Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shame, sexism, and soft bigotry

So last month I wrote about the difference between the feelings of guilt and shame, and what they address. I noted that they're not synonymous, actually work quite differently, and that one is far more productive than the other-- that, actually, one may be necessary (albeit sometimes incorrectly applied) while the other is almost always counter-productive. And this, I said, is because guilt is a "what you did" emotion while shame is a "who you are" emotion. It's the difference between our behavior and identity-- you have considerably more control over the former than you do over the latter, and therefore a feeling of guilt over something you did that was wrong is a much better (more productive) emotion than the feeling of shame over who/what you are.

And I didn't make this point specifically, but obviously this distinction also matters because who/what people are generally isn't wrong.  It can certainly be unfortunate, for both the person and those around him/her, but it's not wrong in the sense of being something it's appropriate to blame a person for and be angry about it. Right? Any kind of illness or mental disorder, for example, we recognize as part of what a person is, not something they did. And however problematic it can be, we certainly don't blame them for it because we recognize that they didn't cause themselves to have that condition, and they can't just will it to go away. Recognition of a person's lack of control over something goes a long way toward holding us back from blame and anger. The problem just comes in when we assume they have more control over it than they actually do-- that's how we turn "who you are" into "what you did." We make things which were unintentional deliberate. We exclude exculpatory circumstances and context. Instead of guilting, we shame.

And we do it all the time.

I've been a fan of Brene Brown since I saw her TED talk on shame and vulnerability, and I particularly like this recent blog post in which she talks about shame in the context of teen pregnancy (to argue that public shaming is not, amazingly, the way to go about fixing the problem). She says:
Here’s the rub:
Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy.
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. . . 
I define shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Along with many other shame researchers, I’ve come to the conclusion that shame is much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.  
It is human nature, not just the nature of liberals (as Reeves argues), to want to feel affirmed and valued. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for belonging and recognition. It’s when we feel shame or the fear of shame that we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, to attack or humiliate others, or to stay quiet when we see someone who needs our help.
"Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change" goes to the heart of the "what you did"/"who you are" distinction because the difference between the two is more of a continuum than a binary. The more capable you are of changing something, of doing something differently by the sheer desire to do it, the more of a "what you did" it is rather than a "who you are." Your identity is a mire-- you're pretty much stuck with/in it, while things in the action category are fluid and fast, and obviously there's a lot of room in between. What shaming does is address the identity and portray it negatively, and in the process it inspires hopelessness, despair and resignation. As Brown says, it makes attempting to change seem futile and even silly, and the result can be a shutting down of the ability to empathize which encourages judgment of and attacks on others. It's bad news all around, really.

Now I want to talk about how that applies to bigotry-- specifically, soft bigotry.

We know from Jay Smooth that one of the problems in conversations about bigotry is that when you try to tell someone that they sound bigoted, what they almost inevitably hear is that they are bigoted (and, it goes without saying, that's what they hear if you start out by saying that they are bigoted). Your "what you did" statements get turned into "who you are" statements, because nobody wants-- okay, most people don't want-- to believe they're bigoted. And that's not only understandable but pretty fair, because most people aren't bigots. That does not, however, stop everyday, normal, well-intentioned non-bigots from saying and doing bigoted things, all the time. This could be called soft bigotry, and by that I'm not referring specifically to the soft bigotry of low expectations but rather a tacit, non-reflective bigotry that tends to arise from a combination of ignorance and our possibly inborn tendency to be more comfortable around and empathize with people who are more similar and familiar to us. You know, the kind of prejudice that tends to solidify as people get older and "set in their ways" (read: more mired in their identity).

You could call these people "soft bigots," or you could be nicer about it and say that they have some unreflective and unacknowledged privilege, or you could say that they just haven't given much of any thought to why people who aren't like them are not worse, but may be worse off, of because of it. What I'm trying to get at, really, are the thousand or so different ways in which your everyday average person may display some astonishing prejudice without ever thinking of him/herself as bigoted or even ever being called such by others. After all, they don't hate blacks/Hispanics/gays/women/foreigners/Jews/atheists/Muslims/etc., they know, view them with a certain amount of mistrust. Think of them as different-- not standard, not normal, because not like me. Such a person would be gobsmacked if the word "bigotry" passes your lips/keyboard in reference to him, and read/hear it as a dire accusation. Which, let's be fair, it often is.
OBJECTION! know...obvious reasons!
For example, there was an awesome discussion in the comments when PZ Myers posted the "excellent dad hacks Donkey Kong so his daughter can play as Pauline" story on Pharyngula. By "awesome," I don't mean lengthy (though it was that) but rather productive, because even if there were a couple of stalwarts who absolutely refused to believe that a) there's anything wrong in the slightest with a history of video games in which time, after time, any female character is a non-playable goal for your (male) character to rescue, and b) anyone who says otherwise is not accusing everyone who loves or makes video games of being raging misogynists, there were also a bunch of very smart commenters dedicatedly explaining why this view is, in fact...problematic.

And some of these people were left wondering, by the end of the thread (read: when everyone gets mentally exhausted), why the stalwarts kept speaking as if "bigotry must be deliberate." Why, over and over again, the stalwarts kept emphasizing that Donkey Kong was made many years ago, and taken in isolation it's not like a very simple story of "Jump Man rescues girl from gorilla" is really that harmful, and it would be ridiculous to say that this suggests any widespread misogyny on the part of Nintendo developers-- then or now. All of which is true. True, and beside the point.

  1. Those who accuse others of soft bigotry who care about fairness and accuracy will do their best to clarify that it is, in fact (non-reflective, non-deliberate, what-you-did-not-who-you-are) soft bigotry we're talking about, and 
  2. Those who are accused of soft bigotry can, if tensions are not too high, and if this message is communicated clearly enough, gracefully acknowledge the misstep (for that's what it is) and experience guilt for it rather than shame, express regret, learn from the experience, and move on. And that is, I'd like to think, the optimal result. 
Note the reference to guilt rather than shame and the low-tension discussion. The higher the profile, the higher the stakes, the higher the tension. You get the idea.

So I think this is how we can apply an understanding of the relative value of guilt and shame to bigotry, specifically the "soft" kind which is so much more pernicious than any of the antics of the WBC or KKK. It's probably better, to that end, not to actually call it bigotry. Not because it isn't, but because the goal is to get at "what you did" and labels invariably end up poking at the "who you are." There's no fail-safe way to prevent being interpreted as doing that, but there are ways to communicate which make it less likely. It seems, then, that those are the best approaches to take.

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