Still looking for the words to finish the final part of the series of hate posts (Are We Great, Yet?), and I find myself pondering shame. Comments and articles about goings-on in the new administration and especially referring to 45 often have some variation on “has he/they no shame?”
Before I dig into this at all I am going to say that I am intentionally not doing any research on shame, yet. For right now, I don’t want to know what the sociologists and other professionals have to say on the subject. I will go find out how I’m wrong later, but for now I’m working out some ideas here and in my head as just a regular person making observations from limited experience. At some point, probably in the not too distant future, I plan to do a bit of Google research so that I can learn facts, not just feelings, experiences, and personal observations. I want to start here with the sorts of things people of average education (like me) “know,” what they/we use to view the world and make decisions.
What is shame? How do we “get” it? It would pretty much have to be learned like almost everything else about our social interactions. It’s not really an interaction, exactly, because we learn to feel shame even without others around, but we learn when we should feel it (or when we shouldn’t) from other people. We begin to learn it early, and as I’ve been trying to piece together where it comes from, I realized that it’s like guilt, but not exactly. We feel shame ourselves when we do something or don’t do something we are expected to do. To me, shame is fear of some kind of negative reaction and/or consequence from someone we care about and/or from society, in general.
This weekend, all over my Facebook are articles referencing the tweet from Steve King (the representative from Iowa, see also link at the end of this post for some context):
Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies. https://t.co/4nxLipafWO
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) March 12, 2017
Like hate, or maybe even as part of learning hate, we learn (or don’t learn) shame. Now, don’t get me wrong, shame isn’t always a good thing, and I suspect there’ll be more posts on the subject as I am learning lately just how important shame is and how it can be misused to do terrible damage to people and to society. But we should learn some shame.
There are things we do that are wrong when it comes to society. There are things that are wrong in some places and not as big a deal in other places. For instance, killing other people is wrong pretty much everywhere. It’s important enough that we even have laws about it.
In some places speeding in your car is a big deal, and you will probably get a ticket if you go more than four miles per hour over the speed limit. There are other places/areas where the speed limit signs are more. . . guidelines. The strange thing is that speeding tickets and being caught breaking the law suck but aren’t really a cause for shame in our society. Why not? We’re breaking laws that are set up by people to protect people? We all expect everyone else to obey the laws the same way we do. The way we do varies depending on where we’re from. I learned to drive in Missouri where speeding laws are pretty strict. You can get away with going five over, but that is pushing it, and more than that is begging for a ticket. Other than in a conversation with my insurance agent, I am basically okay with admitting that I broke the law and got a speeding ticket. I feel a little bit of shame for letting society down, for speeding and for being caught at it because now there’s proof and my insurance rate will rise, but I probably don’t feel as much shame as much as I should. Why? Because Mom and Dad did it, too? Because when they got caught they appeared to be irritated with the police officer and not with themselves? The police officer didn’t make them do it. They did it. The police officer is just the person who caught them at it.
There are little things that are done or not done in our society. We don’t talk on the phone in the theater. We don’t lie. We put things back where we found them. We don’t take things that do not belong to us. When we get into an elevator, we wait for whoever is getting off to exit first, and then we get in. Once we’re in we turn around and face the door. Hospital elevators mess with us because sometimes they also open at the back. We feel silly when that happens because even though we did what we’re supposed to, we were still “doing it wrong.” That’s not shame, but it is an expectation, a thing we learned that we tried to do correctly.
At the store as a little kid we notice someone in a wheelchair, and we point while asking some embarrassing question out loud in our quest for understanding. Our parents quickly push our arm down and tell us it’s not polite to point. What is the lesson there besides that our reaction to other people matters and we need to go learn how to understand new concepts on our own? I’m sure I did this to my son at some point, but looking back I wonder if it would have been better to say “hi” to the person in the wheelchair with my little son there. Would we have met a wonderful person with a cool story or lesson or outlook about war or triumph over illness? Would we have met a lonely but deserving person who would have changed our lives? What if this person was an artist or an engineer or homeless or in their last days? There is no way to know because I didn’t try. What lesson did I give him about people who look different than him? My son is 27 years old so it’s too late to go back and learn this, too late for both of us.
We feel shame when we do something that is contrary to what society expects of us or when we don’t do something that is expected. We know what is right and what is expected, and we know that there are consequences for doing “wrong.”
If a bag breaks and someone drops their groceries, we stop and help them collect everything before it rolls away. We might say something to the person we’re helping about if anything was broken, and we wish them a good day. We might not help them if, for instance, we also have our arms full or if we have our kids with us, especially if some are in a stroller. Society excuses us from the obligation of helping the person with the broken grocery bag if we also have a big or important load. If we were the one to drop the groceries and everyone walks past us and/or ignores us we can still pick up the stuff ourselves, but we think something like “well, fuck you, too.” We know the rules of society. We know they don’t have to help us, but we also know they should, and most importantly, they know they should. It’s how we do it in the United States. We help because that is what we should do according to the rules of society, but we also help because that is the right thing to do. In the interest of not making this paragraph a huge wall of text, I’m going to separate the next thought because I think it’s an important one.
I am tempted to generalize and say that this is how it is everywhere. If anyone drops their groceries, anyone at all, we help them collect them. It only takes a moment. Nobody is more or less able to deal with that situation. Okay, maybe we’re more inclined to help if the person whose groceries are rolling all over the sidewalk is elderly or is also corralling a bunch of kids. The point is it doesn’t matter the gender of the person, the color of their skin, or their age; what matters is it sucks when groceries drop, we all know this, and the thing to do is to help. We hold the door open for anyone, too, regardless of their gender, color, age. I carefully taught my son these things, and I would have taught him the very same way if he was a female child. It’s a human thing. If he failed to help or hold the door or whatever in the appropriate situation, I would correct him. I wasn’t rude to him, but I used words and actions to let him know what the correct thing to do in the situation is. He learned quickly, and I never had to “shame him” (not that I would have, and certainly not in the moment, in public). As we grow up, we learn by word and example what the correct actions are in everyday life. We also learn what are the right actions. It’s handy when correct and right are pretty much the same.
Raising my son I didn’t have extra money most of the time. A lot of the time he was fed and I was not. I worked a lot, but there simply wasn’t enough for us both sometimes. You parents know what I mean. You pay bills, keep enough gas in the tank to get to work until you’re paid again, you feed and clothe the little people, and whatever is left is for you. If there is nothing left you are grateful that the bills are paid and the kids are fed, and you can get to work long enough to earn a little more to work with. That is single mom life in the United States. For many years I worked at a bank that collected for the less fortunate around Christmas time. One year when my son was a little guy, about three or four years old, I scraped together enough to buy a couple of little toys to contribute. My son saw them and asked about them. He didn’t tell me he wanted them; he asked what they were for, and I answered. I left the room to switch the laundry and came back to find more toys in the pile. He told me those kids needed the toys so they could have them. He didn’t know the kids. He only knew of them and their need. I told him to choose one of his toys to give. Of course I didn’t give that toy because it wasn’t new (don’t recall exactly what I did with it – Goodwill probably), but I wanted him to know the feeling of doing the right thing even though only the two of us knew about it. It’s funny that right now I can’t recall any lessons in shame, but I vividly recall this lesson in pride. I remember hugging him and thanking him for his sacrifice for this child he didn’t know.
Somewhere along the way, some place in this country, some of us learned that it’s perfectly okay to be too busy to help that person with their spilled groceries and not feel shame about our selfish choice. Not even a little. Somewhere along the way we learned that you help that person if they have one color skin but not another. Somewhere along the way it became okay to ignore people who need help that we can absolutely give. In other places in this country it’s become a good idea to not only ignore someone in need but to kick that person when they’re down. It’s especially okay if that person looks a certain way or worships a certain way (or if we think they do). The things I take for granted, these things you do or don’t do because it’s right and because it’s correct, it turns out other people aren’t learning the same lessons even though we grew up in the same country. Things I believe to be true in our society and understand that other people believe, too, for the same reasons, well, they aren’t necessarily true, after all. Why?
I’ll add to this when I’ve thought more of this through. I hadn’t thought about shame and just what it means and how it can be used to help or to harm, not really. Shame was simply a part of knowing right from wrong until this election and the way it has brought such hate and hurt into the light, into the open. Now, more than ever, I feel that paying attention to what our elected people think is right and what is wrong and what represents us is tremendously important. The things that Steve King says, publicly and without shame, are pretty much the opposite of what I am or, at least, who I mean to be. Kids say things like “for shame,” and those words hit other kids pretty hard; they learn lessons, right or wrong, from those two little words. We don’t just learn this from our parents. I hope that the rest of America sees what he’s saying here and shames him. It would be pretty awful to find out I’m the only one left who feels shame for what he said as our representative.
Link: “White Nationalism: GOP Congressman Calls For Racial Purity” – by Michael Stone