Mind Matters — Our Shame Culture

An awful lot of awful events have occurred since my last column where I said I would tackle parental shaming in the next. My plan was to discuss how our society shames and stigmatizes parents like the mother whose toddler son slipped into the cage of the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. Since then, a child has been killed by an alligator in a lake at Disney World. The social media again buzzed with the societal shaming of the parents who “let this happen” just like society blamed the mother at the zoo for being negligent, bad, and on and on. I know from experience with my own children how easily a curious and quick child can take off. I remember when my toddler daughter, in the blink of an eye, ran away and hid in the clothes rack of a department store, while I held my infant son in panic. Was I a careful and watchful mother? Absolutely. Car seats were always used, when in those days many eschewed that safety practice. Safety ruled!

My kids were under my scrutiny at every turn, nevertheless my adventurer gave me a scare in a split second. Yes, we found her soon after, with some women standing by her and staring at me like I was a neglectful mother. Another story of societal shaming comes from the grief group that I facilitate. Here, parents, whose son was killed by a motorist while the boy was bicycling, also report being blamed in the social media. “Well it’s your fault, you shouldn’t have let your thirteen year old ride his bike there.”

Why do we blame and shame the innocent victims? One reason may be that it helps us feel safe. “Well, it happened to them but it would never happen to me, because I wouldn’t do … .”

What makes societal shaming even easier than in the days of the scarlet letter is how the media hypes the stories, giving half-truths if any truth at all, and how the social media of the internet explodes the shaming exponentially.

Yes, there are abusive parents and we should never be complacent about the reality of physical and sexual abuse. Unfortunately, true abuse can get lost in the noise of inane shaming of the innocent.

Note also how societal shaming is a way for a group to distance itself from the “other.” The shamed other becomes ostracized and scapegoated and considered defective in some way. In the book American Shame, Myra Mendible states, “as an instrument of power, stigmatizing shame legitimizes and facilitates the dehumanizing or devaluing of certain …[others], setting the stage for a range of punitive policies, discriminatory gestures, and even violent confrontations.” Mendible warns us that while our national self-image is based on the values of individual freedom, inalienable rights, and tolerance, we collectively can get fearful in the face of crisis. In a post 9/11 world with a fragile economy, inclusivity and openness are trumped by fear that leads to xenophobia and rigidity. A perfect storm for scapegoating and shaming the “others,” the refugees, Muslims, Blacks, Latinos, gays, even “certain” parents.

Where does this all fit in with the murdering of 49 mostly Latino people in a gay club in Orlando? Was societal shame involved in this horrific tragedy? My hunch is that it was. That Omar Mateen was conflicted about his own homosexuality, and felt societal shame for it. By all reports, he was an angry and violent young man who seemed alienated in society for his sexuality and his religion. He chose to kill people who were mostly his age who may also have been ostracized for their sexuality and their Latino heritage. Ironic or purposeful that, in his self-hatred, he murdered those similar to himself.

There are many variables that set the stage for such horrendous acts of violence, accessibility to automatic weapons being one of them. The focus here, however, is the fomenting of societal, stigmatizing shame.

In this election time, it is all the more important to reflect on stigmatizing shame. Dictators and demagogues thrive on fomenting fear and take us down the low road of our limbic systems. Translation: drumming up fear about the “other” as enemy, alien, disturbed, defective, taps into our base instincts, bypassing our thinking brain and dumbing us down. When politicians set up divides by creating an us and them universe, beware! This is the setting for societal shaming.

Listen for the euphemisms—the subtle buzzwords of collective shaming—and step away from the quick and unconscious shaming judgments these words engender. (Just two examples, “welfare queen” and “anchor baby”). From witch burnings to lynchings, from homophobia to the treatment of refugees and immigrants, there is societal shaming.

There is a choice here, to reconsider what we hear and see and ask ourselves, is this another incident of stigmatizing shame where the other is made an outcast rather than understood as one of us?

For more see American Shame: Stigma and the Body Politic, edited by Myra Mendible.