If there is anything human I would label “evil,” it is shame, with guilt being a close second. Both are at the heart of moral righteousness.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, a half Iranian and half Jewish woman, shares a story about herself that shows how insidious shaming is. When she was 8 a white rural father ridiculed her name at a family dinner, driving her to flee the table in tears. At 9 she teamed up with two white girls to “gleefully mock” a Middle Eastern boy student for his name and foreign accent. Eventually he fled the classroom in tears. Then, in spite of her own experience, she blocked all her teacher’s efforts to get her to see how mean her behavior was. In retrospect, she explained why it in all its simplicity:
I was propelled by something far more fundamental and intoxicating and disturbing, something that could not be argued away with the use of reason: It had felt good. (Emphasis added.)
Wow! Not unusual though. Our craving to feel okay about ourselves and accepted is really powerful. Being shamed we feel it as abuse, but then we turn it on ourselves as well. Then, to escape our self-shaming we turn that onto others. Eating our own tail.
Brené Brown has intensely researched shame, vulnerability, and feelings of connection and disconnection for years. She defines shame “as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” She goes on:
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.
So shaming—this everyday thing that goes on everywhere—seeks to destroy someone else’s sense of worthiness as human being and sense of belonging. Actually, it can go further: rendering them worthy of abuse, exclusion, and oppression. Even much further: actually exterminating them.
I wonder a lot about how much identity politics of any kind involves this shaming business.
And then there is a wonderful story of Derek Black. It shows, as does Ms. Sayrafiezadeh act of sharing her story, that we aren’t just trapped in shame and shaming. He was born into the white nationalist movement and became a well-known child organizer for it. His father founded and still runs the web site Stormfront, a white supremacist Web forum used to help organize their Charlottesville demonstration. Several years ago fellow students at his college found out about him and began posting comments on a college forum. He was never attacked or challenged. In fact, one exchange among them came up with the idea of inviting him to respond, to hear what he had to say. He didn’t take up the offer at the time, but as things evolved he eventually accepted an invitation to Shabbat meals a Jewish student regularly hosted once a week. The relationship building that followed was an important part of his complete transition out of the white nationalist movement. After Charlottesville he wrote an op-ed very critical of Trump and condemning the neo-Nazi demonstrations. However, he did it from a nuanced perspective to the whole complexity of issues that was utterly free of any moral righteousness.
The political is personal. Deeply personal. The old adage holds true here: we must become the change we want to bring to the world.
I also wonder about how much righteousness I might be bringing to the writing these blogs.