The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


The Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch called it “one of the greatest shaking cracks that our soul can receive.” For the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, it felt like an “internal hemorrhage.” We feel contempt for ourselves when we fall short of our own standards—as we all must do from time to time. None of us is flawless. We crumple at the thought of facing family or friends after being arrested or caught cheating, or surprised having sex in a way no one knew we enjoyed: “How shall I behold the face / Henceforth of God?” howls Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Cover me ye pines! / Ye cedars, with innumerable boughs / Hide me.” Where GUILT is usually thought to be an internal experience, characterized by hearing the voice of conscience, shame is more often linked to a feeling of social condemnation and the horror of being seen. We know we feel shame when we want to disappear from view—our own, as well as other people’s. It turns us into talented escapologists. In private we grimace and fold ourselves under the duvet. In public we soldier on, half meeting other people’s eyes, and hoping we can conceal our distress under a bright, waxy smile. Little is more shameful than shame itself.

In the 1940s the cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict made a distinction between “guilt” and “shame” cultures that has remained very influential. The phenomenon of Catholic guilt is well known, but Benedict argued that all Christian societies were typically “guilt cultures,” whose members were encouraged to feel an internalized private guilt when they transgressed moral codes. By contrast, Benedict believed “shame cultures”—she thought Japan was exemplary—maintained their status quo through the threat of public humiliation and ostracism. In a “shame culture,” she argued, the interests of the group were put above those of the individual, and those who fell short of expected behavior were thought to bring dishonor not just on themselves, but on their whole family. Today’s anthropologists rightly point out that it is too simplistic to reduce an entire culture to a single emotion. Yet, journalists and others trying to comprehend the mind-set that can lead to an honor killing, or a ritual suicide, still reach, sometimes too quickly, for the concept of a “shame culture.” As a consequence, shame itself is made to appear to be something foreign and peculiar, as if it were felt, or only felt strongly, by immigrants with a slim grasp on their unruly passions. But this is not a true reflection of shame’s place in Western culture. Feeling ashamed, as Salman Rushdie put it, “is not the exclusive property of the East.”

In fact, Benedict was wrong to characterize Christianity as a religion dominated by guilt: in both Britain and America there are long traditions of punishment by shame. In nineteenth-century Puritan New England, for instance, those who flouted the community’s strict moral codes were publicly punished, exacerbating their disgrace. A couple caught having extramarital sex in 1867 were both taken to the marketplace; the man was whipped and the woman made “to be present at the whipping post… that she may in some measure bear the shame of her sin.” Shame is still used as a punishment. Check your e-mail online and it’s hard to resist the “click-bait” flickering in the corner of the screen: cowering and tearful celebrities slapped with the headline of “My Drugs Shame!” or “Exposed!” In a culture where photographs can be broadcast almost instantaneously to the world, it’s possible that shame—and its related public event, the apology (see: REMORSE)—is becoming more important than ever for reining us in.

Of course, you don’t need to get caught taking a fiver from your flat mate’s purse or in flagrante with your married next-door neighbor to be made to feel shame. Some of us fit neatly into the way we think we’re supposed to be. But most don’t. Most of us carry some sense of not quite living up to standards, of being not quite right—and so we feel contemptible, and learn to hide our so-called flaws, as well as the shame we feel about them. Over the last thirty years, the importance of recognizing and valuing difference has become a key theme in policy debate in much of Europe and America. It has led to a shift, by no means total, in attitudes toward gender, sexuality, race, physical ability and other aspects of our lives that can be subject to tacit, and sometimes overt, disapproval. Since the Stonewall Riots of 1969, women and men have marched under the banner of “gay pride.” Its premise is clear: in the face of intolerance, it’s only by being seen that we can feel whole.

More recent theorists of sexuality have questioned this emphasis on PRIDE, wondering if it might bleach out other parts of homosexual life that might seem rather more embarrassing, even undignified. They have initiated a “gay shame” movement. One of its legacies may be a willingness to talk about shame as a valuable emotion, rather than the damaging, toxic one we’ve come to think of it as. It might be that to forge identity in the face of disapproval, the existence of shame must be recognized—even celebrated. Because it’s probably only when we let ourselves pay attention to our shamed feelings, and follow their twists and turns, that we can see ourselves most clearly. And discover the surprising number of ways the person we expect ourselves to be crashes up against the one we really are.