Shame and Violence: The Mechanisms of Social Control

Jaclyn Friedman, the author of What You Really, Really Want (an amazing book that I think everyone should read), has a guest post over at about the ways that women attack and shame other women around sexual assault. It’s a great read, but then, pretty much everything she writes is.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is how gendered the mechanisms of social control often are. My experience has been that men are more likely to exert this control through violence, while women tend to use shame, although of course, those are simply trends. While men’s violence has gotten much more attention in some circles, the effects of shame are often discounted or minimized even though they can sometimes be even more long-lasting.

I think there are a lot of reasons for these patterns. After all, violence is much easier to see and measure. It doesn’t really require us to ask how the person on the receiving end feels about the experience. And the effects are often pretty visible, whether we’re looking at damage to objects and property or to someone’s body.

On the other hand, shame can be much more subtle. We might observe its effects in the moment if we understand how it works, but all too often, we simply don’t see them or we don’t think they’re as serious as the more obvious results of physical violence. I remember a PSA about child abuse from when I was a kid that pointed out that words can hit as hard as a fist. And I know from talking with some of my therapist colleagues that sometimes, shame can continue to harm people for years. Think of all of the recent discussion about bullying. It’s not just beating someone smaller or weaker up. It also includes mocking, teasing, and humiliating them.

When used in small doses, shame can actually be an effective way to teach boundaries, limits, and values. The problem is that when it’s used too often or not carefully, or when we shame people for things they have no control over, it can have lingering consequences. The challenge we face is how to work with this all-too-human emotion. After all, we often turn around and shame other people when our own shames have been triggered. Brene Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me has some of the best advice for how to interrupt that cycle.

Part of the difficulty in calling shame out is that people can feel shamed even when there wasn’t any intention or desire to cause that. Sometimes, we feel it because we’ve internalized criticism or shame from past experiences. Sometimes, it’s because we don’t know how else to respond to someone’s anger. Sometimes, we fall into a shame spiral because we lack resilience when someone calls us out. There’s a difference between “you’re shaming me” and “I’m feeling shame”, and I’ve seen plenty of relationships get stuck as a result. Lots of online discussions get bogged down there, too. But those challenges don’t change the fact that shaming is incredibly common and causes real harm.

As Friedman points out, we also use shame to avoid looking at the real issue at hand. For example, if we judge people who have been raped, it makes it easier to imagine that sexual assault happens to “those folks over there” and that can help us feel like we’re safe over here. But that’s only an illusion of safety since it doesn’t do anything to address the root causes, such as the choices that perpetrators make to assault someone. It rather reminds me of the ways in which we use security theater to create feelings of safety rather than creating actual safety. In her words:

What’s worse, all this finger-wagging about booze doesn’t make even the waggers of said digits any safer. It makes them feel safer, sure, but there’s miles of difference between feeling safer and being safer. Believing that being more virtuous than the next girl will keep you safe from rape actually puts you in greater danger, because you’re less likely to spot warning signs that you’re being targeted if you think you’re at less risk.

If we’re going to start making things better, we need to take a hard look at how violence and shame are woven into our culture, our personal histories, and our actions. We need to be willing to acknowledge how deeply they run, to explore the ways that they work, and to look for better ways to respond to our situations and our fears. We also need to stop pretending that one is worse than the other or making excuses for them- they both have rippling effects that can last for a long time. We need to look within ourselves and ask whether we’ve used shame or violence to win arguments, influence other people’s behavior, or try to get what we want. When we do, we might be surprised at how often we use one or both of them. And ultimately, we need to find ways to talk about these issues with compassion instead of blame, shame, or violence. Until we do, we’re only making things harder for ourselves and the people around us.

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One Response so far.

  1. MyMelody says:

    Thank you for the post. It was very insightful. It’s often hard for me to recognize when I am promoting shaming or partaking in shaming behaviors. I grew up with it and recognize that I have internalized shaming quite a bit.

    Sometimes, I do not realize I’m doing it, and I’m grateful that people around me care about me enough to tell me. So, I was wondering, do you have any practical advice on how to recognize when you are shaming or promoting it? Are there things to look out for? 

    Also, would you say there is a difference between shame and guilt?  

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