Let’s talk about shame.
Shame is the most silent of emotions. Other feelings — anger, sadness, joy, disgust — entail a reaction to an external cause. Shame does not. Nor is shame simply a manifestation of heightened embarrassment. Embarrassment is tripping in front of a crush or muttering a socially awkward platitude at the dinner table. Shame is much graver, and it is toxic.
In the late 1980s, psychologists started to treat shame as seriously as guilt. Helen Block Lewis, a psychologist at Yale, was among the first to study the role of shame in psychotherapy, proposing that intense shame led many patients to fare poorly in her sessions. Other scientists posited that shame was the most difficult emotion to admit to and discharge. They labeled it a “master emotion” — one that has the capacity to numb other emotions. A doctor at the University of California, San Francisco claimed that “shame may be one of the only emotions for which no facial expression has evolved.” A Los Angeles-based psychiatrist, Melvin Lansky, has even found that shame incited irrational rage, playing a key role in family violence among his patients.
More recently, scientists from Munich, Germany published a study in 2004, titled “Neurobiological Underpinnings of Shame and Guilt: A Pilot fMRI Study”. They demonstrated that shame is experienced in the frontal gyrus, anterior cingulate cortex and parahippocampal gyrus, supporting their hypothesis that certain areas of the brain play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings. In a departure from typically “objective” scientific analysis, the team also found that shame arises from culturally contingent social settings as opposed to universal social standards. In other words, shame is activated in the ethos of particular sub-communities as opposed to in the general population.
So what role does shame play on our neo-Gothic campus?
At Yale, we shame people for being “uncultured.” We herald the acquisition of romance languages and art decor prints as tokens of intellectual enrichment, while avoiding and denigrating activities that fail to promote an avant-garde aesthetic or that do not embody “Enlightenment” ideals. We do so in spite of reflecting on the perils of elitism.
At Yale, we shame those who are not outspoken. We champion active speech as a fundamental part to activism, and quietly look down on those who opt out of the conversation, judging their choice as a manifestation of their ignorance. We do this in spite of reflecting on the value of silence and introspection.
Finally, at Yale, we shame people who engage in physical labor instead of intellectual pursuits. We work on chemistry problem sets and philosophy papers with a zeal that subtly condescends blue-collar workers. We do this in spite of reflecting on issues of class, privilege or inequality.
Here at Yale, we champion a form of liberalism that embraces progressive values — values that advance the greater good and empower the marginalized. Yet we pursue this ideal of liberalism through subconscious undercurrents of shame. It is our duty, then, to become aware of the ways in which we propagate shame on this campus and in all aspects of life.
I write about this issue — complete with fMRI studies and 1980s psychology theses — because I experience shame as a transgender man. By stigmatizing gender variance, society has produced shame in those who do not conform to gender norms. This shame has made me silent, and it has made me angry. I realized this on a walk through New York City’s Washington Square Park neighborhood the other night as partygoers and bar revelers chatted under neon lights and Manhattan dust. What I noticed, though, was that in order to combat shame that has been imposed on us, we must first start by combating shame that we impose on others.
Let’s give this a try.
Isaac Amend is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .