we find the person who we do want, it’s just going to happen.” Behold sexual liberation: drugging yourself up to service unwanted guys, hoping against hope that your empowered no-strings sexual encounters will eventually lead to the strings you actually wanted in the first place.

Though my examples have been from the area of sexuality, a cultivated sense of shame is of broad human value, and its breakdown bears other consequences. The practice of shame-shaming has recently grown to include laughable attempts to ban words like “bossy” and even “sorry” because apparently all users of that latter word owe the world an apology, and they had better offer it or else. And so two extremely unpleasant personality traits are being extolled as virtues. Likewise, the diversion of shame creates bizarre expectations. There was a time when the typical salt-of-the-earth blue-collar Americans—men in particular—were ashamed of government handouts because of the expectation that a man should be able to take care of his family. When various New Deal programs were first introduced, many who were in need refused for this very reason. This kind of shame, consistent as it is with male nature, had a great deal of utility, for it accepted charity only as an absolute last resort and promoted diligence, hard work, and perseverance. The various attempts to expunge this shame over the years have resulted in the expectation of charity as a legitimate way of life and a loss of the expectation of self-reliance from which most actual self-reliance ultimately sprang. Nowadays, shame is more often encouraged over attempts to curtail harmful social welfare programs. A cultivated sense of shame helps us make sense of expectations so that we can sort the wheat from the chaff. Without it, people are easily manipulated, whether by a teenager’s expectations of no-strings sex, an office-worker’s expectation of obedience from peers, or a by welfare queen’s expectation of a handout.

Shame is a part of human nature, and it will be a necessary one for as long as we are prone to shameful behavior. As a result, whether or not we feel shame will never be optional for us no matter how much effort we devote to the task. What is optional is whether we cultivate that sense of shame so that it can accurately discern the shameful from the benign or let it grow wild and unkempt, making emotional barbarians of future generations. The ill-advised social experiments of the last century have borne their results, and ignorance is no longer a valid excuse for continuing them. It is time we get over the outdated notion of being ashamed of shame.

Matthew’s writing may be found at The 96th Thesis, where this essay first appeared.

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