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Hidden Shame as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

by Thomas J. Scheff (March 2013)


The Earth is Still Flat    

Our lives are mostly ruled by assumptions we make about reality.
Some are true, but many are completely false.
We can’t tell the difference.
One tiny one concerns yawning.
We all are sure that we yawn when we are bored, sleepy, tired, or need oxygen.
Scientists have shown that none of these ideas are true:
The reason for yawning is unknown.
This false belief doesn’t flatten the earth,
Even though it might not be good for our health
To the extent that it helps to inhibit us from yawning whenever needed.
Even in public.
More flattening is the idea that venting anger
Gets it off our chest, even though this idea has been repeatedly demonstrated
In experiments to be untrue virtually every time it happens.
To the extent that we believe in and do it,
It can cause dangerous and unnecessary aggression, injury, and even death.
Still more flattening is the belief that we must support our troops
And our government when they kill more than a million people
With no justification whatever, as they did in Iraq.
As long as we make that kind of assumption,
The earth will remain flat.

In modern societies, the idea of waging a war of revenge to restore one’s honor seems hopelessly old-fashioned. Could it still be at work today, but silently? This motive was openly admitted in the Spanish-American War in 1898. But by 1914, the time of WWI, it was no longer used by governments.  Nevertheless, the idea was still very much alive, particularly in France.

The French people appeared to be still smarting from their loss of the Franco-Prussian War (1871), which was widely felt to have been a humiliation. The French popular literature and media were exploding with honor/revenge themes.

One of the top politicians, General Boulanger, was known in the press as General Revenge. The war poems of P. Deroulede, Chants du Soldat (Songs of a Soldier, 1872) were wildly popular. Here is a sample stanza:

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.

By 1890 this book had gone through an unprecedented 83 editions, which suggests that everyone in France would have been familiar with it.

The idea of humiliation and revenge seems to have also played a central part in the rise of Hitler in Germany after their defeat in 1918. It was certainly a key theme of his writing and speeches.

When he was campaigning to be prime minister in the 30’s, the part of his speech that set the audience afire was a reference to the Weimar Republic, the government he was challenging. Instead of calling it by name, he shouted “Zwanzig Jahren von Schmach und Shande.” (Twenty years of shame and disgrace.) Most Germans, apparently felt that they had been dishonored by the government’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI.

In our current world, ideas of honor, humiliation, and revenge are not used as justifications of war even in the popular media, much less in governments. However, it is possible that the same processes continue, but hidden from sight.


Social-emotional Causes of Conflict

There may be a universal emotion process underlying honor and revenge. In his study of the causes of murder among penitentiary inmates, the psychiatrist James Gilligan (1997) found that in response to his questions, virtually all of murderers gave the same answer: their victim had “dissed” them. For them, the feeling of disrespect and dishonor warranted killing to overcome it.

On the basis of these observations, Gilligan proposed a universal causal process: “The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence...” He was referring not to shame in general, but to a specific kind: "Shame is probably the most carefully guarded secret held by violent men…"  He proposes that secret shame is the cause of violence.

Gilligan's idea that violence can be caused by a hidden emotion is a bit of a shock in modern societies, where emotions are thought to be unimportant, especially when compared to thought, behavior, and material motives, such as money and property. Moreover, Gilligan provides little description of the process in which shame might lead to violence.

My own interest in this question began long ago in connection with teaching the social psychology of emotions. When we discussed embarrassment and blushing in the larger classes, there were usually one or two students who complained that their blushing sometimes made them miserable. They explained that when they became aware that they were blushing, they would be further embarrassed about their blushing, no matter the cause of the first blush. Often the same students implied that their blushing about their blush was not only lengthy and painful, but also often seemed out of their control.

This comment by a 20 year old female student provides an example:

I often blush when I receive a compliment. On one occasion a friend praised my smile. I immediately felt a blush. Then my friend said “Oh, you are blushing!”  I said “Yes, I can feel it!” On some occasions my blush feels as if it will be eternal.

With these kinds of observations as background, I was struck by a story told by the noted actor Ian Holm. On one occasion he had muffed his lines, but when he became aware that he was blushing, he blushed more. The more he became embarrassed by his blushing, the more he blushed and the more embarrassed.  This process went on, he said, until he ended paralyzed in the fetal position, requiring that he be carried off the stage.


A Cybernetic Theory

Holm’s story points to an emotion process that is mostly internal, implying that emotion about emotion loops might have no natural limit. This idea is also suggested by the student’s comment above, when she states that her blushes sometime feel that they may be eternal. There also may be social loops. Audience members in a theatre fire could become afraid because they are afraid themselves, and they see other audience members afraid, resulting in loops within and between persons causing more fear, that would generate a stampede. Road rage could arise because one person feels humiliated by another driver’s actions, angry that he feels humiliated, and angry that his opponent has become angry, leading to further anger, and in some cases, violence. Emotional reactions to emotional reactions, under conditions to be discussed below, may result in chain reactions.

The idea that persons can be so ashamed that they keep their shame secret suggests a shame loop, being ashamed that one is ashamed. Or, to continue with the topic of road rage, a shame/anger loop, being angry that one is ashamed, and ashamed that one is angry, and so on. One driver may experience the behavior of another driver as insulting. This driver is likely to shout “Idiot, you cut me off!” rather than say to himself and/or to the other driver: “I feel disrespected and ashamed.” Rather than acknowledging, and therefore feeling shame, he hides it behind anger. Acknowledgment is usually the first step toward resolving intense emotions.

On the other hand, hiding shame, anger, and other emotions seems to be the road toward continuing conflict. The theory proposes that to the extent that shame is completely hidden, violence will continue without limit. The puzzle of the US invasion of Iraq has never been solved, since Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Could the humiliation caused by it been so intense in the public and the government that it led to violence against a nation that was a mere bystander? Perhaps we will need to follow Dennis Kucinich’s suggestion for a Truth and Reconciliation process being applied to the causes of the Iraq disaster.

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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