Why Shame Is A Useful Cultural Motivator

Shame is an emotion no one likes to feel, but it does have some pro-social outcomes when it’s used in a moral way. We feel shame as a result of how we see ourselves and how we envision others see us. In this way, feeling shame is both a private and a public experience that influences our behavior and thoughts about who we are.

By Robyn Riley5 min read
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Shutterstock/Varvara Zin

On the surface, shame appears to be a negative emotion, one that makes us feel alienated, flawed, and self-conscious. Our current culture, which is obsessed with the avoidance of any and all negative emotion, tells us there’s no good reason to ever feel shame about yourself (unless, of course, you deviate from that positivity culture) and you should always feel pride in yourself no matter what. 

While good intentions may be the reasoning behind such a culture, removing the emotion of shame from our lives does have certain negative long-term repercussions. Namely, it seems to bring out and encourage the worst in us.

Relativism Undermines Shame

Relativism is the view that matters of beauty, right and wrong, health, happiness, and even truth itself can’t be objectively defined. To the relativists of the day, nothing anyone does should ever be criticized or looked down upon because to them all perspectives are equally valid. This is the foundation of thought which supports the shamelessness within modern Western culture. 

Relativism removes the need for and the purpose of shame from society.

It isn’t easy to be a good person. Humans are flawed, often carrying varying degrees of emotional baggage, and aren’t always prone to acting morally if there appears to be no good reason to do so. Shame, though, is a component of human psychology which has the capacity to regulate our behavior towards ourselves and others for the common good. 

Feeling shame happens when we do things that deviate from what everyone agrees is good and normal. In healthy societies, this includes things like violence, promiscuity, selfishness, committing crimes, vulgarity, excessive public intoxication, not practicing personal hygiene, or even small things like not being adequately polite. 

The dominant social code that underlies a culture defines what will make a person feel shame, and it’s as tied up in our personal character as it is in the things we do as a result of that character. Progressives have done an extensive amount of work to break down any and all taboos which worked to this effect. The removal of shame from our culture has produced low-quality results in every realm of society from education to entertainment. 

Removing Shame from the Education System

For example, in Canada, our education system has experienced a massive overhaul in its curriculum and rules for students. Students are no longer expected to abide by work deadlines, they no longer are given detention for poor behavior, they don’t even need to try very hard to produce good work because it’s impossible to fail. 

These changes were made so as to not put too much pressure on students and to make sure they didn’t feel poorly about themselves or ashamed of failing to complete a task as well as another student. In an attempt to protect students’ self-esteem, all the standards for good performance in education were discarded. 

This has resulted in young people graduating from high school with absolutely no idea how the real world works. They’re unable to function in college or in professional settings where standards for behavior and work ethic still exist. 

Feeling ashamed of failure gives people the emotional fuel to move towards a redemption arc. 

We need to allow people to fail, we need people to be able to feel ashamed of failure because when they do they have the emotional fuel to move towards a redemption arc in their own lives. When we remove people’s natural impulse to feel ashamed of failure, we remove an important part of the equation that leads to growth and self-improvement. 

We can all empathize with a student who feels ashamed of a poor grade, or who hasn’t learned to submit their work punctually and is reprimanded. Many of us were that student at some point in our lives. But the way to deal with that student is not to remove the structure by which we measure their failure. It’s to support them thoroughly in identifying the mistakes they made that led to the failure and giving them the resources needed to prevent it from happening in the future. 

Celebrity Culture and the Lack of Shame

When we look at how the refusal to feel shame or be shamed by others manifests itself in pop-culture, it’s impossible to ignore the ever degenerating content produced by celebrities. Celebrities intentionally release sex tapes, pop singers and music videos have become vehicles of glorified softcore pornography, and reality tv stars are willing to show everything from themselves sitting on the toilet to getting drunk and fighting each other — all for fame. 

There’s a normalization that trashy, explicitly sexual behavior in public is actually a path to success. 

Due to this being the dominant visual culture we see and engage with, there’s a normalization among the younger generation that trashy, explicitly sexual behavior in public is not only not shameful, but that it's actually a path to success. The results of this are clear when sites like OnlyFans are booming in popularity among both young and old women.

When shamelessness becomes the norm, there’s inevitably an increase in anti-social behavior. Shame itself works as a deterrent in our minds, often stopping us from doing or repeating behavior that we know is bad for us or for society. The normalization of strippers in music videos and girls making an OnlyFans account on their 18th birthday are perfect examples of what happens when shame is removed.

The History of Public Shaming

All cultures and tribes have long histories of using public shaming to ensure the stability of society, social cohesion, and conformity to established moral norms. Shaming bad or undesirable behavior has been an essential method for pruning the weeds out of the garden of civilization, and without it, we have lost course. 

One study has shown the evolutionary benefits and need for shame in our society and rightly suggests “the function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue. The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”

When we think about public shaming in the past, images of wooden stocks or pillory where the local thief is shackled while old ladies throw rotten tomatoes at him appear in our minds. Or perhaps the guilty individual is made to stand on a raised platform for hours in the town square wearing an emblem of their sin, like in The Scarlet Letter.

By the 1800s, though, these practices began to be outlawed state by state, and even parenting styles that refrained from shaming young children lest it psychologically damage their self-esteem were becoming common. 

Without the use of constructive shame in parenting, it’s almost impossible to teach children right from wrong or to nurture a healthy character. It’s right for us to feel shame when we do things that hurt others and ourselves. Parenting that includes expressing gentle forms of disapproval and allows children to feel supported in being ashamed of their mistakes are essential for socializing children into the tribe. Without this, they won’t know how to relate to or be accepted by their peers. The forms of parenting where children are raised with constant approval and never hear the word “no” have produced the adults you see today who need safe spaces in order to function around others who disagree with them.

When we understand that the feeling of shame or guilt accompanies our dysfunctional behavior, it can prevent us from repeatedly acting in ways that are harmful to ourselves and others. It can also encourage us to transform into someone better because people aren’t carved out of stone, they’re capable of change. 

It’s right for us to feel shame when we do things that hurt others and ourselves.

Since the abolition of healthy shame in society, we have seen a steady and ever more appalling descent into cultural degeneration. Striking the balance between shaming enough and too much has been a struggle for as long as civilization has existed. We can’t cripple people with self-loathing or abuse for who they naturally are, their failures, shortcomings, or mistakes, but we can’t celebrate these things either. 

Cancel Culture and the Fear of Modern Public Shaming

If you want to understand how effective shame is as a cultural motivator, you only have to look at the track record of ruined lives and jobs lost by the victims of cancel culture. The mob agrees that certain types of speech and actions which transgress their ideology are worthy of dogpiling an individual and engaging in any means necessary to make sure they lose their ability to study at university, make a living ever again, or are figuratively exiled from polite society. 

We have all witnessed the phenomena of someone being canceled, and we all know that when it happens no apology will fix it nor will any forgiveness be offered. It can happen to anyone from a teenager to a celebrity. We have all seen how painful and humiliating it is. We may not all agree with it, but we can all agree no one wants it to happen to them.

In an effort to avoid being canceled, the majority of people lockstep with the mob and parrot the same rhetoric and talking points as a means of self-preservation. This is how shame and the fear of being publicly shamed specifically can have immense influence over our actions and even the way we think and speak. 

Cancel culture shows how the fear of being publicly shamed influences our thoughts and actions.

Public shaming is not always wrong. If someone commits a heinous crime like sexual assault or child abuse, then they deserve the public shame and the consequences that come with justice. But shame shouldn’t be used to silence victims, enforce speech codes, or close paths to redemption and personal growth. 

Closing Thoughts

Shame is a complex and multi-faceted emotion. It’s one that no one enjoys feeling and that few of us have the tools to use productively anymore. I encourage you to resist defensiveness if you ever find yourself feeling shame. Instead of opting for a reaction of uncritical pride in yourself, stop and ask yourself why you feel ashamed of yourself or your actions. 

Could it be that your spirit and society are offering you a learning moment? Is there something you could have done differently to avoid the situation which has caused this feeling of shame? Analyze yourself, be real with yourself, and don’t lose the lesson.

If we’re willing to be open and fluid with our emotions, especially the negative ones, we will find ourselves on the fast track to mature management of those emotions. While no one is actively seeking negative emotion out we must be willing to accept it serves some greater and long-term purposes if we’re wise enough to choose growth over relentless positivity and uncritical “self-love.”

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