Sociologist argues hidden shame destructive in modern society

Sociologist Thomas Scheff argues that hidden shame is a large problem in modern society:

According to Scheff a society that fosters individualism (ours, for example) provides a ripe breeding ground for the emotion of shame because people are encouraged to “go it alone, no matter the cost to relationships,” he said. “People learn to act as if they were complete in themselves and independent of others. This feature has constructive and creative sides, but it has at least two other implications: alienation and the hiding of shame.”

Scheff noted that while shame is no less prevalent now than in previous years or decades or generations, it is more hidden. “Shame is a biological entity like other emotions, but people are more ashamed of it than they are of the others,” he said. “The hiding of emotions is more widespread in modern societies than in traditional ones.”…

The problem with that kind of thinking, however, is that shame is, in reality, a very useful emotion. “Shame is the basis of morality,” Scheff said. “You can’t have a moral society without shame. It provides the weight for morality. There are a hundred things in your head about what you should or shouldn’t do, but the one that hits you is the one that has shame behind it.”

Scheff suggests that shame — or the reaction to it — can manifest itself in larger acts of aggression, such as wars and other military conflicts. “Especially for leaders, both shame and anger are carefully hidden behind a veil of rationality,” he writes in the article. “The Bush administration may have been deeply embarrassed by the 9/11 attack during their watch and their helplessness to punish the attackers. The invasion of Iraq on the basis of false premises might have served to hide their shame behind anger and aggression.”

I remember reading Scheff’s work in a microsociology course in grad school where he was cited as a key example of the growing body of research in the subfield of the sociology of emotions. While we tend to chalk up emotions to an individual’s psychological and physiological state, emotions that we feel and how we can express them are also dependent on social forces. Thus, if individualism is a key feature of early 21st century life, particularly for younger adults/millennials, displaying feelings of shame contradicts this individualistic approach. For example, one of the findings about younger adults in the National Study of Youth and Religion (with this particular finding discussed in Souls in Transition) is that they have very few regrets about their past actions. This is indicative of an individualistic approach to life: regrets may be based on the idea that the individual didn’t live up to some standard. But, to have shame or regrets, the individual has to be anchored to a particular moral system.

Scheff’s solution to hidden shame?

The answer, according to Scheff, is to have a good laugh. “That is, laugh at yourself or at the universe or at your circumstances, but not at other people. Most of the laughing we do in comedy is good. No matter the actors, we are really laughing at our own selves that we see in their foolishness.”

It would then be interesting to study who using humor laughs more than themselves than at others. Is most of our humor/comedy today compared to the past directed at others rather than exploring our own shame and embarrassing moments?

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