Shame is Good for You, Isn't It?

So argues Plato, a new article explains.
Shame presupposes that we ought to know better but flout the rules regardless. This is precisely Plato’s point about moral knowledge: we already possess it, we already know the right way to live a just and fulfilling life, but are constantly diverted from that noble aim. For Plato, then, shame is a force that helps us resist the urge to conform when we know it’s wrong to do so. Shame helps us be true to ourselves, to endure Socrates’ needling, and to heed the moral knowledge within. A man without shame, Plato says, is a slave to desire – for material goods, power, fame, respect. Such desire is tyrannical because, by its nature, it cannot be satisfied.
That isn't the end of it, the author argues, as an apparently shameless society -- he is thinking of our own -- is really wrapped up in self-censorship instead.
Visibility is a trap,’ wrote the French philosopher Michel Foucault... What he meant was that allowing oneself to be watched, and learning to watch others, is both seductive and dangerous. He drew upon Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century plans for a ‘Panopticon’, a prison in which inmates are observed from a central tower manned by an invisible occupant, his watchful eye seeing but unseen. The idea was that the prisoners would internalise the presence of the spectral watchman, whether or not anyone was actually inside, and behave of their own accord. ‘Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burthens lightened,’ Bentham enthused.

According to Foucault, the dynamics of the Panopticon bore an uncanny resemblance to how people self-monitor in society at large. In the presence of ever-watchful witnesses, he said, physical coercion is no longer necessary. People police themselves. They do not know what the observers are registering at any given moment, what they are looking for, exactly, or what the punishments are for disobedience. But the imagination keeps them pliant....

So what would Foucault make of the current digital media landscape? In many ways, the modern surveillance state – enabled and expanded thanks to new technologies – is a shining example of the Panopticon.... Foucault’s central claim is that such monitoring is worrisome, not just because of what corporations and states might do with our data, but because the act of watching is itself a devastating exercise of power. It has the capacity to influence behaviour and compel conformity and complicity, without our fully realising it.
If that is right, it's noteworthy that the self-censorship tends to run exactly counter to what Bentham thought would happen (which is generally true with Bentham). People participating on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere certainly do try to present a prettier version of their lives than they really live. But they don't try to hide their sexual longings, say, or their unpopular political opinions.

But perhaps -- the author suggests -- they are engaged in confession. By confessing themselves of the things they would once have been ashamed of, they find online a community of people who endorse their views and desires. Shame is a social process, and discovering that there is a community that will approve of the things you were ashamed of really is liberating in the sense that it destroys the reason for feeling ashamed. The desires will be endorsed, they will be approved, if not by everyone by a large enough community that you can feel like you've found 'your people.'

That leaves one genuinely shameless. Does it also, then, leave one a slave to desire -- as Plato feared? Liberation from one thing means slavery to another, is that it? Or is there a road of genuine freedom to be found here?


Eric Blair said...

So what's the effective difference between guilt and shame, then?

Grim said...

Usually it's said to be that guilt is something you feel even if nobody knows you've done wrong; shame is what you feel for being seen to have done something your companions look down upon.

So you might feel guilty (or not) for your wild sexuality, but you'd only be ashamed if it appeared on Facebook -- until it turns out that, actually, there are lots of people like you on Facebook, and you lose the sense that it's really all that shameful.

People sometimes say that a major difference between Greek and Christian society is that Greece was about shame, and Christianity about guilt. But the analysis of the role of confession in the article calls that into question: confession converts guilt into shame, even if you are confessing only to God. The introduction of the second person to the arrangement moves it out of the sphere of guilt, because now you're thinking about what another (even God) must think of someone who has behaved as you have done.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As for whole societies, Christian societies are partially about guilt (by the above definition) but still a lot about shame, and the rest of the world is pretty much entirely shame-based. It gets tricky because definitions are not always precise, and people who are in complete agreement can argue angrily for months.

The individuals in a society have a ranged, and all of us have a range over the course of a year as well. Prisoners would absolutely begin testing immediately whether the Panopticon was operating and what the consequences were. Most merely curious people who were stuck in such a situation would cautiously experiment as well.

Self-observation is very difficult to teach. One may not be able to move the dial much at all, actually.

Tom said...

I'm not sure finding one's people leaves one shameless; it's just that in your new tribe what is shameful is different.

Tom said...

Grim's anthropological definitions of shame and guilt (which are very common) don't really fit with the author's claim that "Shame presupposes that we ought to know better but flout the rules regardless." In that sense, he's really talking about guilt or some combination of shame and guilt.

I think those definitions are quite modern and were developed within the social sciences, though, so there's no reason Plato would have used them. I don't know, though.

Ymar Sakar said...

God gives humans a conscience, through the spiritual conduit people call the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.

Metaphysically it is merely connecting the radio that humans call a brain, more strongly to the waves in space that we call a soul.

The soul knows who the Creator and Lucifer are, and what the spiritual warfare factions are, even if mortals have lost this knowledge.

Look up the stories of various sociopaths and warlords, after they converted to being a vassal of Jesus of Nazareth.

Guilt requires a conscience. It stumps philosophers because philosophers cannot give a person a conscience that has been blocked from it because their radio is broken or because of the person's own sins. Dividing it between guilt and shame makes sense to humans, because human philosophers are powerless to change what they observe, so they might as well observe it in clear delineations. But that is different from metaphysics.

Cassandra said...

Informally, I tend to think of guilt as something one imposes on oneself and shame as imposed by others, but I'm not sure if the formal definitions align with that (haven't checked).

Shame is what societies used to keep people in line when guilt failed (and before we had so many laws and reliable law enforcement). It is one of the mysteries of the modern world that so many people think shame is horrible, but also want to get rid of laws/law enforcement (while getting rid of the only other thing capable of keeping large numbers of people somewhat in line with civilized norms).

Mfatt said...

" But the analysis of the role of confession in the article calls that into question: confession converts guilt into shame, even if you are confessing only to God. The introduction of the second person to the arrangement moves it out of the sphere of guilt, because now you're thinking about what another (even God) must think of someone who has behaved as you have done."

Seems to me another role of confession, along with forgiveness, is that it enables one to admit to oneself that one has, in fact, done wrong. If wrongdoing will forever weigh upon one's conscience, one can easily try to protect one's self-image as a good person by denying that one's behavior was in fact wrong, and doubling down on that behavior to prove it. The possibility of forgiveness allows one to admit to wrongdoing, acknowledge it as wrongdoing, and resolve to avoid it in the future.

douglas said...

This occurred to me some years ago, when I realized that one downside of the internet was that every freak could find a few more like him and consider themselves normal. Lo and behold, that's true- not that it wasn't before, but it was more difficult and the community any individual could reach was much smaller, minimizing the normalization quotient.

I suppose with the good we must take the bad, as best we can.