Clean your plate.

We’ve all felt it—that physical grimace that arrests us when we remember instances of shame. The “shame-shudder” if you will. It’s haunting. The memory cuts so clearly and rarely loses its veracity over time. I’ve been thinking about shame a lot recently, and why that physical sensation is nearly universal. Why do we experience it? What is the purpose of shame?

(That was a very This American Life opening. Whatever.)

Anthropologist Frans de Waal has suggested that empathy, and thus, morality, are evolved traits that support our kinship structures. Does the physical nature and seeming universality of shudder-shame indicate that it’s an inherited trait as well? If it is evolved, what does it do for us as a species? We can’t retroactively correct the behavior, and I, for my part, can’t really say I learn from the instances which cause shame.

Morality is not the only “personality” trait that’s considered “evolved.” Michael Winkelman and John Baker have documented how religion has both a biological and a cultural basis: how brain physiology and ritual intersect to produce religious experience. There is an element of the evolutionary in our penchant for religiosity, according to those two. And since shame is related to religion—many come to religion as a way to wash shame away—can we draw a corollary there? As an enlightened colleague flippantly quipped, what is therapy anyway besides a confession that you pay for?

But is shame productive? The things we feel shame about are often some of the most intimate, vulnerable, delicate details of our lives. Does shame keep us from being more connected to each other? Perhaps shame is purely embodied punishment, the physical result of thousands of years of socially-sanctioned behavior.

But keeping shameful things private compels us to present our best version of our selves–shame as a means of self-marketing. Its net effect is akin to crafting a Facebook profile, a persona unchecked by our less desirable qualities.

I’m making a couple of assumptions above that I should admit—I don’t know for sure if shudder-shame is universal or culturally-specific. Our sense of shame may Judeo-Christian/American in flavor. Am I making a disciplinary error, which is to say, is shame even an anthropological question?

As a person wholly motivated by guilt, I’m anxious to nail down an answer.

Radiolab episode that made me think of this.

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One thought on “Clean your plate.

  1. I think it’s useful to differentiate between shame and guilt here, perhaps even as generalized culture-wide practices:
    Guilt – Western Europe, US
    Shame – Arab cultures, Japan

    Each of these is presumably Freud’s reason for ‘civilization’s discontents.’

    I feel guilt cultures are idealized for having built-in policing mechanisms, whereas shame cultures can hold onto some really unhealthy/unproductive behaviors (strict roles, shame killings). That said, I think the prevailing view fails to acknowledge that guilt societies (particularly the US) seem to loose any sense of shame. Lacking both leaves us vulnerable, without any check on genetic instinct.

    ex: Only in America could Nixon actually claim innocence and then be pardoned.

    When was the last time you heard anyone speak genuinely about actual shame? There can be none in a society built to serve the individual.

    Been thinking a lot about these things after watching: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Century_of_the_Self

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