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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Demise of shame

by Mike Masterson | August 17, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

Imagine the people who believe such things and who are not ashamed to ignore, totally, all the patient findings of thinking minds through all the centuries since the Bible was written. And it is these ignorant people, the most uneducated, the most unimaginative, the most unthinking among us, who would make themselves the guides and leaders of us all; who would force their feeble and childish beliefs on us.--Isaac Asimov

I've seen shame defined as an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Philosopher Carl Jung called the emotion "soul eating."

It's certainly a powerful, dual-edged force that affects virtually every rational adult (with a conscience) and can significantly shape how we interact with each other.

I know shame has certainly played a role in helping shape me over 74 years.

It pained me as a child to endure the shame I felt at disappointing my parents, especially Dad, the colonel whose choice when I didn't act as he expected was to call me a "big baby."

Yet feeling ashamed proved effective for me. It took only a few shamings before I became determined to prove I was an 8-year-old person rather than a "big baby." More than disappointing my parents, I reached the point of not wanting to feel bad about myself when I behaved counter to what I knew was the right thing.

I've lost track of the times I regretted doing (or not doing) something. I'd feel ashamed over missing a loved one's birthday, or discovering a neighbor's tool I forgot to return weeks earlier, or times I spoke harsh words I regretted.

No one forced me to feel ashamed. It came naturally, which was far more powerful than another trying to manipulate me into feeling badly.

In that regard, it strikes me that shame in most ways is synonymous with regret and guilt. And what, other than the sincere shame we feel for such circumstances of our own making, could be more sincere or reformational to our spirits?

Our shame over things we do and don't do is an emotional response that, because of its intellectual purity, can prove effective at reforming our perspectives and actions. Contrast that with our natural resistance to being threatened or lectured.

All this said, when looking at what's transpiring across our nation today, I can't help but wonder: Where is the shame felt by those who are looting, setting fires to others' property, savagely beating innocent elderly citizens and others in broad daylight?

I can't comprehend how any human blessed with a conscience (and even a rudimentary sense to feel ashamed) can do such damaging things without feeling remorse.

Therein lies the thrust of my point today. Where is the deserved shame that should make others think twice before causing harm to their fellow men and women?

Is their disregard largely caused by sheer narcissism generated by a failure of parents in childhood to instill the difference between right and wrong?

I also believe there was a time in these United States where the stigma of avoiding the despair generated from feeling ashamed played a positive role in modifying much bad behavior.

Considering that a person's good name, credibility and reputation says everything about who they are, you'd think many more among us would reflect on behaving in ways that avoid causing shame.

In Japan, bringing disgrace upon one's self and family within the warrior class created such a powerful stigma that those who became ashamed and disgraced often committed ritual suicide.

Clearly that isn't the case in 2021 America as seemingly endless acts of violence and destruction continue making daily headlines. Even our nation should be deservedly ashamed today over the ill-conceived way we are callously leaving so many helpless Afghans and their families who assisted our military forces for 20 years to now be tortured and murdered by the conquering Taliban.

Being shamed by others and feeling ashamed, to me, is a dual-edged sword. Shaming can come from those who use it against others to gain advantage, thereby often causing emotional and psychological damage. On the other hand, being ashamed and disgraced can promote positive changes within a person's attitude and personality.

Fathers who thoughtlessly call their children "big babies" for something as natural as crying comes to mind, alongside frequently chastising, as a method of control, youthful shortcomings in everything from excessive weight to intelligence and appearance.

At the same time, however, I see that many adults who deservedly should feel ashamed over their criminal acts, mistreatment of others, or misbehavior in public appear incapable of feeling the emotion.

The lingering question for our ailing society: How do those who are shameless in the ways they deal with others ever regain sufficient maturity to experience enough shame over their misdeeds to alter their behavior?


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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