But all of these events share something in common: the public use of shame. The language of shame essentially attacks who-a-person-is rather than what-they-have-done. A person who is guilty of murder thus becomes a “murderer.” And though this is technically true, it is also not true. The language of guilt isolates responsibility for a single event; the language of shame assumes that you are now that event waiting to be visited upon all. Guilt suggests punishment or restitution; shame declares that no matter what you might do, you will always be that person.
There is a world of difference, for example, between being wrong about something and being “stupid.” But, as one comedian has it, “There’s no cure for stupid.” Shame labels us as incurable.
The language of shame is far more powerful than the language of guilt. Guilt can be answered and atoned. Shame, however, has no atonement – it is a declaration of “who we are.” There is no atonement for stupid, ugly, incompetent, mean, evil, etc. On occasion, I have been accosted by those who use shame as a verbal weapon. Recently, in an exchange in which I was the object of someone’s labeling, I was told that no apology need be made when speaking the truth – that is, shame is fine so long as it is “true.”
Shame is not only permitted in our culture; it needs no apology.
There is a strange phenomenon about shame, however. I describe this as its “sticky” quality. When we see the shame of someone else, we ourselves experience shame. This can be as innocuous as watching someone’s public embarrassment and sharing the feeling of embarrassment. It is equally and more profoundly true in darker and deeper encounters. We cannot shame others and remain untouched. The very shame we extend reaches within us and takes us with it.