What we do with shame

Audre Lorde said, "For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change."

Shame is a tool of oppression, not a tool of justice.


When we shame a perpetrator of a crime we play into a dichotomy where there are good guys, and there are bad guys. The bad guys are the perpetrators of crime, and they are nothing like the good people who vilify them. When we vilify them, we heighten this difference between them and us. When we shame them, we make them smaller, and we think that pouring vilification all over them in some way brings about justice. But it doesn't. What is does is makes it harder for the victims of their crimes. It makes it harder for perpetrators of harm against others to be honest about their mistakes when we turn them into monsters. When we make them so different from ourselves - bad people, who do monstrous things to others - we don't need to look too closely at them. They are people who do not prompt us to examine ourselves and wonder if we could ever do such a thing. When we push them away from us and into shame, we make it almost impossible for them to honestly, authentically own what they have done, and we make it easy for "good" people to avoid any uncomfortable identification with their mistakes.


Shame is used by our culture to communicate to those who experience sexual crimes that they are small and to keep them oppressed. Using this same tool against perpetrators of sexual violence or abuse does not bring about justice for victims, but instead creates a culture more comfortable with violence. When we view people as good or bad - a binary that is not real, and is not reflective of the multifaceted humanity that I am used to - we force people to choose where they stand. If someone's father is accused of abusing a child, and their father can only be good or bad, then this person has few choices. Either they love a bad father, or their good father did no wrong.


Hannah Gadsby eloquently describes the problem with the binary thinking which only allows room for two types of people, the good person, and the bad person.



We all view ourselves as good. Even bad people view themselves as good. We are good, and when other people make mistakes, they are bad. Our ability to see the bad parts of ourselves, and how wedded we are to our goodness, depends on the stability of our self worth. When we only have these two possibilities, we work hard to keep our view of our goodness intact. We allow the standard of good and bad to become fluid, in order to justify the choices we make, as they threaten a deep need to see ourselves as valuable, respectable and honourable. If good and bad are fluid, then regardless of what we ourselves do, we can keep changing good and bad so that we can continue to be good, and can continue to face ourselves in the mirror. Even if our actions increasingly over time are less and less in line with our values.


The justice system is punitive. It does not work to restore relationship, foster apologies, or hold people to account and expect them to be better. People who are simply punished - as social shaming and vilification does - are unavailable physically or psychologically to do the relationship work which I am most interested in. Frankly, unless there is a serious concern about safety for myself or society, then I am not very interested in a retributive system of justice. I am interested in a restorative system. It restores me to have the person who hurt me acknowledge that what they have done is damaging, to come to understand the extent of the harm they have caused, and to seek to repair it with me. That is not something that many people will tolerate or desire of course, but vilifying perpetrators is just a social version of slamming the prison door shut in their face and throwing away the key. It actually makes it harder for me, and it does nothing to correct the injustice done against me. It does not serve the victim, it does not serve the perpetrator. It serves society because we can continue to thinking didactically, and dualistically, dividing people into good and evil, clever and dumb, and continue a lazy non-critical thinking division of people into in and out. It does not allow room for people being both good and bad and all shades of goodness and badness intermingled, mixed and twisted together in between. It does not allow room for me the victim to also be the perpetrator and the bystander all in one go, or the perpetrator to also be the victim. There is no space for a compassionate telling of complex stories that got us all to this point in the first place. It does not allow for compassion and healing and forgiveness.


If we ever want to move forward with justice we need to abandon the simplistic thinking about the harm we cause others. We need to stop casting ourselves and others into the roles of goodie and baddie, like a group of large preschoolers reading super-hero comics. The human heart is way more complicated than that. We need forgiveness, we need reconciliation, we need compassion and we need repair. Shaming and retribution offers us nothing and damages us all.

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