The case for shame

Julian Baggini writes: In California they call it #droughtshaming. People found using lots of water when the state is as dry as a cream cracker are facing trial by hashtag. The actor Tom Selleck is the latest target, accused of taking truckloads of water from a fire hydrant for his thirsty avocado crop.

Most people seem happy to harness the power of shame when the victims are the rich and powerful. But our attitudes to shame are actually much more ambivalent and contradictory. That’s why it was a stroke of genius to call Paul Abbott’s Channel Four series Shameless. We are at a point in our social history where the word is perfectly poised between condemnation and celebration.

Shame, like guilt, is something we often feel we are better off without. The shame culture is strongly associated with oppression. So-called honour killings are inflicted on people who bring shame to their families, often for nothing more than loving the “wrong” person or, most horrifically, for being the victims of rape. In the case of gay people, shame has given way to pride. To be shameless is to be who you are, without apology.

And yet in other contexts we are rather conflicted about the cry of shame. You can protest against honour killings one day, then name and shame tax-evading multinationals the next. When politicians are called shameless, there is no doubt that this is a very bad thing. Shame is like rain: whether it’s good or bad depends on where and how heavily it falls. [Continue reading…]

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