Neuroscience & Psychology

Shame: The Politics and Power of an Emotion

The uses of shame (and shamelessness) in spheres that range from social media and consumerism to polarized politics and mass violence


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Oct 3, 2023
3 b/w illus.
Neuroscience & Psychology
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Today, we are caught in a shame spiral—a vortex of mutual shaming that pervades everything from politics to social media. We are shamed for our looks, our culture, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our poverty, our wrongdoings, our politics. But what is the point of all this shaming and countershaming? Does it work? And if so, for whom?

In Shame, David Keen explores the function of modern shaming, paying particular attention to how shame is instrumentalized and weaponized. Keen points out that there is usually someone who offers an escape from shame—and that many of those who make this offer have been piling on shame in the first place. Self-interested manipulations of shame, Keen argues, are central to understanding phenomena as wide-ranging as consumerism, violent crime, populist politics, and even war and genocide. Shame is political as well as personal. To break out of our current cycle of shame and shaming, and to understand the harm that shame can do, we must recognize the ways that shame is being made to serve political and economic purposes.

Keen also traces the rise of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who possess a dangerous shamelessness, and he asks how shame and shamelessness can both be damaging. Answering this question means understanding the different types of shame. And it means understanding how shame and shamelessness interact—not least when shame is instrumentalized by those who are selling shamelessness. Keen points to a perverse and inequitable distribution of shame, with the victims of poverty and violence frequently being shamed, while those who benefit tend to exhibit shamelessness and even pride.