In Defense of Shame

Perhaps it's due for a reconsideration

Art: Jack Koloskus
Julia Claire
no regrets

“I think we need to bring back shame,” is something I’ve said many times as a glib half-joke a few drinks deep on a night out. I have thought it to myself after seeing an Instagram post from someone “owning” their ignorance about a social issue or a tweet equating listening to one’s friends with emotional labor or a Notes App non-apology released by a public figure minutes after some misdeed with no evidence of introspection. Each time, I feel more confident in my conclusion: We really need to bring back shame.

I was raised Catholic in Massachusetts, which is to say that I have more than put in my 10,000 hours to become an expert on shame. I’m surprised my first complete sentence was not, “We don’t discuss that in public.” In Catholicism, one of the requirements to receive your First Holy Communion is the confession of sins, by which one makes herself spiritually clean before the omnipresent being Himself. The problem is that when most Catholics go through this process they are only seven or eight years old. At that age, most of us (hopefully) haven’t racked up the really juicy sins that we will have the pleasure of committing later in life, but someone somewhere in the Church’s history, it was decided that second grade was the official “age of reason.”

When I was a child getting ready for my own First Communion, I remember all of my tiny compatriots and I standing in a line and, one-by-one, confessing our sins to the priest. I frantically searched the corners of my mind, trying to think of a “good” sin to confess, one that would really suit the gravity of the occasion and impress Father Coyne with my immense maturity, but all I came up with was, “Sometimes I fight with my brother.” Adorably pathetic — I swear my sins are way better now.

Although I have largely left the teachings of the Catholic Church behind (a blemish-free institution, we can all agree), it rings true to me that part of one’s transition from childhood to adult reasoning must involve the ability to reflect on one’s mistakes and transgressions and admit wrongdoing. There’s nothing particularly radical about this notion, but the culture we live in now seems wholly allergic to the concept of shame, let alone its necessity in a functioning interpersonal life — and we are worse off for it.

Over the past few years, we have lived through the ups and downs of numerous ideologies of empowerment. Noble concepts like body positivity and sex positivity started out as earnest attempts to address social inequalities and biases and reliably became co-opted by celebrities and athleisure brands to mixed results. Along the way, some people developed the misapprehension that all things previously considered shameful should be worn proudly — and therein lies the problem. “I’m not ashamed!” has become a rallying cry for some of the worst people on earth, many of whom were not really living under any kind of oppression to begin with before they decided to grant themselves the gift of empowerment. To use a few perhaps too-obvious examples, the Kardashian-Jenner family, one could argue, has less than zero conception of shame. Kris Jenner has never seen an eye-popping familial embarrassment that she couldn’t turn into a lucrative televised special broadcast to millions. As Gawker’s own Allie Jones continues to thoroughly document, Chrissy Teigen has seemingly never even considered the notion.

“I’m not ashamed!” has become a rallying cry for some of the worst people on earth.

And as much as I am loath to trudge up his presence in our minds again, former president Donald Trump has more than earned his long-held nickname “Teflon Don” — each scandal and public blowback from his myriad unthinkable acts of inhumanity continues to slide off him like water, not only because he came into this world without even the most basic capacity for shame, but also because he wears every horrific deed and utterance like a badge of honor. Now I'm not saying that Kris Jenner is as morally reprehensible as Donald Trump, but they certainly share a particular aversion to self-reflection to which we should pay close attention.

Some combination of social media and reality television has led to a society in which fewer and fewer people seem to understand that self-expression is not unambiguously good. Vulnerability has been commodified, but so has a certain never-apologize mentality, despite the fact that the two are diametrically opposed. In fact, few acts require more vulnerability than admitting you were wrong. It is now widely accepted by many that the more publicly vulnerable you are and the more you over-share, the more you know yourself. Yet there is something much more productive and honest about sitting quietly with your own feelings, digging in before lashing out. Expressing does not necessarily equal processing. (We have all dated someone who thinks verbally identifying the way in which they will treat us badly is the same as working to change it.) Shame can be a quality control mechanism for one’s emotions and actions — you could even call it conscience.

Like most cultural ills plaguing us today, I am ready to pin this one on Ronald Reagan. The atomization of American society and the disintegration of the social contract in the public consciousness has led to a widespread acceptance that we don’t owe each other anything. Perhaps this partly laid the foundation for the prison of un-self-aware sanctimoniousness we find ourselves in today. Proclaiming to be ashamed of nothing is its own form of self-deception. In fact, the denial of shame within oneself becomes its own kind of emotional suppression that brings us full-circle to precisely what the anti-shame movement was trying to subvert.

Is there anything more exhausting than when someone proudly states they have “no regrets”? Of course you have regrets! Or rather, you definitely should. You have to serve yourself a large helping of delusion to think that your actions exist in a vacuum and you can simply choose whether or not to feel shame about them, regardless of their effects on the world and those around you, going through life as a kind of emotional bulldozer. Nowhere is this mentality more pervasive than in corporate feminist rhetoric telling women to “Stop apologizing, ladies!!!” We would in fact be much better off collectively if all of us, of all genders, apologized more.

Conventional wisdom seems to have shifted from “To err is human” to “There is no such thing as a mistake and I have never made one.” The latter feels decidedly less conducive to progress of any kind. Instagram and Pinterest are full of “inspirational” platitudes like, “There are no mistakes, only lessons” — but the first step to learning a lesson from a mistake is acknowledging that it was one. Gawker’s own Brandy Jensen recently found a piece of thought-provoking advice printed on a tea bag — “Never regret your mistakes. Admire the courage it took to attempt the unknown” — that made me want to crawl into a ditch for an entire day more than usual. Now we’re going so far as to say, not only do I have no regrets, but also I admire myself for fucking up? Look, I know it’s just a tea bag, but I can only take so much. I’m just one person.

Conventional wisdom seems to have shifted from “To err is human” to “There is no such thing as a mistake and I have never made one.”

Shame and regret can be instructive, useful tools. The anti-Critical Race Theory movement is, at its core, a blanketed refusal to engage with generational shame over decidedly shameful historical events by omitting them from school curricula. Such a project rebuffs the idea that shame can serve as a way to hold oneself to a higher standard to do better in the future. How can one faithfully promise that an offense won’t happen again if it is not accurately acknowledged as an offense to begin with?

Joan Didion once wrote that people with self-respect have “the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.” We all, as she notes, eventually have to “lie down in that notoriously uncomfortable bed” of who we truly are and tally up an honest appraisal of our actions. Such a project would demand that we remain in dialogue with shame — that we know the price of things. So perhaps instead of insisting shame has no place in our lives, we should show ourselves a little more respect.

Julia Claire is a comedian and writer living in Brooklyn. She co-hosts the popular leftist comedy podcast Reply Guys, and you can find her spiraling on Twitter @ohjuliatweets.