On Shame, Both Personal and Political


Janice Galloway has written a brilliant essay in support of Scotland’s political self-determination, exposing the connection between shame and the denial of dignity and power. She writes:

My upbringing stressed the importance of 1) reining oneself in; 2) the pressing obligation to develop self-doubt and openness to shame; and 3) a sidelong appreciation of human absurdity. Refrains as reinforcement were common, the top three being 1) Who do you think you are? Princess Bloody Margaret? 2) I suppose you think you’re special? (with or without the optional ending “you with your nose in a book?”) and 3) Who asked your opinion? You’re not entitled to an opinion: you’re entitled to shut up.

Was this experience of belittling connected to her being Scottish, working class or female? In other words, where did the shame lie? Nationality, class or gender? Or each one of these?

Let’s look briefly at gender. Bella Caledonia recently hosted a three-part event with the theme A Public Press. The first part considered the topic of women in the media, and featured journalists Margie Orford and Caroline Criado-Perez. The discussion covered a range of issues, such as the minority of female editors and journalists in the modern press, the vicious and misogynist backlash against women exercising a public presence, and the opportunities to embrace change in the composition of public discourse.

What leapt out at me (and many others in the room, I imagine) was the discussion around violence to women, and its connection to voice. Caroline Criado-Perez 9above) shared examples of the rape and death threats she had received in response to her campaign to put a woman on an English banknote. A common theme involved violence to her mouth and throat (rape, cutting, throttling) and I learned that a significant proportion of wounding to injured and murdered women centre on these parts of the body. In the throes of rage and violence, the unconscious motive is to silence the victim. Remove voice – that is, remove power and agency and personhood and participation. “You’re entitled to shut up.”

The discussion also touched on the use of shame as an instrument of control. This concerns the dynamic whereby a woman who is threatened, harrassed, violated or abused is berated for whatever behaviour she indulged in that ‘invited’ her victimisation. Did she dress too provocatively? Walk where she shouldn’t have? Speak too loudly or with too much confidence in her own views?

(Incidentally, Rape Crisis Scotland has turned victim-blaming on its head in its Top Ten Tips to Stop Rape campaign. For example, “Top Tip Number Six: USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM. If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.” )

Shame is also used to control the behaviour of men, by enforcing the rules of masculinity. Men understand that their social status hinges precariously on demonstrations of masculinity. Laurie Penny writes beautifully about this in her latest book, Unspeakable Things:

There are two big secrets about ‘traditional masculine power’ that mainstream culture does not want us to discuss, and it is imperative that we discuss them honestly, men and women, boys and girls… The first big secret is this: most men have never really been powerful. Throughout human history, the vast majority of men have had almost no structural power, except over women and children. In fact, power over women and children – technical and physical dominance within the sphere of one’s own home – has been the sop offered to men who had almost no power outside of it…. The second big secret about the Golden Age of Masculinity, of course, is that it never really existed. There have always been men who were too poor, two queer, too sensitive, too disabled, too compassionate or simply too clever to fit in…

There’s a phrase used in this book which I hadn’t encountered before: “gendered pain.” Men and women both endure shame and humiliation for stepping beyond the very narrow expectations laid down by the repressive strictures of dominant masculine culture. Men and women both suffer its demands, and would do well to work together actively in challenging it.

Now let’s step back from gender, and look at shame and the denial of dignity and power, as connected to the human experience. What do you think about the following statements?

“The shame belongs to the perpetrator.”
“Unshame the victim and shame the perpetrator.”

These remarks were made in the context of women’s response to misogyny; again, we need to reframe women’s experience of harassment and violence, away from the absurdity that they hold responsibility for someone else’s abusive behaviour. But we can just as easily consider those statements out of gendered context and in, say, a class, race or political context. Our society indulges in victim-blaming in myriad ways, both blatant and subtle. Why? What fuels this need to feel good at the expense of someone else feeling bad?

Brene Brown has researched and written about shame and its relationship to human connection. In her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) she writes:

Shame comes from outside of us – from the messages and expectations of our culture. What comes from the inside of us is a very human need to belong, to relate. We are wired for connection….Connection is critical because we all have the basic need to feel accepted and to believe that we belong and are valued for who we are. Shame unravels our connection to others. In fact, I often refer to shame as the fear of disconnection – the fear of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging. Shame keeps us from telling our own stories and prevents us from listening to others tell their stories. We silence our voices and keep our secrets out of the fear of disconnection.

Connection presents us with a challenge. How do we balance self-determination with connection – as individuals, as communities, as nations? How do we all of us, men and women, exercise our full personal potential for self-determination (voice) and connection (relationship)? And how does our system of governance ensure our rights as well as our mutual responsibilities to one another?

The construct of a nation state establishes arbitrary boundaries, usually based loosely on ethnicity but always involving resources and power. Even liberal state governments tread a thin line between democracy and plutocracy. It would be utterly naive to expect an independent Scotland would be immune from these same forces. It would likewise be utterly naive to succumb to resignation to the inevitability of injustice and disparity, and to the disempowerment of despair. The opportunities for change exist in every person, in every choice, every day; we can choose to change.

However, change can be driven either by aspiration or by fear. Shame stifles our aspirations and stokes our fears. Shame blocks and hinders our ability to take risks and to exercise compassion. Shame whispers to us of self-hatred for our mistakes and imperfections, and steals away our self-belief in our own inherent capacity for goodness and learning and growth.

Whatever constitutional arrangement results from the referendum on 18th September, the people of Scotland – women, men, girls and boys – all may benefit from the conversations opening up around the issues of voice, relationship, self-determination and personal dignity. We may all benefit by looking our individual and collective shame in the eye and telling it where to go.

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  1. tartanfever says:

    Honestly, I found this article quite uncomfortable to read.

    Not that I’ve a sordid history or anything, just that as an ordinary man thats grown up through the 70’s and 80’s and the cultural crap that I’ve picked up along the way it does make me feel some shame.

    Thought provoking piece Julia. Thanks.

    1. Sophia says:

      thank you for saying this in the open. When this ancient problem of women’s abuse and general undermining gets fixed, the world will be so much nicer for both women and men. We definitely need men allies in this continuing struggle, and sometimes I am worried that there aren’t enough around… I very much appreciate the support of those few who understand what is going on and can state this publicly.

  2. Doug says:

    I have the same cultural background, from an era when the black and white minstrels show was on TV, and benny hill was acceptable. I am comforted that we distinguish ourselves by our ability to learn and change. Looking at ourselves there is a need to change further and by a lot, but occasionally it is salutary to look back and see just how far we have already come on a long journey.

  3. cricket7642 says:

    Thank you Tartanfever and Doug both for your comments. I think there is a lot that happens in our world, our society and our own lives which creates discomfort when we reflect – and self-reflect. Discomfort isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s a sign that one’s heart is stirred and change is afoot. All too often we squirm at our discomforts and flee from them into the myriad distractions that are flooded upon us by this determinedly-distracting culture. I do truly believe that beneath all our stress, our anxiety to keep up and fit in, our fear of ridicule or hostility, our frustration and anger at injustice – beneath all this stuff that works upon us, we all do care about each other and want to share good lives with one another. Let’s hang onto that through the periods of discomfort. 🙂

    1. This is a really really helpful piece of work, highlighting how the more this issue is kept in the dark the more we are kept powerless.

      As you point out, men don’t benefit from this system. When they dominate others it is an expression of their experience of being dominated themselves. To understand is not to excuse but to open a way for relationships to be between equals making choices in the light of what they and the other person need.

      As you say, that pretty well sums up how a Yes vote can help return relations of power on these islands to ones of hope, respect and responsibility, not ones of fear, coercion and resentment.

  4. Bothy Basher says:

    ” violence to her mouth and throat (rape, cutting, throttling) and I learned that a significant proportion of wounding to injured and murdered women centre on these parts of the body. In the throes of rage and violence, the unconscious motive is to silence the victim. Remove voice – that is, remove power and agency and personhood and participation. “You’re entitled to shut up.”

    And Scotland had that hideous iron gag which pressed on the tongue – I’ve seen it in a Glasgow museum, and it was reserved for women. 16th century?

    At least four of the respondents are male – where are the women?

  5. Sophia says:

    I really don’t mind that there are more men replying here than women! I really enjoy this, as I have never come across this before. The typical response is usually silence, no opinions whatsoever, nothing to add, except some occasional small and unconvincing head nodding. I have been in various political organisations, where men would go out for a fag during discussions about women’s issues, just because “it is more appropriate for women to deal with these”. I have only met one man who knew how to contribute in discussions about feminist issues, and have instead experienced a lot of negative responses, which of course get me really upset. This happens with some of my male postgraduate students, whom I am teaching how to approach critical creative practices. They often feel that I waste their time with unnecessary “outdated” topics, such as feminism !!! One of these students told me in a session just before Christmas that feminism creates a negative atmosphere because it separates women from men! It is divisive and confuses the issue. It is really painful to have to deal with this on a regular basis, in an environment which is supposed to be about challenging ideas and questioning the norm through critical forms of education. So having a majority of male responses here suddenly gives me some hope that I wasn’t expecting.

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