Alienation and Hidden Shame by Thomas J. Scheff (Continued)

Media and Masses[2]

In France during the period 1871-1914, the role of mass media in both generating and reflecting collective humiliation and anger is quite blatant. The French public and its leaders experienced their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (l870-71), and the Treaty of Frankfurt, which ended the war, as humiliating (Kennan, l984, Sontag, l933, Weber, l954).

Going against Bismarck’s warnings (he feared revenge), the Germans had annexed two French provinces (Alsace and Lorraine). Revenge brought about through the return of the two lost provinces,revanchisme, became the central issue in French politics of the whole era.

Leading political figures such as Gambetta and General Boulanger talked about revenge openly in their campaigns (Boulanger was known in the popular press as "General Revenge.") Vengeance against Germany was a popular theme in newspapers, magazines, poetry and fiction.

Revenge themes were common in the popular literature of the time. The poetry and novels of that era serve as examples. The war poems of Deroulede, Chants du Soldat (Songs of a Soldier, l872) were wildly popular. Here is a sample stanza (quoted in Rutkoff, l981, p. l61):

Revenge will come, perhaps slowly
Perhaps with fragility, yet a strength that is sure
For bitterness is already born and force will follow
And cowards only the battle will ignore.

Note that this poem not only appeals to the French to seek revenge, but also contains a coercive element. In the last line, anyone who might disagree with the poet's sentiments is labeled a coward. There are many other instances of appeals to vengeance, honor, and glory in the other poems: these are the main themes. By l890 this little book had gone through an unprecedented 83 editions, which suggests that it had a vast audience.

The extraordinary acclaim that greeted Chants du Soldat (Soldiers’ Songs) prompted Deroulede to publish further books of similar thrust, most of them devoted to military glory, triumph and revenge. For example, in l896 his Poesies Militaires (Military Poetry) continued in the same vein. The following is a representative stanza:

French blood! -- a treasure so august
And hoarded with such jealous care,
To crush oppression's strength unjust,
With all the force of right robust,
And buy us back our honor fair...

Although revenge is not mentioned explicitly, the last line implies what might be called the honor-insult-revenge cycle (Scheff and Retzinger, l991).

Also indicative of open revanchism was the rash of novels about the plight of Alsace and Lorraine under German occupation, which became popular in the l5 years preceding WWI. The best-known author of this genre, Maurrice Barres, published two: In the Service of Germany (l905) and Collette Baudoche (l909). These books, like many others of their ilk, were not works of art, but "works of war," to use the phrase of Barres' biographer (Boisdeffre 1962).

Websdale’s idea of a type of multiple killer who not acting in a fit of rage, but carefully and with considerable planning seems to be applicable to wars like WWI. The ruling emotional spiral is not shame-anger, but shame-shame. A person or a nation can become so lost in a spiral of being ashamed of being ashamed that it becomes the dominant force in their existence, as it seems to have been in the French nation 1871-1914. The violence that results is not because of loss of control, but submerging the inhibitions that prevent killing. In an eerily prophetic letter to Ruge in 1843 about nationalism, Marx wrote:”...if a whole nation were to feel ashamed it would be like a lion recoiling in order to spring.” (Tucker 1978).

The alienation loops in the case of collective violence are more complex than those of persons in two different ways. The first way has already been mentioned, the loop that develops between the media and the public. The second complexity is that a double type of alienation develops between the contending groups: isolation between the groups (too far) and engulfment within them (too close). My earlier study (1994) named this double type of alienation bimodal, and proposed that it is a necessary condition for aggressive wars, that is wars that don’t involve self-defense.

The idea of bimodal alienation has already been discussed with respect to pairs of multiple killers, suggesting that just as they were isolated without, they were engulfed within. This idea might help understand the type of multiple killing that Websdale called civic respectable, a spouse calmly killing a spouse and one or more of the children. In ordinary terms, it seems difficult to understand any killing, but especially a parent who would kill his or her own children. The theory presented here suggests the possibility that the civil reputable parent who kills is so engulfed with his family, and so isolated without, that he or she projects his own unbearable emotional pain on the family members. If that were the case, the killer would think that he or she is helping by ending their pain.

The philosopher of emotions Robert Solomon suggested a parallel but much broader idea: “emotionworlds.” For example, he compares the loveworld to the angerworld.  The loveworld (1981, p. 126) is “woven around a single relationship, with everything else pushed to the periphery...” By contrast, in the angerworld “one defines oneself in the role of the offended’ and someone else….as the offender. [It] is very much a courtroom world, a world filled with blame and emotional litigation...” Perhaps in the shameworld of the civic reputable killer, where the family receives nothing but insults and rejections, life is not worth living. It may be that Solomon omitted a significant part of the motivation: in social and emotional loops the pain generated can be so overwhelming that life seems worthless.

Films and Courses

This section will outline a course on emotions that could be made available to everyone: both students and non-students. The shape of this course is based on my own experience in teaching emotions. To bring attention to the new courses, films could be made for public broadcast, as discussed below.

I have been teaching emotions/relationships classes to undergraduates for many years. My intention was to help students discover their own emotions. The course uses discussion, rather than lectures. Basically we talk about the student’s real life dialogues, the most difficult of them, what they might mean in emotions terms, and how they might do better.

The first step was to get men into the course. If the course title included the word emotion or relationship, men would not enroll. So when I named the class “Communicating,” a few men would show up. The next step was to have male and female students register for different classes. They then discover that these classes meet in the same place and time. Before I hit upon this device, women, quick to enroll, would grab most of the seats. Under the new method, men can dawdle but still find a seat.

The last problem was to keep the men’s eyes from glazing over when we started discussing emotions openly. After many attempts, I finally found a solution: explain that emotions are like sex. It needs to be said only once to draw the men back in.

There are two crucial ways in which emotions are like sex. At its best, sex involves cooperation between two partners. The point can then be made that exploring emotions within and between two people is much broader than sex, since it doesn’t require a romantic relationship. It can happen between any two persons. Exploration of emotions can be done alone, but is more effective in pairs, whether in romantic, family, friendship, psychotherapy, or even educational settings.

The second way that emotions are like sex is not at all obvious. In fact, it is necessary to go out on a limb to make the point, since there is no agreement among experts. I propose that emotions are also like sex in the sense that they are bodily processes that can be resolved through a climax, parallel to the idea of orgasm. The emotion of grief can serve as an example. (As is often the case with emotion words in English, other words are also used to designate what seems to be the same emotion: sadness, sorrow, inability to mourn and so on). I try not to use the idea of catharsis, which is actually valid, because experimental psychologists have mistakenly dismissed it.

We now know that unresolved grief is quite common among adults. How does grief get resolved?  Through mourning. But this answer isn’t specific enough, because it doesn’t explain the specifics of mourning. What is necessary in mourning if it is going to resolve grief?

Suppose that the feeling of grief arises out of bodily preparation to cry. A state of grief or sadness occurs when the body prepares to cry, but actual crying is delayed. Grief counselors are often told by their clients that they are embarrassed by crying, even in therapy. Most people have a long history of unresolved grief.

Another frequent complaint is that outside of therapy their intimates, after a week or two, become impatient with their mourning. If, as suggested here, a “good cry” resolves unresolved grief, most people don’t have much opportunity for resolving grief, except in therapy. Even there, sometimes other matters are given precedent. Mourning has many components, of course, but it appears that to resolve grief, both men and women must have good cries. Men find it hard to resist the idea that crying is the orgasm of grief.

My courses based on these ideas have always been highly successful over the forty years that I have taught them. Students often comment that everyone probably needs such a course. Many of the male students learned to cry, although not necessarily in public.

Films for the Public

Films could be made to interest the public. One type of film would use actors, portraying the best and most productive episodes in actual classes. This kind of film would represent an idealized image, since real classes  are apt to wander at times. But the dramatized version might interest the viewers in enrolling in a class, or at least seeing a documentary of a real class.

In schools, these courses need not begin as late as college, but could begin early in grammar and high school, then in universities and professional schools. Most of the students who enrolled in my classes were profoundly ignorant of their own emotions and the social-emotional world, but they were quick to learn.


  1. Shame can be dangerous only when it is hidden, as it almost universally is in modern societies. Because it is hidden, it  becomes ubiquitous.
  2. Hidden shame and alienation, in conjunction, are the main causes of both withdrawal and violence.
  3. Feedback loops of shame, shame/anger, and alienation give rise to the extraordinary power of violence.
  4. Feedback loops are also produced by avoiding emotions: avoidance gives rise to backlogs of emotion that get larger and more frightening the larger they grow.

These four processes, in combination, are threats to the continued existence of our civilization, unless steps are taken to reduce their power. One approach would be to teach classes on emotions for both students and adults. One such class is outlined.


 [2] This section summarizes part of Chapter 6 of Scheff (1994).


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                            l909. Colette Baudoche. Paris: Juven.

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____________2004. Freud, Elias and Goffman: Shame as the Master Emotion.  Norbert Elias: Current Issues. Stephen Quilley and Steve Loyal (Editors).

­­­____________2011. Scientism in Social/Behavioral Science. Contemporary Sociology.  May.

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Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Sociology, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book is What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers) 2011


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