vrijdag 21 juni 2013

For and against shame

It is not always convenient that Levinas – and I in his wake – works a lot with the concept of ‘shame’. Because although in a levinassian context that word has no negative connotation – shame can help people to break free from their illusions and mental limitations – nevertheless embarrassment for many people has strong unpleasant connotations.

In everyday language the word shame certainly cán evoke the just mentioned positive associations. But at least as often people’s first association with the word is negative in nature. Then applies: shame, that’s what you obviously want to get rid of. In such cases, it’s difficult to still use the word as having a potentially helpful meaning.

A striking illustration of the heavy negative load of the word is provided by the Dutch sociologist Goudsblom in the introduction to his memoirs. “A beautiful summer afternoon with a clear blue sky. On the street along the new Provincial Road a mother cycles with her son back in the basket. They are both good-humored, the mother cycles, the boy sings a cheerful song. Then they pass a few playing girls. One of the girls says: “Listen to that boy singing”. That’s all she says, but the boy has heard something scornful in her words, and he immediately stops singing. He feels caught, without knowing why”.

Goudsblom begins his memoirs with this event “because the fight against shame remained a constant in my life”. Here shame and the determination to finish it appear as a guiding theme and program for an entire lifetime.

A slightly different approach to shame I find in A.F.Th. van der Heijden. This writer also departs from the negative interpretation of the concept but he ultimately bends the negativity into something positive. Shame is a dismal experience which should be avoided as much as possible, but yet it may excite feelings of honor and encourage people to exceptional performance.

Following the death of his son Tonio, Van der Heijden notes that he has become grimmer and more pretentious. “From Tonio's death I have learned to never do something just like that. That has to do with a process that I call ‘enshaming’: things I used to be proud of have lost their luster. This shame challenges my creative ambition: to get above it, that’s what concerns me now”.

A third, more positive, view of shame is presented by Coen Simon in his book Guilt. About the things we do not need. Guilt and shame with him are no ‘sin’ or something that you have to overcome. They are implicit in the human condition and therefore things to be accepted. Because of the lack of an absolute starting point we never know how to act. But we pretend we know it, says Simon. And then get ashamed. There’s nothing wrong with that, it is a way to come closer to reality.

How is it possible that the associations with the word shame are so varied with  different  people? I think the differences in approach can to a large extent be explained because there are different kinds of shame at stake. In the more positive views of the word (as in Levinas and Simon) it is in fact all about think-shame: the realization that all thinking – that is: also your own thinking – produces illusions. Being caught producing illusions can certainly be painful, but it does not necessarily feel as a failure-shame, because illusion production is too much linked to the nature of thought itself, and thus to our human condition.

The other – more negatively experienced – kinds of embarassment involve failure-shame: you  perform sub-standard, at least below the level that you or others expect from you. You feel put on show in front of collegues and others. And that’s what you are determined to avoid henceforth.

I do not think it is wrong to use the word ‘shame’ to indicate both the feeling of embarrassment that occurs in the unmasking of an illusion, and the awkwardness which comes with underperformance. But it is good to keep in mind which type of shame can be associated only with negativity, and which type can also be interpreted positively.

Also see Hazardous and Something small