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Social Science

Does Shame Serve a Purpose Anymore?

People who feel shame believe one’s self is inherently wrong. Which might explain why those who most need to feel the emotion never do.

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A summer Sunday, sunlight out my bedroom window, a 100-year-old Douglas fir in full view, and I sat covered in semen and shame. I was 12. In our tiny town in Washington State, there was a strong and seemingly immobile divide between boxers (the richer kids, and the cool one) and tighty-whities (me). I was sure I’d hid them from my parents when I slipped the Snoopy silk boxers into our shopping cart at Fred Meyer’s in Marysville; in retrospect, how could they have not known? I’d pulled them on for the first time that morning and grown hard, which had happened before. I put a pillow between my legs and moved on it, and felt the silk, and felt the cool boys, whose boxers were neither silk nor Snoopy, and then a thick white stuff was leaking from me. I had no idea what it was.

When we went to Fred Meyer’s again that afternoon, the shame was a sickness on and in me. What had I done? What was that stuff? I’d caught cancer or herpes or gonorrhea. I knew about the disease of homosexuality, but I never imagined it could infect me. I remember the feeling of that first orgasm, how surprised I was by the pulsing even more than the liquid. Like a muscle contraction I couldn’t control. Like a cramp except it didn’t hurt. I think I actually liked it. I think it actually felt good. Shame of shame, I was dying, I had cancer, I liked boxers, I probably had HIV even then, and I maybe even liked it. It’s not that I had done something wrong. It’s that there was something wrong with me

Shame is so hard to define and measure, and yet we worry that it is because we no longer have shame that the world is falling apart. Wouldn’t shame have saved us from Trump if he or his voters felt it? If only Republicans felt shame taking more NRA money after Sandy Hook (or Parkland or Uvalde … or … or … or) we’d be able to pass gun laws that 90% of Americans want. I question even this notion that things are now uniquely bad, that something has somehow changed. Right-wing movements are on the rise nationally, but my small Washington State town tried to secede from the United States … in the 1990s. Here in America and abroad, fascist, racist, homophobic, violent movements have always been present. Right-wing movements have never been ashamed. The thing that seems to shift is how available the mainstream is to them, how much of the collective oxygen we give them. 

Right-wing movements do not feel shame, by my definition of the word, and no amount of shaming can stop them. 

I’m a scientist by training, and while my expertise is more centered on microorganisms, the brain and drugs that affect shame tend to come up constantly in my teaching. In considering shame here, I want to borrow from psychologists, some of whom argue that while guilt is a negative feeling about having done something wrong, shame is a similar negative feeling but one that arises from feeling as if one’s self is inherently wrong. 

As a scientist, I know that some human feelings—namely pleasure, fear, and pain—can be mapped directly back to the release of certain neurotransmitters or the activation of certain receptors: dopamine, norepinephrine, and the TRP ion channels. 

But shame, and other complex emotions like guilt and joy and happiness and annoyance, are too complicated to be described by simple molecules and receptors. Some psychologists call them secondary emotions, and they’ve barely been mapped to regions of the brain

In animal research, a metric used to define shame is “involuntary submission,” especially to “superior” and “dominant males.” Okay, sorry, but don’t threaten me with a good time. Shame is all about rank: knowing your lower one and performing it. Even in animal studies (designed and carried out by humans, it must be said), shame then isn’t just about a bad action, but the place of one’s entire self in a social hierarchy. 

Science studies scholar Donna Haraway has written extensively on why scientists choose behavioral model systems of domination, rank, and competition as opposed to systems of cooperation, kinship, symbiosis, and integration, which are also numerous within and between species. Spoiler: It’s about laying very human frameworks of capitalism and competition onto animal systems to make capitalism’s domination seem natural; survival of the richest. 

If we define shame as a negative emotion connected to a deeply held identity in society, then shame, by definition harms marginalized people, like women (bad if sexual) and queer people (bad regardless)—along with, according to one scholar, the Irish and the underclass. An entire book, just about my childhood! 

I’m not arguing that all negative primary or secondary emotions are harmful; humans will, and should, feel bad sometimes in life. But no human should feel they are inherently bad, no matter what they do.

Our country seems mired in (at least) two tandem crises. On the one hand, we seemed to have given up on COVID-19 mitigations. On the other, we have a growing, heavily armed, right-wing fascist movement targeting already-marginalized people—nonwhite people, non-Christians, and queer people and trans youth in particular. Shame, and its utter failure to stem these crises, connects them. 

Viruses first. I’ve written before about my lifelong fear of HIV and the belief I grew up with: If I slept with men, I’d get AIDS and probably die. In the last decade, PrEP, a pill we can take to prevent AIDS alongside or instead of condoms, has undone a significant amount of that shame for me and others in my generation of queer people—at least for those of us who can access PrEP, which unfortunately remains a privilege. Of course, even before PrEP existed, I knew that HIV wasn’t a death sentence, but logic was no match for decades of shame. 

In grad school, where I studied the viruses that infect bacteria, I used to watch The Daily Show With Jon Stewart before bed. That’s where I first saw them. Advertisements, meant to stem the rise of HIV and other STIs, reminding us: “It’s never just HIV.” Over dark music: “When you get HIV, you’re over 28 times more likely to get … ANAL CANCER.” Clap! Shocking music! Close up pictures of … cancerous anuses? Then a man holding a man’s hand in a hospital bed, an echo of the images of men helping each other die in the earlier years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. “EVEN … ” the ad reminds us “IF YOU TAKE MEDICATIONS!”

These ads made me sick to my stomach; I wanted to vomit, and then never have sex again. My mind was angry: I’d spent too many years already afraid of sex, I didn’t need any more. But my mind couldn’t quiet my disgust, my shame. And these ads came on at every commercial break, every episode, for weeks. In my time as a COVID-19 activist, I had a meeting with a former NYC Public Health official; I blasted the ads as one of the worst things the department had ever done. It turns out he made them, they were his idea. He got quiet, I didn’t back down, we tried to figure out how to work together on our desperate COVID situation. I felt rage. I hope he felt guilt because in my view he had done something wrong (something harmful to me, personally); I do not wish him shame. 

Time and time again, whether it’s HIV or COVID, some activists (like Gays Over COVID) have tried to use shame to change risk behaviors and stem infectious disease. But most researchers believe that shame actually increases risk behavior, and they have a pesky thing called data to support that notion

Shame makes bad public health. It doesn’t scare people into compliance—with masks or with condoms. It simply pushes people and behaviors into a hidden closet. Risk management requires openness; shame makes that impossible.

But what about politics? In this political moment, we have a party that refuses to reprimand a congressperson who allegedly paid for sex with an underaged woman; that same party is using the spectre of grooming and trafficking to do material and measurable harm to queer and trans people. And yet, they feel neither shame nor guilt but righteousness that their shamelessness will win them power or elections or money, as if there were a difference between those things. 

How can they stand there serious-faced and talk of groomers with an alleged sex trafficker like Rep. Matt Gaetz in their midst? How can they say “Thoughts and prayers” after more American children are murdered in school? In fascism, this shamelessness about obvious and inherent contradictions isn’t a bug but a feature.

In 2016, Donald Trump’s election seemed to shock everyone. Like everyone else, I went out and bought Hannah Arendt’s classic text On The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt was trying to understand how a fascist mob could arise from an apparently functioning democratic republic with well-defined cultural and social norms that seemingly would prohibit sending millions of people off to be murdered in giant factories of human suffering. 

Arendt defined “the mob” as a populist right-wing portion of society that self-describes as feeling left out, left behind, mocked by elitists. Sound familiar? 

A few years ago, one of my cousins messaged me on Facebook. The whole extended family knew I was queer by then, living in New York, writing, and doing, and teaching science. His step-daughter, in middle school, had just come out as gay. He was a Republican, for sure, never left the Midwest, never went to college, had a manufacturing job. He wanted to know how to be a good dad to her, how to protect her, how to make sure she knew she was loved as a lesbian. What did you need to hear, he was saying, when you were little?

Less than five years later, this same cousin was posting about the border and about the Bidens and about CRT and about Candace Owens and about trans people as frauds. What had happened to him? I thought it was political and important to push back on his Facebook posts. We argued. He seemed to have no shame. That I could refute his logic didn’t matter. He supported himself with clearly fraudulent evidence. I felt good—ping ping ping of dopamine—repudiating him, pretending I was doing politics. I imagine he felt good—ping ping ping of dopamine—mocking his faggot commie New York intellectual cousin. Neither of us felt shame.

Fascists don’t debate. They recruit. I knew I wasn’t convincing him; I was performing being right and getting off on it. That I was right doesn’t matter. Deconditioning people who’ve been drawn into a cult is beyond my expertise and anyway it certainly wasn’t going to happen on Facebook. We were dancing, nothing more. We enjoyed it.

According to Arendt, the mob is shameless by definition. It is through enjoying the recesses of illogic passions that the mob arises. Trump, like other authoritarian leaders, allows people permission to believe in fully contradictory thinking without internal contradiction—without shame or guilt for not wearing a mask in a crowded indoor space when that decision could literally kill others. 

Nazis and otherwise fascists feel no shame. Queers do. I’d rather be a faggot than a fascist. Nothing we can do will instill this feeling in fascists. Fascism is a tool through which one can avoid most negative secondary emotions all together. While all of us are out here worrying about the climate and trying to avoid COVID, wouldn’t it be nice to just take off the mask and act like nothing was wrong, stop worrying, it’s nothing but a cold?

But shame can be unlearned. The first time I had sex with a man I was embarrassed; I came like three seconds. But I wasn’t ashamed. I liked the queer part of myself before I ever had queer sex. Nothing but good nothingness in my gut as I lay in his arms afterward, as he traced the freckles from my chest outward. We used a condom of course—this was 2007 or so—and, for weeks, I worried about HIV. What a shame. It should have been simple intimacy. High and holy, as much as we can do in this flesh. Mostly, in his arms, I felt great about getting what I wanted. I just wished the getting had lasted longer. I wish I’d been cured of my fear of HIV in the same way I already had mostly cured myself of the fear and shame of being gay. Over the last decade, I mostly have. 

Fascists will not be shamed; we have to cut off their ability to recruit and marginalize their voices, shrink their numbers, exclude them from public discourse. This won’t be easy, particularly in a world seemingly obsessed with “free speech,” which too often means speech that is free to harm others through inciting violence. Elon Musk isn’t making it any easier. In the face of his money, however, there can be our collective voices, organized. 

Fascists seem to live without shame. I want to live without shame, too. But not in a way that harms others. Snoopy boxers and premature ejaculations are stories I laugh about now. I don’t want to live without guilt; when I do harm, I want to change, do better. As long as our pleasure causes no one else’s pain, let that pleasure be our guide. The Earth is melting. Primary emotions—pleasure for example—can’t be our only guide. We owe more to each other. In the face of fascism and COVID-19 and HIV and the next crisis to come, pleasure must be a part of our lives. Pleasure must become a part of our politics, beyond, and without, an ounce of shame. 

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