A Place for Shame
Updated: Apr 5
Yesterday, I spoke with a friend, “Jammies,” about whether or not there’s a place for shame within society. To frame what I mean by shame, I think of it as an unpleasant emotion related to a belief of humiliation or distress that is caused by the consciousness of wrongdoing or foolish behavior.
In a blogpost entitled Shame Attacking, I addressed a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) approach to countering shame. However, when speaking with Jammies, we explored the possibility for usefulness in relation to shame.
During the conversation, I suggested that shame has rational utility in regards to social norms—shared standards of acceptable behavior in groups. One source adequately expands upon this proposition by stating:
If others witness the social norm violation, there is a greater likelihood that the transgressor will experience shame. As such, shame appears to serve an important social function as an internal regulatory system that discourages moral or social norm violations.
For instance, in the United States (U.S.), there is an accepted norm related to public indecency—acts involving nudity or sexual activity in view of the public. From these norms, varying states have laws which forbid obscenity.
Still, in some cases, I don’t think legislative measures adequately address certain behavior. As an example, in Texas, recreational use of marijuana is at present a criminalized act.
Do U.S. cannabis laws truly impact behavior of the citizenry in any significant manner? I know of many Texans who disregard weed laws, so I’m unconvinced about the utility of legal action concerning marijuana.
Conversely, and though in Texas it is illegal to defecate in spaces visible to the public, one imagines far less people violate this law than any policy related to cannabis. Presuming the reader grants this insubstantial premise, why might a person be less inclined to poop in a park than to smoke a joint in the same park?
I suggested to Jammies that perhaps shame may explain this effect. If defecation is linked to disgust, and the social norm of prudence regarding where one ought to or not to poop exists, I suspect that the public stigma (disgrace) associated with this act results in enforced shame.
Basically, people sometimes use shame to “promote social cohesion.” If you will forgive an anecdote, I’d like to illustrate an example from my youth when shame was used to influence behavior.
A plane ride to hell
In 1992, I attended Encounter, a Christian summer camp hosted by Lubbock Christian University (LCU). Attendees were invited to partake in an assortment of seminars which were designed to teach Christian values.
Perhaps the most popular event discussed during lunchtime was an immersive demonstration about a plane ride. However, spectators were advised not to discuss details of the seminar and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I made my way to the room in which the lecture was held and outside the door was a woman dressed as a flight attendant. She distributed faux boarding passes to each participant, welcoming us aboard a fictional airline.
The interior of the classroom was decorated like an aircraft cabin with cutouts of windows along the wall, chairs arranged like aisles of an airplane, and a woman at the head of the classroom who directed children to our seats.
Whispers about how authentic the experience was at that point began to rise. One kid said he heard that a genuine airline pilot sponsored the demonstration and provided amenities.
Suddenly, over a loudspeaker, I heard, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.” The voice advised faux travelers of weather conditions, our intended destination, and other common facts a person may hear when taking a flight.
We went through taxying procedures and took flight by way of a loud recording of aircraft sounds. It was the closest occurrence I’d had with a virtual reality experience at that point in my life.
Moments into the imaginary flight, the lights rapidly flickered and there was a thunderous sound emitted from the loudspeakers. Beeps and other hazard noises filled the room as the captain warned that the aircraft was experiencing an unexpected system malfunction.
The lights then shut off and the room was pitch-black, as the sound of a crashing plane rumbled throughout the room. Instantly, an ominous sound of distorted laughter, screaming from all directions, and echoing agony filled the darkness.
This went on for a brief time until a loud man’s voice came across the stereo speakers. Attendees were instructed to imagine how quickly life could come to an end. We were also advised to consider how our behavior may lead to eternal damnation.
We had taken a plane ride to hell. I heard children crying and sniffing as the deep voice filled the speakers, carefully detailing deeds in which teenagers were commonly involved.
Masturbation, premarital sex, lying, stealing, gossiping, and other sinful behaviors were announced as forming a delivery mechanism to a pit of endless suffering. Suddenly, the light came on and the voice inhabiting the loud speaker changed.
There were angelic harps playing and a softer, though still masculine voice announced a message of hope. The man explained how shameful behaviors in which presumably everyone within the room was involved didn’t need to be a one-way ticket to hell.
We were informed that there was deliverance available for our sinful ways. All we needed to do was repent (turn away from wrongdoing or sinful behavior) and be baptized (full immersion in water to wash away sins).
Participants were then offered an opportunity to be delivered from sin that evening, as all children would be gathered for worship in an LCU auditorium. We were also strongly advised not to share with others the events which occurred in the room, as not to ruin the shaming effect.
That evening, more children rushed towards the stage to be saved than at any event I’d ever attended until that point or thereafter. The shame of a plan ride to hell was a successful endeavor.
A place for shame
Jammies and I share a similar background in religiosity, though in association with differing Judeo-Christian faiths. As I told her about the plane ride to hell, she remarked about how compelling the demonstration was and how she couldn’t imagine shaming children in such a manner.
We discussed the utility of shame as a tool to shape behavior within society, while also addressing how we’d both been impacted by overreaches of shaming tactics. The seemingly unavoidable question to be addressed was whether or not either of us supported the use of shame.
While I cannot speak for Jammies, I will share my thoughts on this matter. To do this, I will use deductive reasoning in the form of a syllogism that adheres to a modus felapton construct:
No B is A
All B is C
Conclusion: Some C is not A
In this method, the middle term, B, is distributed in the major premise. Term A is distributed in the conclusion and the major premise. If one statement is negative, the conclusion must be negative. As an example:
Not all shame is bad.
All shame has a purpose.
Some purposes are not bad.
Presuming the reader doesn’t disagree with this valid conclusion, even if a person disputes the premises upon which it is based, I think of the plane ride to hell. Doubtlessly, the people who conducted the exercise were intentionally causing a mild form of psychological harm.
From their perspective, perhaps they reasoned that it was a moral good to save the eternal souls of Encounter attendees from the temptation of temporary pleasurable behavior. This intention isn’t inherently bad, as their mechanism of shame had a rational purpose and effectual outcome.
While one may dispute the merits of what is or isn’t sinful, I suspect that a person who truly believes masturbation results in a one-way trip to hell will try to intervene as a means to save a soul from infinite condemnation. It would seem that this is in association with an act of compassion—even though mildly harmful to the psyche.
As I sit here today, I do not believe that masturbation will result in the endless cooking of one’s soul. Still, I can appreciate that belief of humiliation or distress which is caused by the consciousness of wrongdoing or foolish behavior—perceivably used to spare a person from hell—has a valid purpose.
There does appear to be a place for shame within a civilized society. You may disagree.
That stated, I leave it open to interpretation and discussion as to who is allowed to shame, what is open to shaming, when shaming is appropriate, where shaming is most effective, and why shame may be necessary for violation of particular group-associated norms.
A practical example worth shaming
As an REBT therapist, I generally avoid telling people what they should, must, or ought to do. Likewise, I don’t take it upon myself to inform others about my moral, ethical, or legal appraisal of their behavior.
In fact, I use shame attacking exercises to help people reduce the impact of shame. Mainly, this is accomplished through use of the ABC Model and practice of unconditional acceptance.
Regarding the latter, I invite clients to consider how unconditionally accepting oneself, others, and life as a whole can be of significant use at decreasing unhelpful or unhealthy consequences of our beliefs. After all, it is our belief about events with which we disturb ourselves.
Not always is the practice of REBT easy. In fact, this method can be quite difficult to implement when distressing events unfold, such as that which occurred when I was on a call with Jammies yesterday.
According to one source, “Three children and three adult staff members were slain at a Nashville school Monday [3/27/2023] in one of Tennessee’s deadliest school shootings.” I wholeheartedly disavow the actions of mass-shooters.
During chaotically violent incidents such as this, I comprehend how people emotively rush to conclusions and call for more gun control measures. Even in opposition to the demands of others, I can understand their position.
Per another source, “The Nashville police chief, John Drake, said on Tuesday that they had determined that the shooter had legally purchased the three firearms used on Monday. Chief Drake said that the shooter had bought seven firearms in all, and had sold one of them.”
Now isn’t an appropriate time for me to stand in opposition to those who tread on the Second Amendment. Nor is it proper to allege, as one source has, that “when guns and mental health issues come into contact with each other, you have big problems.”
I’ll refrain from standing upon the graves of those who died while presumably advocating or refuting whatever policy was handily prepared for such a catastrophe. Rather, I will make a case for shame.
Just as indecency, recreational marijuana use, and defecating in public places is already classified as illegal activity in Texas, laws don’t always prevent such behavior. Correspondingly, it is already illegal to commit homicide in a school located in Tennessee and the shooting yesterday occurred nonetheless.
Stop. Think for a moment, dear reader. Think critically. It isn’t easy. I know. Try to see past impactful emotions. What do you believe that causes these emotions?
I imagine a person believing, “Deric, if laws don’t make us safe, how in the world are you going to argue that shame will have any reasonable impact?” Maybe this same individual concludes, “You shouldn’t opine on school shootings, because shame won’t stop a person hell-bent on murder!”
To this imagined reader, I partially agree. Threat of death by law enforcement officers isn’t an absolute preventative measure, nor is shame, for some people who commit mass shootings.
I’m not intending to argue that shaming such people will necessarily control or influence their behavior. Truly, I don’t know a single teenager that attended Encounter with me who ever stopped masturbating due to a shame-inducing imaginary plane ride to hell. Not one!
All the same, I think we have a place for shame in our society. If ever there were a topic to which this applies—and I may be alone in support of this advocacy—I think shaming school shooters is acceptable.
Must we shame them? No. If we do so and despite the moral imperative, is it suitable behavior? I think so, yes.
In reality, shame, morals, ethics, and laws won’t fully prevent all reprehensible behavior. In the case of harmful school shooters, I argue that shaming of their behavior is less likely than not to cause any more harm than the unlawful taking of a life—no matter the age or the victim.
When speaking with Jammies yesterday, I made the case for use of shame in certain circumstances. Sharing an example of the plane ride to hell I took while at the LCU campus, Jammies and I both laughed at how shaming techniques were used during our religious upbringing.
Still, I advocated the use of shame during the discussion with my friend, because not all shame fulfills a bad or purposeless function. For instance, even if considered as nothing more than subjectively wrong, attempting to save a soul from the fires of hell by denouncing masturbatory behavior is at least understandable.
Shifting this discussion to a recent and undoubtedly far bleaker topic, I advocate the shaming of school shooters. While humiliation in this regard may not impact the consciousness of wrongdoing or foolish behavior for prospective shooters, I doubt such shaming would prove more detrimental than the experience victims of these events endure.
Of course, I realize that a therapist advocating shame isn’t without controversy. Thusly, I remain open to changing my mind about this topic with consideration of further information.
How about you, dear reader? What have you to say about this matter? If you are in search of a counselor or social worker who wears the thin veneer of moral superiority, I may not be the practitioner for you.
If on the other hand you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
(This is photo of me and a past friend, shortly after I took a plane ride to hell)
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