Is Shame the Answer?

Posted on April 10, 2015

Thanks for the great response to last week’s post. If you haven’t yet, please take a moment to review the comments from last week, as they are really thought-provoking and add an important context to the discussion. Since last week, the Indiana legislature has begun to rapidly work to “fix” the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which seems likely to include some of the first legislative protections for the LGBTQ community.

What the hell happened? How did lawmakers go from defending a business’s right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, to realizing they made a huge mistake, to being on the verge of enacting some of the most progressive protections in state history? I would love to say it was compassion and empathy which gave lawmakers insight. Unfortunately, I think a different power is at work – one we must consider in our own advocacy: shame.

Google Dictionary defines shame as, “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Gershen Kaufman adds to this definition in a way that summarizes the research I’ve seen on the subject when he states:

“…shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem, diminished self image, poor self concept, and deficient body-image. Shame itself produces self-doubt and disrupts both security and confidence. It can become an impediment to the experience of belonging and to shared intimacy….It is the experiential ground from which conscience and identity inevitably evolve.”

Whether it is standing up for the rights of LGBTQ or other communities, ending homelessness, or addressing the ever increasing income inequality (check out a great video on this topic at this end of this post), shame is a powerful weapon, especially when open and logical dialogue fails to address important changes impacting our clients’ lives. In all their wisdom, Indiana lawmakers chose to pass this ill-conceived law just weeks before the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four came to the capital of Indianapolis (few things are more important to my state’s pride than basketball). Near-universal condemnation from the NCAA, businesses, universities, and stakeholders was the mirror lawmakers needed to see that their actions brought shame to their state and the Republican Party whose members and governor championed, and initially defended, the bill.

Again, I wish logic and compassion would drive social change, but too often these fail, due to the emotional nature of social change. Even when we are able to lay out the facts in a calm and respectful way, those facts are too often ignored and logic fails to prevail. Shame is much more difficult to intellectualize away, as it is an emotional state created by the insight that one’s behavior is not in line with their own values or societal norms.

Shame, as an emotional state, motivates one towards actions that resolve this discrepancy. As advocates, this is where our logical work begins. If we can provide experiences that show people the injustices that create homelessness, poverty, and discrimination, we help them gain insight to their discrepancies resulting in stress and shame. We then must provide a way forward that is immediate and concrete, as those in intense emotional states will struggle with abstract, complex, and long-term solutions.

Nick’s comment on last week’s post really hit me, and honestly created some shame inside myself. Even though shame worked in Indiana (and the threat of this shame stopped similar legislation in Arkansas), there are many parts of the country where discrimination against LGBTQ and other minorities (Voting Rights, for example) are supported and promoted through legislation and public policy. Nick’s point is well taken. Too many people (including myself at times) write off the South and other areas as beyond help, outside of Federal Government interventions (i.e. Supreme Court). This mindset ignores the fact that these laws are causing real pain and suffering for oppressed communities across the country.

The win in Indiana shows the power of shame to enact positive social change. How can we take these lessons into our own communities? First, we must be educated and ready with facts and experiences. We not only hold the moral high ground, we also hold the financial (at least long-term) and logical high grounds as well. Shame might be our greatest tool for change but we need to be armed with logic, statistics, and financial information as well.

Second, we need to be emotionally regulated ourselves. It is easy, and often necessary, to yell. Unfortunately, yelling often causes more yelling and the result is resistance. Here, resistance is a change-killer, and if those in power or in the majority become resistant, change is highly improbable. Shame unleashes its power when facts and experiences are allowed to create discrepancies and cognitive dissidence within the person’s own mind. We provide the experiences and knowledge in which they can reflect on the negative impact of their own beliefs and actions.

Third, we need to be solution-based. When shame is created, we need to meet it with concrete and immediate actions that are in the power of the individual to take. At the very least, we need to give first steps. Shame, without a tangible action one can take to correct injustice, can easily turn into denial and stagnation. Being ready with a bill to support or funding to champion allows a tangible path to resolution.

As helpers, we hold the responsibility to advocate for solutions. Otherwise, we end up just managing problems that perpetuate themselves year after year. We have the firsthand experience of the impact of misguided laws and policies on those we serve in our communities. Indiana showed us that rapid change is possible. Let’s not sit back satisfied, but instead ask what/where next?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.