Is there a feeling more deplored today than shame? The proliferation of concepts like slut-shaming, fat-shaming, etc. suggest that, as a bleeding-heart FDR might have said, “the only thing to be ashamed of is shame itself.”
Shame is painful, so it makes sense that nobody would much like it. In fact, shame is a lot like pain. Do we really want a world without pain? Most of us would last a week before dying a pleasantly horrible death. Just ask the people who literally can’t feel pain. The younger ones have to wear goggles to keep them from blinding themselves. No one really wishes for a world without pain; we wish for a world without things that cause pain.
Shame is social pain. It happens when there’s a disparity between what we are and what we value. In our culture where sincerity is the primary virtue, the sanctity of being “who you are” is drilled into us from birth with movie after heartwarming movie. The entire artistic momentum of our culture tells us to shoot the messenger. Because after all, you can’t change who you are.
This is, of course, a lie. Even in its weaker form, claiming that even if you can, it violates your integrity somehow. The feeling of shame, since it stems from some value, is strong prima facie evidence that that aspect or habit is worth changing. But when your values and your habits conflict, it’s easier to call your habits “identity” and change your values to match.1 Not only have you regained your authenticity; you can even skip ever feeling regret!
The crusade against shame is, unfortunately, also political. The battleground of the culture wars has moved from legalization to destigmatization. The jump from “there shouldn’t be a law” to “there shouldn’t be any social stigma” is exactly as wrong, and for exactly the same reasons, as the jump on the opposite side from “I disagree with it” to “there ought to be a law.” Don’t enthrone the messenger, but don’t shoot him either.
Are there people who are crippled by unnecessary shame? Yes, just as you might take an asprin to get rid of pain you just can’t take care of. Are there people haunted by past shame that they might do well to discard? Yes, and some people have pain in phantom limbs. But of all the inspiring stories about overcoming shame and coming to terms with “who you are”, most of them will have simply found it too inconvenient to change their habit or way of thinking about themselves. And all the better if they can win the accolades of other immature people with an inspiring story of overcoming shame.
Shame, for lack of a better word, is good. Useful, anyway. It allows us to coexist smoothly in society with others, and impels us to self-improvement. The willingness to change one’s habits and identity according to one’s values (and not the other way around) is not merely a sign of maturity; it is maturity. The infantilizing preoccupation with authenticity and identity must break – I say must, because neither individuals nor societies can long flourish without shame.