Inside Story

The power of shame

What can the psychology of this powerful emotion reveal about political life?

Nick Haslam Books 5 June 2024 1377 words

Weaponising shame: Donald Trump leaving court after the guilty verdicts in his hush money case last week. Peter Foley/EPA

“The only shame,” wrote Pascal, “is to have none.” But what would it mean to be shameless? Are the shameless immune to humiliation, or can public shaming reform them? And what exactly is shame, so apparently absent in some but all-consuming in others?

Political economist David Keen, a scholar of civil wars and famines, has written a fascinating exploration of shame and shamelessness as they feature in political life and global conflicts. Shame is the home territory of psychologists, and political scientists are often wary of placing emotions front and centre in their analyses, but Keen reveals dimensions of the emotion that extend beyond the realm of private suffering and self-help. Shame: The Politics and Power of an Emotion shows how an examination of shame’s complexities can complement a more traditional analysis of political conflict grounded in material realities and group interests.

Keen argues his case for the importance of shame and shamelessness by investigating the many forms and theatres of violent conflict. He explores the psychology of violent criminals, the perverse shame of Adolf Eichmann — ashamed of emotionality itself and of not being a more effective mass murderer — and the tactical use of humiliation in atrocities committed by rebels during the Sierra Leone civil war, the site of his earlier fieldwork. He finds the source of Trump’s demagoguery in his obsessive concern with winning and weakness, and argues that the former president offers an escape from shame for people who feel disrespected and neglected. He presents Brexit as a reaction against the perceived shamefulness of British subordination to Europe, and describes how colonial powers wrestle with the shame of past harms using an anti-apologist politics that reinforces national pride.

In episodes of mass killing, Keen points out, manipulated images of the enemy’s shamelessness play a role in encouraging violent actions. Russia’s war on Ukraine and America’s war on terror are both discussed as reactions to perceived historical humiliations in which shame has been deliberately manipulated to enlist support for aggression. These violent shows of strength may restore some sense of national self-respect at home, Keen suggests, but they also create new humiliations and deepen the disrespect felt by adversaries.

In fact, the counter-productiveness of shaming is one of Keen’s key messages. “The pleasurable righteousness of shaming others,” he observes, “is a remarkably ineffective way of solving problems but often a very effective way of making them worse.” We might hope for a kind of “productive shame” that prompts contrition and moral rehabilitation, but more often shaming motivates defensiveness and counterattack.

Unlike guilt, which attaches to specific actions and can be expunged by making amends, shame taints the whole person and has no easy off-ramp. Shame marks a spoiled identity: being bad, not just behaving badly. Psychological studies consistently show that shame is a more pathological emotion than guilt, associated with any number of mental health problems and ineffective ways of coping, and that it often leads us to externalise rather than accept blame

Keen’s investigation of shamelessness, a topic that psychologists have ignored, is also original. Shame and shamelessness — “the roots of violence,” according to Salman Rushdie — don’t simply lie at the opposite ends of a continuum, he suggests. Leaders who appear shameless may or may not feel shame, but they are often adept at deflecting it onto scapegoats and reflecting it back onto their accusers. Keen remarks on how unfairly distributed shame tends to be, and how it can be manipulated.

Among Keen’s most interesting ideas is his contention that shame may have different foci for different people. As a result, actions that appear shameless to an observer, because they flagrantly violate the observer’s morality, may spring from susceptibility to a different kind of shame in the person observed. What he calls “shame around bad behaviour” — a moral emotion that is difficult to distinguish from guilt — may be absent but the behaviour itself may reflect a response to “shame about weakness,” a reaction to being disrespected, dishonoured or seen as insufficiently tough.

This more masculine sense of shame as dishonour often fuels violence, Keen argues, and blocks the perpetrator’s shame over their violent response. If they view their aggression as a virtuous defence of their honour, the shame is not theirs to experience. In this connection, Keen introduces psychiatrist James Gilligan’s claim that violent criminals often act out of a profound sense of shame rather than psychopathic coldness.

Gilligan attempts to humanise violent offenders by identifying an emotional vulnerability at the root of their crimes, rather than ascribing it to heartlessness or calculation. His analysis overlooks the lack of shame violent criminals typically feel about the suffering they inflict and makes the questionable assumption that hair-triggered aggression following perceived disrespect reveals a proneness to self-directed shame rather than to other-directed anger.

Keen is aware that he runs the risk of seeing the world through “shame-coloured spectacles.” Indeed, his book sometimes casts its conceptual net very widely, catching phenomena that might be better described as guilt, concern for reputation, or moral responsibility. At times, any act of criticism or blame becomes an instance of shaming, and any acceptance of fault an instance of shame.

This expansive view of shame and shaming is now prevalent. Crass comments about weight or clothing choices become “fat-shaming” or “slut-shaming” despite taking issue with their target’s specific characteristics, guilt-style. Arguably, the language of shame is dominant now because matters of identity are so culturally salient. We imagine that finding fault with someone undermines who they are, not just what they do or one of their many attributes.

As Keen shows, “shame” has become a much more widely used word since the 1980s. A little noodling around the Google Books corpus shows that “shame,” “ashamed” and “shameless” crop up three or four times as often as they did in 1980, and references to “shaming” have risen tenfold. Although we might tend to associate shame with the anachronistic prudishness of scarlet letters and bathing boxes, or with supposedly backward “shame cultures,” shame has become very much a modern, Western emotion, a staple of pop psychology and of everyday moral condemnation.

Part of what makes Keen’s book so rich is how many-meaninged shame has become. It can result when our reputation is challenged, when we behave immorally, and when we suffer the immoral behaviour of others. It can arise following amoral failures of self-control, from exposure of our bodies, and from belonging to pariah groups. It spans cringey embarrassment to abject mortification. It can be triggered by what we do, by what we fail to do, and by our personal attributes, whether chosen or inborn.

Indeed, shame may not be a unitary emotion at all. The existence of the word does not entail that it refers to a distinct and singular emotion: to believe in such a direct correspondence is to commit the so-called “lexical fallacy.” Where human experience is concerned, concepts often cannot “carve nature at its joints” because there are none.

The idea that our lexicon picks out natural emotional kinds — and especially that English has the unique genius to do so correctly, while languages that classify emotions differently do not — is out of favour in the study of emotion. The emotions our labels imperfectly identify may be better understood as loose mosaics of features assembled in culturally specific ways.

Ancient Greek, for example, had two words covering what we now call shame, one referring to a virtue that inhibited bad behaviour, the other a regretful feeling experienced after failing to do so. “Shame” in English arguably refers to a loose collection of states and values, and it may be a mistake to offer a unifying account of something that isn’t unitary to begin with.

Keen has performed a valuable service in exploring these complexities of shame and shamelessness, and especially in recognising the extent to which they are socially shaped. Other emotions deserve the same attention, he urges: we must “map their complex interactions not only with each other but with the more material and calculating side of political life.” His book is a telling demonstration of the fruitfulness of that approach. •

Shame: The Politics and Power of an Emotion
By David Keen | Princeton University Press | $59.99 | 360 pages