The S-Word: Shame as a Key to Modern Societies
This study seeks to reclaim the many fields of study of shame that so far have used alternate terms, such as honor, stigma, fear of rejection, disrespect, and so on. Although there is a literature on shame, it is dwarfed by the many studies that use other terms. The s-word, like the f-word, seems to be taboo in print, both to the public and to an only slightly lesser extent, the scholarly literature. This study will use a systematic method to locate the hidden studies.
Great is truth, but still greater…is silence about truth…simply not mentioning certain subjects…influences opinion much more effectively than…the most eloquent denunciations.
The psychiatrist James Gilligan (1997) contended that shame is a cause of violence, based on his experience as a prison psychiatrist. When he asked prisoners why they killed, the answers were virtually all the same: being dissed (disrespected). Unlike most researchers in his place, Gilligan didn’t write a book about dissing or even disrespect as a cause of violence. Instead, he related it to what might turn out to be a universal human emotion, shame.
Although there is a personal and cultural part of shame, it also seems to be universal as a mammalian signal of threat to the social bond, the feeling, however slight or intense, of rejection. The difficulty in studying shame in modern societies is that even more than the the f-word, the s-word is usually taboo. For that reason, there are many studies of the shame system, but hidden under other terms: fear of rejection, disrespect, stigma, honor cultures, revenge, etc.
Gilligan’s book was not a huge success, either commercially or academically. It was never on the bestseller lists; it stands currently at below the 30 thousandth mark. According to Google Scholar, it has been cited 400 times, which is 24 times a year since its publication. It has been hardly noticed by the public or by scholars.
Perhaps it might have been more popular with a different title and approach. The actual title, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, is not attractive. Perhaps Dissing Causes Violence would have had more appeal. But if Gilligan had wanted to have the word dissing in the title, he might have had to stick with the dissing-disrespect thesis, not even mentioning his notion of secret shame. The s-word might not only be not appealing, but even repulsive.
What could be repulsive about the s-word, since it’s only a word? One could ask the same question about the f-word, since it also is only a word. It is clear that the f-word was completely repulsive for the sixty years before 1961, at least in print. According to the Google Ngram, there was not a single occurrence in books in the English language between 1900 and 1960. It appears that printed books were fussy about this matter, since when I was in basic training in the Army in 1953, it was almost every other word out of the mouths of trainers and trainees alike.
Oddly, with the f-word getting more exposure beginning in 1961, the s-word has been getting less. The N-gram shows that the frequency of use in English language books has been decreasing steadily for two hundred years (1800-2000). To see if this decline was in English only, I checked the Ngrams for French, German and Spanish equivalents. The decrease has been occurring in these languages also over the two hundred years. What is going on?
The Taboo on Shame
From his study of European history, the sociologist Norbert Elias (1939; 1978) proposed that shame and its close kin (embarrassment and humiliation) are the dominant emotions in modern societies, even though they are taboo. As already indicated, these three emotions have also been frequently studied in social/behavioral, political and medical science (particularly psychiatry), and history, but under different names.
There are many studies in anthropology of “cultures of honor”: how insults to honor lead to humiliation and revenge. Most of these studies however, assume that this sequence causes violence in traditional societies, where shame is out in the open. It is not considered to occur in modern societies. Although the word honor has gone out of style, the emotion of shame has not. If it is biologically based it is also ahistorical.
The taboo on shame has many weakening effects on knowledge, because it cordons off into separate groups what ought to be a single field, reinforcing the existing taboo. For example, it hides other studies that support’s Gilligan’s conjecture on hidden shame as a cause of violence, such as status attainment, loss of social status, search for recognition, honor/dishonor, vengeance or revenge, and so on. It also slows down the process of replicating studies that support it (Lacey 2009; Websdale 2010), and testing a broader hypothesis causes of both violence and silence (Scheff 2011). If the shame/violence/silence hypothesis is even partly true, it carries a crucial message for our civilization.
Norbert Elias also provided another thesis: there is a difference between shame that is felt, the basis of morality, and shame that is hidden not only from others but even from self. In his study (1939; 1978) of five hundred years of European history, he analyzed etiquette manuals in three languages. Two key findings: 1. As physical punishment decreased, shame became dominant as the main agent of morality. 2. As shame became more prevalent, it also went underground, becoming virtually invisible.
How can shame become invisible? Modern audiences cannot accept this idea, since they equate emotion and feeling. However, most people will agree that at times a person’s anger can be obvious to others, yet the angry person seems unaware of it. A similar argument can be made about fear: since boys, especially, are taught to equate fear with cowardice, they learn to automatically suppress fear to the point that they don’t feel it. It may be that the recklessness, particularly, arises from this process. Similarly, perhaps a person can be in a bodily state of shame without feeling ashamed.
Elias interpreted invisibility in terms of taboo: in modernization shame becomes a topic that is not to be talked about, just as sex was such a topic in the 19th century. As sex and especially the f-word were taboo then, so the s-word has become taboo now. The psychologist Gershen Kaufman is one of several writers who have argued that shame is taboo in our society:
American society is a shame-based culture, but…shame remains hidden. Since there is shame about shame, it remains under taboo…The taboo on shame is so strict…that we behave as if shame does not exist (Kaufman 1989).
The taboo is not on all uses of the word shame, since there are speakable usages, such as “What a shame” or the jokey “Shame on you.” What is taboo is the central meaning of shame, the feeling of being excluded and perhaps worthless for that reason. The phrase “What a shame” does not refer to a specific feeling, since “What a pity” means exactly the same thing. Just as the f-word was once completely taboo before the 1960’s, the s-word, when used to mean the emotion of shame, is still taboo.
Reclaiming Shame Studies
Shame and its siblings are much less discussed than other emotions, not only by the public, but also researchers. How could that be? There have been many studies of shame, but most of them use what Elias called circumlocutions. An illustrative example is found in a recent study of doctor-patient relationships by Leape, et al (2012). Instead of referring to how the doctor may shame a patient, the title uses the phrase “disrespectful behavior toward patients.” The article makes no reference to shame. Although the reader will understand what is meant, the phrase cuts the authors off from an understanding of shame dynamics that are openly available in the literature on shame and its siblings.
Another example is stigma. There are thousands of studies in the social, behavioral and medical sciences of this topic. The idea is that police arrest or illness diagnosis may carry with it an unintended consequence: the shaming of the recipient, to self and/or his/her social network. These studies virtually never use the term shame in the title, and in most cases, even in the body of the study. In this case taboo causes the shame connection to be hidden even though shame is the actual dictionary meaning of stigma.
The proposed study will use a systematic method to locate hidden shame studies. Gottschalk et al (1969) devised a method that finds alternate naming for the major emotions, such as anger (“hot under the collar”), grief, fear, and shame. I will use this method to locate representative studies in the many fields that directly study shame, but use alternative names for it.
The idea that shame is taboo in modern societies points to the necessity of bringing it out in the open. Perhaps it can be done first in scholarship, then with the public. It appears that many of the worse features of modern societies, such as war, are caused, in part, by the hiding of shame. Other areas that might be better understood: the punitive element in legal systems, especially in imprisonment, and individual and mass prejudice in social class, ethnic/racial and gender relationships. Perhaps it may be possible to bring shame out of the closet at least as far as been done with sex.
Elias, Norbert. 1939. Über den Prozess der Zivilisation). Reprinted in 1978 as The Civilizing Process. London: Blackwell.
Gilligan, James. 1997. Violence – reflections on a national epidemic. New York: Vintage Books.
Gottschalk, Louis, Winget, C. and G. Gleser. 1969. Manual of Instruction for Using the Gottschalk-Gleser Content Analysis Scales. Berkeley: UC Press.
Kaufman, Gershon. 1989. The Psychology of Shame. New York: Springer.
Lacey, David. 2009. The Role of Humiliation in Collective Political Violence. Sydney: U. of Sydney Press.
Leape, Lucian L. MD; Shore, Miles F. MD; Dienstag, Jules L. MD; Mayer, Robert J. MD; Edgman-Levitan, Susan PA; Meyer, Gregg S. MD, MSc; Healy, Gerald B. V. 2012. The Nature and Causes of Disrespectful Behavior by Physicians. Academic Medicine:87, 7, 845–852
Scheff, T. 2011. A Theory of Multiple Killing. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16, 6, 453-460.
Websdale, Neil. 2010. Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Style of 211 Killers. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Shame-1741-9/9/13