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Wednesday, April 5, 2006

A few thoughts on shame.

There was a vote yesterday in my little town on a referendum question to approve an increase in the school budget. This was the second referendum in a year. The first time, voters declined to approve the higher spending.

This time, proponents of the spending increase tried a new public-relations approach: They shamed people who were opposed to the increase in spending. The consistent message in letters-to-the-editor in our hometown newspaper and in talk on the street was "Anyone who doesn't support this increase in spending is a bad person. They don't care about kids. They don't care about education. All they care about is saving a few bucks on their taxes. Anyone who cares more about saving a few dollars than they care about kids and education is a bad person. If you are opposed to the spending, you are a bad person."

When you disagree with someone else, and you imply that the only possible reason that other person could take that position or act that way is because they are a bad person, you are into shaming/blaming.

Some people believe from the very bottom of their hearts that promoting shame in other people is an effective way to alter their behavior.

You know what, though? It isn't.

I've been planning to write a post on shame for awhile, and the school spending vote reminded me of it.

Here's why. Every single letter-to-the-editor in our newspaper was in favor of the spending increase. It would have been too embarrassing to speak against it, because the public perception had been created that no matter what you said, in fact that the only reason you could conceivably be against the new spending is because you're a bad, selfish person who only cares about a few extra bucks in your pocket. I know lots of people in my community who were strongly in favor of the spending increase. I know no one who was planning to vote against it.

Here's what happened in the vote yesterday: The spending increase lost.

All that happens when you introduce a shaming/blaming component into a discussion is that people who don't agree with you decide to keep their thoughts to themselves because they don't feel like it is safe to talk to you. They don't change their minds or hearts. They just don't tell you what is on their hearts and minds. No one likes to be judged. No one likes to be criticized. No one likes to be around other people who make harsh/critical/demeaning assumptions about who you are as seen through the light of their agenda on a particular issue. No one likes to be around people whose basic attitude is, "If you disagree with me, you are a bad person."

Same with abortion.

And yet there are certainly people in the pro-life movement who are convinced that an effective way to change the culture is to shame women who have had abortions, and people who support abortion rights. (Similarly, some people in the pro-choice movement adopt an attitude of shame/blame toward people who are pro-life.)

Shaming doesn't work.

Respectful dialogue works. Honest sharing of experience works, especially when it is not tied to an agenda (like "I'm going to tell you all about how horrendous my experience was because I want you to change your views" is not an approach that people tend to prefer. It feels emotionally manipulative. "I'm going to take the risk to be vulnerable about this because I think it's important for people to know and understand each other more, and I care about your experiences as well", however, is not a potentially manipulative attitude.)

People think that shaming works sometimes, because in their internal experience, it does work for them. In other words, some people control (or try to control) their own behavior by shaming themselves. People will use incredibly harsh, shaming thoughts inside their own heads to try to keep from eating too much, or to try to make themselves exercise, or to stay away from online pornography, or to stop procrastinating, or whatever...the list is endless. Sometimes, this self-shaming has a temporary impact, which can make a person think that "shaming works as a way to control behavior".

It has not been my experience that shaming of myself works in the long run to control my behavior, and people who go to 12-step meetings find the same thing. Shame is not our friend. Even when it does work on a temporary basis, the cost is incredibly high.

I'm not going to link to examples on the internet where a shame-based approach is taken to abortion, and women who have abortions, because most women who have had abortions have a tendency to self-shaming anyway and when we read shaming messages from others, it tends to trigger us. Certainly that happens to me. (I'm working on it.)

Shame is one of the first human emotions mentioned in the book of Genesis. After eating the apple, Adam and Eve feel shame for the first time. It arises naturally and spontaneously as a result of the way their hearts and minds were created.

It's an extremely painful emotion, especially if as a child you were shamed by powerful figures in your life, who reacted to your childish mishaps as if there was something wrong with your very core nature: you're bad. Not "what you just did wasn't so great" but "what you just did means that down deep, you're really a bad kid."

I think we can safely trust God, and the way that He has built us, in the area of shame. We don't need to appoint ourselves to bring shame into the lives of others, if we decide that God forgot to send them The Memo.

How are you with shame?

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