I’ve had a couple of conversations regarding the concept of shame over the past week, and it’s gotten me thinking.

Shame enforces social and cultural norms. In one sense it’s a tool used to discourage people from deviating from those norms, and in another sense it’s a self-imposed reason to adhere to them. There is a major sense in which this is deeply messed up, because many of the cultural norms shame enforces are either arbitrary or downright harmful. For example: shame over sexual orientation, gender identity, popular beauty standards, race, popular gender norms, etc.

So yes, shame is dangerous. It is, among other things, a tool for oppression. It can also be emotionally crippling and developmentally stunting. But I’m hesitant to condemn shame as either an inherently illegitimate emotion, or an inherently illegitimate societal function. When someone feels shame, or is publicly shamed, for having done something that is legitimately immoral, that’s a good thing. It’s an incentive to not do it again, as well as an indication of recognition that it was wrong in the first place.

Besides, I’m inclined to side with Heidegger when he says that guilt—which is distinguishable from shame, but very closely linked—is simply one of the underlying structures of self-conscious existence. It is not, in of itself, good or bad, but simply there. And the choices we make that are most true to ourselves are those which acknowledge and confront it.

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