Some might describe shame as the natural consequence of knowing right from wrong. Its the punishment we must suffer for doing what we know to be wrong, or what others believe to be wrong. As punishment, shame is a powerful tool, used effectively to constraint human behavior, the better to reflect societal norms.
The source of shame is religion, which posits the inviolability of a set of assumptions and which also calls upon its adherents to lend faith to those assumptions. Each religion believes itself a means to the truth, and claims that all other religions are false. Religions of the monotheistic persuasion are especially uncompromising, given that such religions hold to a belief in one God and one truth. To deviate from such truth is not only wrong, its shameful.
Theres no shame on those who dont know any better. Shame is reserved only for those who should know better and yet persist in wrongfulness. The greater the deviation, the greater the shame.
Not to be outdone by organized religion, nation states use shame to ensure unflinching devotion. To compromise ones loyalty to ones country is to choose the shame of treason; and theres no greater crime than disloyalty.
Shame, however, needs no laws to impose it. In fact, the power of shame is that its often self-imposed. Only when its not self-imposed does society at large feel compelled to impose it from without.
Given the power of shame to restrict human behavior to an acceptable range, its the real force behind conformism, shame being the punishment for failure to conform.
Of course, there are norm that transcend religion and nationalism and that touch on human decency itself; universal norms that cross many a culture and time period. Pederasty and cannibalism are just two modes of behavior that manage to provoke feelings of shame. For when the niceties of society are flouted so flagrantly, and grave harm done to the things we hold most dear, anger demands shame; and only with shame can one ever acknowledge the wrongs done by our gravest sins and crimes.
Shame is the disappointment we feel when we fail so completely at meeting the high expectations we have of ourselves. And that disappointment is always compounded by the perceived disappointment of those we love.
Of all the animals on this planet, only human beings are capable of shame. Its a hallmark of civilization, this capacity to set high standards for ourselves and our willingness to suffer our failure to meet those standards. Its not enough to act. That action must be right.
But shame goes far beyond conceding a failure. Its the self-inflicted suffering we must endure for that failure. Yet, failure is relative, some people with little concern for the consequences of their actions, and others agonizing over the implications of every thought. Shame troubles us only as much as we let it, those who commit the gravest harms, the least troubled of all. It takes a mind capable of high standards to suffer each failure.
Organized religion knows well how shame curbs behavior. Nation states have come to learn this as well, using punishment and the mockery to bolster authority. Without shame, people would become far more intractable. The specter of prison, however, provides sufficient deterrence, for those who choose to flout the will of the most powerful.
The most serious consequence of jail time isnt the loss of freedom, its the shame of wrongdoing, a shame that attaches even to former prisoners, like a Scarlet Letter. Theres no escaping the past, not when a prison term becomes public knowledge and employers require full disclosure. One must suffer the shame of flouting a nations laws for a lifetime.
Where religion is concerned, shame can stretch the length of eternity (or until forgiven by a divine power). Because of shame, theres a belief in hell where people suffer for sin, shame fanning the flames to intensify the self-torment.
The notion of original sin has heaped opprobrium on the sexual impulse, making even the frank discussion of sexuality, much less the sexual act itself, a cause for shame. While violence is glory, sex is degradation, despite its importance to the survival of our species. If sex is shame, so is the naked body, original sin making Adam and Eve, its written, ashamed of their own skin; and perhaps even ashamed of being human.
If shame, however, is the disappointment of displeasing a divine being, then it is also our failure to be more like a divine being. As a spur to transcendent behavior, shame would be a welcome addition to the human cortex. As it is, shame is little more than self-inflicted punishment done more for the betterment of self-interested institutions and collectives than for our individual well-being.
By imposing high standards, institutions religious or secular can maintain an air of moral superiority over those who merely follow those standards. To set the rules is to exceed them, claiming that rules elevate mankind when, in truth, such rules are used merely to control; for without control, whats to guard us against our more savage instincts?
Shame rejects the savage in favor of the divine. But shame is still a hard path to follow. Can we only better ourselves through self-inflicted suffering, or does such suffering only offer the illusion of self-improvement?
If self-improvement comes by choice, then shame tends only to make those choices unendurable. Shame, if anything, eliminates choice, as if only one course of action were sufficiently righteous to merit approval. By dispensing with choice, shame becomes the only alternative to correct behavior.
Although, how can we improve ourselves but by choice? If were merely shamed into righteousness, can we fully comprehend how and why we transcend barbarity? Only by individual choice will we ever affirm the value of our inner divinity. Only by individual choice can we see beyond shame to the goodness it conceals.
Shame has no value, except in so far that it prompts people to ennoble themselves. To the extent shame derives from the overbearing institutions that seek to micromanage our lives, it benefits only the self-serving organizations that demand it. Shame confirms prejudice and rewards fear. Shame panders to the many at the expense of the few. And shame degrades us into believing ourselves unworthy of our better natures.
What should ennoble us is the will to do good and to sustain a more livable world. What we dont need is the shame that well probably fail. Shame of our biology distracts us from the pride we take in our aspirations and which, when pursued by dint of hard-fought choices, will endow us with the divinity weve shamed ourselves into believing we dont deserve.
Humanitys greatness thrives best without self-mortification. While shame attempts to convince us that filthy bodies and desires will be our undoing, faith in our divinity reminds us that its self-love, not self-loathing, that will prompt us to seek greatness.
Shame will never give us what we want. It will only convince us that we fail because were unworthy; cold comfort for those of us who expect more of ourselves and of others.
Why should we resign ourselves to shame when we can thrill to the full potential of our humanity, unencumbered by the demands of those who seek to control us. If shame is enslavement, then true liberty demands that we cast it aside and choose the path of love.
There can be no shame in loving ourselves, in body and in mind. And its love that will ennoble us, not shame.