For Shame by James B. Twitchell


Whatever happened to shame?


            In the 1950s public drunkenness, filing for bankruptcy, having an abortion or a child out of wedlock, drug addiction, hitting a woman, looting stores, using vulgar language in public, being on welfare (what there was of it), or getting a divorce were causes of shame.


Now if you grow fat or your nose is the wrong shape you have shame.  Beggars are now proud.  I don’t give to beggars that aren’t sitting down, not looking at me.


There were parallel surveys of teachers asking what the top problems in Americas schools are.

1940: talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in the hall; cutting in line; dress code infractions and littering.

1990: teachers identified drug use; alcohol abuse; pregnancy; suicide ; rape; robbery; and assault.


When Dan quayle tried to Murphy Brown...


            Single parent children are two to three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems as children from two-parent families.


Materially we’re doing well, but...


there has been a 560 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400% increase in illegitimate births; a quadrupling in divorces; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; more than a 200 percent increase in the teenage suicide rate; and a drop of 75 points in the average SAT scores of high school students.

Today 30 percent of all births and 68 percent of black births are illegitimate.  By the end of the decade, according to the most reliable projections, 40 percent of all American Births and 80 percent of minority births will occur out of wedlock

In Harlem four of five babies are born to unwed teenage mothers who are barely able to care for themselves.

This kind of outrageous behavior can be endured by the middle class, but kills poor communities.



Shame as a socializer

Every country has/had shame.  It is a biological thing.  Your head goes down, you bluch.  You are afraid to look someone in the eye.  The feeling is of pain.  Shame is not like honor or guilt, because it can be seen by others.


Every culture has shame. It is centered around different things. 

Typically, they have to do with the body.  going to the bathroom is something people do in private. The words that are bad have to do with the body.

Incest and masterbation are shameful.

Usually these words show that you are out of control. But all cultures have manners.  All cultures have things that they should’t say.


The sense of who a culture is is determined by culture.  The notion of shame is located in the hub of selfhood.


 Why did biology give us this?  It tells you you’ve done something really wrong.  It used to be the staple of western art.  It is the center story of the christian story is adam and eve.  The fall of them in shame.  Then they saw they were naked.


 I am sorry


Shame is a powerful socializing device.  We see it as a hindrance to individual fulfillment.  Appropriate shame separates and degrades the offender, true, not to exile but to instruct, not to scorn but to educate.  The final object of such shame is not banishment, but reintegration.  You say “I’m sorry” not the way out, but on the way back in.  Then you hear “welcome back”


Social contracts depend on how much individuals care about the good of the group, and how much the group cares about the good of the individual.


Nowadays, watch it, people have no shame.  Watch the deans office. The students don’t come in ashamed.  I really invite you to go look.  They are not ashamed for their bad behavior.  None of them are guilty of anything.  And when we negotiate a punishment, its like a retribution thing and they hopefully arent happy with the results of their action.  But the fear is, scarily , missing.


This goes to people who have children out of wedlock.  People used to stay together for the kids.  If they failed it was a thing of shame.  They tried their best, but they were for some reason unable.  Now they jsut say its my right and leave the child and wife.


Taking free lunches.  Used to be, and here’s social contract again, that taking free things from other people was a last resort. You were ashamed to beg to the community to let your child have a free lunch.  If you wanted a free lunch from the community, you went in hat in hand to the church or your neighbor and begged, “please please, this is shameful, but I am unable to feed my kids”.  Now...


Divorce - free families, intense nurturing of children, longtime job affiliateions, regularized consuption, communal worship, were all maintained by shaming.


The church used to be in charge of this for us. They would shame and exile the bad.  You didn’t get AFDC for having an out-of-wedlock-baby, you got kicked out of the community.


Shame and honor

Shame is one direction on the moral compass.  Honor is the other.  Only the crazy are shame free.

Ultimate honorables: Tellling the truth.  Working your hardest.  (not playing your hardest), taking care of your family (parents or children).


Ultimate dishonorables: Having a baby out of wedlock.  The boy/man, not pay child support.  Doing it twice with two women. 


Until recently, shame was a painful thing.  We didn’t enjoy it. Now there is shame TV.  People with diminutive little names: Ricki, Jerry, Jenny.  And we enjoy shameful behavior.  It is very sad and very wrong.


People used to be judged on the basis of character, on the basis of their moral qualities, their principles, their rectitude and ,especially, their work habits.

Victorian shame was most often directed towards the excesses of romantic narcissism. 


This was self monitored and controlled: self-discipline, self-respect, self-control, self-reliance.

You pulled yourself usp by your own boot straps. 


The word “ought” is out.  Not what “ought” you to be doing.  But what do you want to do.  Weakening of of  “What do you have to do?”  Not what is there to do , but what must you do.



Relief into “welfare”, “Welfare” into “entitlements” 

“wrong” into “inappropriate”

“bad habits” into “lifestyle choices” 

“illegitimacy into “ “non-marital childbearing”

“promiscuous” into “sexually active” and

“heinous killer” into “victim of an abusive family”



Culture used to come from the top down: from the church and the court and your parents.

Now it comes from the bottom up.  From adolescents.


TV is a strange story teller.  It has no idea what to tell and so continually asks the audience what it wants to hear.


Advertising in print media was always subservient to the text.  It was there to make the message free, but the message was the important thing.


The media provided the space for the ads.  The sponsors wanted to get a word in for their product.  Magazines are older than advertising. They sold copy.


And it was considered a sacred trust.  There was a “letter from the editor”  “notes from the publishers desk” . It was the fourth branch of government.


Now the ads provide space for the media.  The media is a way of delivering people to the advertisers.


Shame and ads

Shame used to  be the basis for ads.  Do you want your home to be an embarassment?  Get new paint. 

Aren’t you ashamed of your smell?  Get deoderant.  Arent’ you ashamed of your breath?


But in the age of the channel surfing, unfun ads get turned off quickly.  Shame is out.  Fun is in.

People us a “nesting channel” and surf around it.


Better to use sex or some dancing image or sports or a car roaring really fast.  That keeps people from surfing.

You make the ad like a show that peple want to see the next insallment of. The energizer bunny.  The carl Junior ads.


The prime forbidden act of TV now is : NEVER MAKE THE VIEWER FEEL BAD.


In our culture most people watch tv for most of their “free” time.  97% of americans have tvs and they are on for an average of 6 hours a day.


“Did you know?” has been replaced with “Did you see?”

“Did you read?” has been replaced with “Have you heard?”


TV strategems

What is the product of tv?  You are.

Just as tax collection is at the heart of government, audience measure is at the heart of tv.


(1) up to 11  (2) 12- 17 (3) 18-34 (4) 35 - 55 (5) over 55


those in four have the most disposable income. But those in 3 are the most likely to part with it.  those in 5 are set in their shopping patterns.

Therefore, group 3 is the target audience.  That’s who you’re trying to get to watch.



A decade ago , grocery stores carried about 9000 items. Now they cary 24000.  Revlon caries 158 shades of lipstick.  We are asked to choose products all the time. They express  who we are.  We are proud of the logos we wear on our clothes.


Humans like things.  We call them “goods”.  We are attracted to the world of things and we don’t want to feel bad about it.


Shopping game shows are a fetish of items that we worship.  We don’t want the items, but their meaning. 


The fame of shame

There was once a difference between infamous and famous.

People used to be famous for what they did.  Then, thanks to movies, they became famous for the lives they led, while doing what they did.  Now on tv  people are just famous.


The hero was distinguished by his achievements, the celebrity by their image.

The telebrity (television celebrity) is our friend.


Once there was a scam where the 64,000 dollar question was rigged.  It was busted.  The person who did it retired in shame.  He had defaced knowledge.

Now you would get on the talk show circuit and write a book. 

A scum bag like robert downey jr.  would hide in shame, now his shame is his fame.


Jerry is full of shameful acts that should not make you famous.


Madonna is the queen of shamelessness: Masturbation, sex of all kinds, nakedness, illegitimacy, prostitution, religious sacrilidge. She has no shame.


Shame in the culture of recovery

It is an instructive paradox that the culture that so prized rugged individualism should now be the culture that so willingly countenances victimology.  Everything is someone elses fault.

I did wrong, but you should have seen what they did to me.

The man who murders his parents throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

TV talk show trailer trash says “i’m shameful, but I still have my pride”


All films are feelgood summer films. None make you feel bad.  Cine noir poeple living in the shame of their sin. 


12 step books ahoy that say get rid of shame and feel good about yourself without earning it.



Churches are becoming feel good intitutions.


Rock shows and no shaming.

No harsh discipline.  No shunning and no failure. Jesus loves you for who you are.

It used to be adapt or die (darwin) now its entertain or be turned off.


What is unique to christianity is the deep sense of individual sin.  We are conceived in it, born in it.,  live through it and die in it.   Sin mostly has to do with sex.  Out of wedlock sex was wrong. 

People broke this.  But the point is how they admitted it.  We were wrong, we were sorry.

Even in marriage sex was shameful.

Celibacy allowed the clergy to keep the moral high ground.

Recently we’ve told the church to mind its own businnes.

“Judge not lest you be judged”  has replaced “Go and sin no more.”


With the rise of science, much of the secular mission of religions went to schools. 

It had new icons: books and a shrine called the library.

People had robes and caps like monks.

Knowing right from wrong went from the pulpit to the podium.

There is a canon.

Now there is an irreverence. Learning is a boring tool to get the paper with no meaning. 

It has no reverential aspect.

Education “means leading out of”. 

Into non-materialistic after life and forms. 

“The best that has been thought and known”  was the experience.

This has been replaced with “the cash”

The dunce cap was in the corner because the stakes were so high.  Learn this stuff. 

The barbarians are at the gates.  The philistines are coming. The professor is the priest.   The text is sacred.  Ignorance is a sin.

Understanding high culture and art replaced religious mysteries.

High culture replaced religious secret knowledge.

Art became the new chapel.  Art appreciation.

Not the fun now of tv.

Since there is nothing we NEED to know, there is no need to blush with ignorance.


Now everyone has a degree from somewhere. Being educated is a piece of paper.

Canon?  There is no canon.

A simple fact:  Most art and literature was created by middle class white men living in Europe DWEMs.

Math comes from them. 

Science too.

Now is audience driven literature selection.

Film, womens pup culture, african american, queer, postcolonial studies and you pick from a potpouri and bingo , you’re educated.


Noone signs up for chaucer, so its replaced by guerilla theater. Students, not educators pick the curriculum.

Grades used to be a shaming device for those who did pooorly.  Report cards were brought home to be signed by parents and returned.  No longer. Report cards are not signed and returned.  They are feedback for the student.

Everyone gets different grades.  None better , non-worse.  Your not a bad person jsut cause you get “f”s.

Grade inflation is rampant.

The SAT scored have been “recentered”.


The public face of shame

Oliver north. bob packwood, Marion Barry.  Jessie Jackson, Clinton, Gingrich, Nixon.

Shaming only works if you point out to the middle class serial parent that he is doing a poor job of fathering his children and behaving just like his counter part in the ghetto.  Middle class people should be ashamed of not maintaining family values  not for themselves alone, but because they are role models for those who are striving to be like them.

A society that ignores or opposes a set of core standards that motivates people to work, stay married, exercise self-control and be honest exhibits a poverty of the spirit that no amount of money can enrich.  Those core values are maintained by carrots and sticks. Carrots don’t always work.


The author liked chain gangs and  shaming sex offenders.

SHame shame come back shame: American Culture since the 1960s.

Wrong becomes inappropriate.  Shocking becomes not a term of opprobrium, but of praise.

TV takes nothing but an eye to consume. Children love it.

They got rid of shame from gambling.

They got rid of shame from divorce.

Ozzie and Harriet are now met with a nudge wink and chuckle.

People don’t stay together for the kids.

Counselors tell us not to take divorce personally.  Ministers say its okay. Lawyers call it “no-fault”: Feminists say  that women need to be free of oppressive male dominance.

Sociologists say the old patriarchy is worn out.


The strongest predictor of violent juvenile crime (specifically murder and robbery) was that the child grew up in a female - headed household.

Fatherless children are far more vulnerable to the poverty,  vilence, law breaking, drugs, school failure and other social pathologies that any civilized culture hates.


Fathers used to shame their children and , in so doing, were themselves caught up in the ethos of obligation.  It wasn’t called shaming.  It was called disciplining.  Fathers thought that was their job.  The old cliche that the mothers loved unconditionally, but a father’s love had to be earned, was treated as a truism. 

You had to earn fathers love and he had obligations too.

With kids bouncing back and forth, the children can play on parent off against the other.l  I don’t want to go to dad’s.  He makes me feel bad. Or the subtle, we never have to do that at moms house.



Feminist literature says men should get more in touch with their feelings.  They should be more nurturing and sharing and non judgemental and androgynous.  This replaces the old father (strong, egotistic, harsh, breadwinning, shaming).


Fatherhood directed boyish aggression to prosocial ends.  Now gangs do.

We should turn the deadbeat dad into a national symbolic villain like the Child Molester or the Raciest.  Put his face on milk cartons. 



Since the relatively recent replacement of a hierarchical culture, controlled from above, with a carnival culture, controlled from below our temptation has been to think that feeling bbad is just not “right”.

We don’t want to be a downer, lay trips or pass judgement.  I’m okay , you’re okay.  But there are things we should make people feel ashamed of and pain over:

Careless reproductive habits.

            Don’t call the children names, but do call the parents names.


            Its not okay.


            You don’t go to schoo lto feel good or to be warehoused. You go there to learn to read, write, do math, and think clearly.   Over pay and underwork teachers.

Race and gender

            Thesea re not a basis of pride.  Shame can happen to any race.  Its not anyone elses fault.


            bad habits are not genetic.  You should be ashamed of being an alcoholic or doing drugs. The medicalization of character is eroding our culpability.


            Evil is not relative. 



How to do this?

Shun.  Don’t talk to people that are bad.People don’t like to be dissed.  Shame works.  It has evolved with us.  Now jail is not humiliating.  Dean’ office isn’t.  Welfare protects people from being judged for their selfish actions.  Tell people they are wrong and you totally disapprove.  Use the “s” word.Shame on you!  I’m ashamed of you!  For shame!

We need to quit being so frightened and ashamed of shame.  It holds a central position in all lasting cultures for a reason.  Shame is not the disease; properly used, it is the cure.  It is how we communicate certain social values. It is how a sense orf decency is developed.   Morality must be installed.  Conformity to a certain baseline standard is not a luxury, but a necessity.  Shame is how ev3ery culture has protected itself from the danger of individual excess.  Feeling bad is often the basis of a general good.Civilization has discontents.  The alternative is much worse.