Hundreds of people recently paid big bucks to hear Monica Lewinsky give a carefully crafted but also quite touching TED talk announcing her survival of a public shaming of planetary proportions.
Brené Brown, a leading researcher who teaches resilience to shame, asserts that a major root cause of our collective shame originates in a paradigm of scarcity: the main message of our culture is that our ordinary lives are not special enough. We are not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, interesting enough, accomplished enough. Adding to the mix are pervasive early experiences of humiliation. An art teacher once told my father there was no hope that he could ever learn to draw. This casual comment stayed with him all his life. School experiences of this sort are legion.
Notwithstanding Brown’s essential research, the roots of shame are even more existential than the superficial criteria of our materialist and appearance-obsessed culture; for proof we need only look to the primordial mythology of Adam and Eve covering their privates after eating the forbidden fruit. The meaning of the myth is still debated; in one interpretation, their shame represented not a disobedient fall into original sin, but a fall upward into consciousness and conscience—into the healthy vulnerability indicated by our capacity for shame.
Having earned my undergraduate degree, I was troubled for decades by a repetitive dream in which I needed to go back to my college as an adult and take one more year of courses in order to authenticate my diploma. It was only in middle age, as I began to fulfill my professional potential, by which time I had acquired enough experience to forgive myself for some serious mistakes of work and love, that the dream ceased to recur. The dream was a manifestation of shame, a deep sense of not living up to the birthright of what it was possible for me to be. Shame and its complement, empathy, are built-in software that helps weave people together in the web of interdependence we call culture—the culture that is and the culture that might be.
Our present culture shames selectively. Monica Lewinsky, whose moment of youthful complicity with a powerful man threatened only herself and one family, albeit a very public family, must carefully eat crow in order to move on. Richard Bruce Cheney, the proximate cause not only of the lies that engendered the ongoing deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq and surroundings but also of the environmental catastrophe of fracking, remains comfortably unashamed of the agony he has brought to whole peoples and landscapes. Let’s not hold our breath waiting for him to do a repentant TED talk any time soon.
The shame of our planetary condition is even deeper than an oligarchic culture where those insulated by power get to pick who gets a pass and who does not. After millennia of wars, the human family still accepts the shameless notion that killing each other will resolve our many conflicts. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear from denizens of this or that prestigious Washington think-tank, often not speaking truth to power but beating the drums of power, lending a veneer of legitimacy to activities for which we should be thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed—secret arms sales to all sides in a conflict, hypocrisy around nuclear weapons, drones decimating wedding parties, military cost overruns in the billions that take food from the mouths of the poor.
When pundits encourage violent alternatives as logically inevitable, violence is rationalized, brought into civilized discourse, made credible and fit for daily consumption. At a delicate moment in complex diplomatic negotiations, the bullying and simplistic John Bolton was irresponsibly given a forum in the New York Times to argue that we have no other option but to bomb Iran, a country where ordinary people by the thousands went into the streets in sympathy with the U.S. after 9-11.
A piece of video footage available last year on the net reminds us of the shameful reality of the horror Bolton would plunge Iran into so casually. Much too raw for network TV, it showed a wide-eyed six-year-old child lying on rags somewhere in Syria awaiting medical attention with her intestines exposed in a tangled mound. The editors of this tape had partially blurred this slick protruding pile of guts, but it was still not an easy image to erase from one’s mind. It shouldn’t have been, because it exemplified something truly shameful, the civilian cost of war.
It is possible to imagine a world where violence and killing are universally agreed to be the most shameful, unmanly ways to resolve conflicts—because in fact they never really resolve anything, as tragically demonstrated by the chaos of today’s Middle East and the U.S. role in it. While unhealthy shame can feel almost as bad to children as getting their guts blown apart—“forget it, you’ll never be an artist”—we live in a world where healthy shame is still in very short supply.