In the course of 2022, which is mercifully wending its way to its demise, two people who my older children have looked up to in the latter parts of their teenage years became publicly discredited. In the first case, many months ago, the shaming that took place and subsequently made its way to the internet, at least at the time, appeared to be appropriate for the offense. The second’s Twitter litigation is mostly wrapped up, with no consensus reached on whether public shame was a necessary or useful development.
Viewing both of these occasions as a parent, it is not too much to say that I took it harder than my children, who are yet bright with optimism about the future and human potential. It was with trepidation that I talked to them both. They were shocked but, to my surprise, by no means unmoored. Pondering what might be the reason for this strange thing, it occurred to me that, though they can’t empathize with a person suffering public shame in the same way that a middle-aged person such as I might be able to (the young know nothing of suffering), yet my children have been given a good and useful gift. Being raised in a place that is best likened to a hospital for wicked people, they know in a heart kind of way that people are, in fact, wicked. They themselves are wicked—I can say without reservation for they are my children—but they are by no means unique. So is everyone else. All of us have together fallen short of the glory of God.
No parent ever makes this particular request, but when my children were very young, on more than one occasion, they were given the strange and difficult gift of seeing up close how wicked people can be. My desire to shield them from seeing human iniquity was not granted to me by God. At the time, I was most put out that the sins of the church came before their young eyes, and filled their delicate ears which, as a dear friend said about her child, “are always on.”
And yet, in consequence of early visions of human treachery, they (my two oldest children) are now able to see that God does not lose control of his church, however badly people behave themselves. Those early lessons properly oriented their expectations not only for their peers but for people who have authority over them, people to whom they owe honor. And so, in these two instances of people they know disappointing literally everyone, it seems they have been able to hang on with gratitude to the ways these two failures nevertheless treated them with love and humanity.
And yet, it should be—indeed must be said—both of these people were failures. For the community to see and acknowledge the failure means the certain shame and humiliation of the offender. And so I am brought once again to consider the place of shame in our social and cultural malaise. Brené Brown, the person whose writing kicked off my curiosity for the subject, posits that shame has no place in a good society. Men, for example, who have abused their wives should suffer no public shame, as some law in Texas apparently decrees. Why? Because, says Brown, a shamed person will not go home having learned a valuable lesson. On the contrary, the abuser, now shamed and humiliated, will be more violent than ever toward his wife. Shame, as an experience, cannot be born. It has to be given to others. The person who ends up enduring the ruin of the sinner is not the sinner but the victim.
Shame is a kind of thing that winds itself around the human psyche. However hard you try to get rid of it, it will always lurk somewhere. Brown, however, embracing the zeitgeist, preaches that by working hard to accept yourself, and being vulnerable and courageous, you can mitigate the effects of shame. Like so much content served up in her cheerful and expansive style, there’s a lot of good and bad mixed together. She names a lot of obvious problems, but her solutions lack a certain je ne sais quoi—just kidding, I have no problem saying it—Christianity.
The thing that she is most right about is that shame cannot be born by the human soul. If a person is shamed, there are only a few options available to that person. The most usual solution is to double down and insist that the shame is not shame, but is actually something like pride. In this way, we have corporately transformed human insecurity, sin, wickedness, and disappointment into body positivity, the sexual revolution, and TikTok.
Another popular and effective solution to the problem of shame—though extremely hard to detect—is to foist the shame one feels onto another person when they aren’t paying attention. There are various ways to do this. You might blame someone you love for the thing you feel most cruddy about. You might project your own guilt onto other people who can’t defend themselves because they are wicked also. I like to think of this as Drive By Shame. There is usually an unsuspecting victim who doesn’t know what is going on but comes away feeling terrible while the culprit, the person suffering under the original burden of shame, feels a little better, though by no means rid of the muck and grime. Another way of thinking about it is to feel “sticky” from shame. Someone made you feel bad and it might have been that they felt shame and passed it on to you, and you took it and carried it around for them.
This is why public shame is such a powerful solution to cultural problems. Would that Brown had stuck to gathering data and had never gotten into the self-helping ted-talking business of organizing other people’s lives. She misses entirely the various useful aspects of shame and why it is one of the essential trials that shape what it means to be human. Shame, in a properly functioning society, serves as a guardrail for moral conduct. The public shaming of the offender isn’t for his good, as everyone on Twitter knows in the deepest part of cake-self, it is for everyone else looking on.
The problem is who is looking on. The public part of public shaming is where all this goes awry and why, I think, things that properly make us feel bad about ourselves are turned into points of self-congratulation and affirmation. When the “public” is an amorphous, unknown, essentially cyber-cast spiritual world, shame metastasizes out of its proper sphere. It is the whole faceless, unknown world who knows you are wicked, and not particular people who have reasons to be suffering shame themselves, who might first empathize, and then learn to forgive and restore you.
Which brings me back to the two people who have suffered the rightful reproach of the people they injured. Ironically—or rather, it’s not an irony, but a sign of the end times—the offenses they committed were crimes in the faceless, dystopic world of the internet. They sought to sin without the consequence of being known and humiliated for those sins. But shame is stronger than anything, and they could not outrun its reach. What now? Where will they go? What will they do?
Even so, no matter how bad it is for any of us, it simply isn’t true that there is no place for shame in a society, whether dystopic or Christian or any other kind. Though I don’t wish or pray for the experience for anyone, searching through the rubble for something good, I find I am grateful that my children have been able to see wicked people—who were also good to them—fall. My own children—all of them–will sin in their lives. They need to see how injurious it is to do the wrong thing. How it ruins people’s lives. How selfish it is.
No, it isn’t the experience of shame that is the problem. Rather, it is that even some Christians are prepared to leave it there. They listen to Brene Brown and others talk about how important it is to indulge in self-acceptance. They do not tease out the lie inside that insidious cultural stupidity. They do not realize that the hideous cancer underneath self-acceptance is shame, and that it has to go somewhere. If it doesn’t go to the cross—that peculiar instrument of shame—where will it go?