The Enemy Within: Part 1


I’d like to talk about shame. More honestly, I have to. There’s nothing about shame I enjoy discussing, and when the topic comes up in our home, between my partner and myself, it almost always provokes tears, choking up, and casts a pall over whatever happiness we were sharing. This is why I have to talk about it.

Why I have to talk about it here specifically is a different matter. That I don’t maintain a journal or a personal blog, and have resisted most forms of social networking, is a matter of informed choice, not a mistake I regret so deeply that I want to abuse the privilege of writing for Queereka about me me me. All of my reasons for taking on this topic here should be clear by the end, but for now I want to argue first that the structure of shame — private, collective, internalized and/or weaponized — gives special insight into the problems impacting the lives of gender and sexual minorities, social justice communities, skeptic and atheist communities, basically any one who sees the heading “Queereka” on something and knows that, right or wrong, we talk about things relevant to their lives.

On that note, I have a queer sense of relief that comes from a potentially false assumption about this essay: that relatively few people will ever see it. “What a sick sentiment for a writer to hold,” some might think, and, with a Pavlovian laugh of self-deprecation, I would agree. Even though part of my responsibilities is working to grow readership, I can’t simply disown that sensation of relief. It shows disrespect to my peers, it indicates a kind of antipathy to my own livelihood, I could go on, but I think any one who is actually reading agrees with me by now, that THIS IS NOT A RATIONAL POSITION.

The fact that a large part of me still feels that perverse relief lets me make my first point about toxic shame. When shame is deeply integrated into someone’s identity, invisibility is preferable to integration. In individuals, these feelings often prompt withdrawal, suicidal ideation or action, or other self destructive or anti-social behaviors (not merely introverted behaviors, which are healthy, but pathologically anti-social ones which pose threats to oneself and others).

Beyond our personal identities, many of us belong to larger groups, which in turn have larger identities. When a large group identity is exposed to shame, it too can grow more insular, self-destructive. Groups can also, just as easily as individuals, develop extreme anti-social behaviors, institutionalize harassment or worse, or tear itself apart in an eschatological frenzy.

If that’s all a bit too flowery and vague, something I know I’ve been guilty of before, then my next question should make it more concrete. Think about what the online skeptic and social justice communities have been like recently, especially regarding things like Atheism+, and ask this: Does anyone writing about these matters have reason to fear hundreds of readers and comments on their work?

Stop here. Don’t answer the question yourself right away and then judge the validity of whatever answers emerge. If you can simply say “yes”, agree that someone might be a little ambivalent about all of that attention, then I have another question to consider.

If everything I’ve written, up to this point, were not under the Queereka banner, would you have anything, any context clues or between the lines hints to help you glean what my opinion of Atheism+ is, or various other controversies in skepticism or social justice? Maybe that question’s unfair since you can’t just stop knowing what you know already. Hopefully that means you can allow for the possibility that, no, in just what I’ve written so far, there’s nothing here that stakes a position on those controversies.

But even if I’m deemed fiercely partisan, then the points I make here about shame in individuals and communities could easily be appropriated by any side in any controversy, and used to fortify their position while undermining their opponent’s.

Here’s a piece of indirect evidence for why my claim isn’t extraordinary, and I should hope it is understood that linking to this is neither endorsement nor condemnation of its writer’s opinions. Parts of this particular piece have been quoted on numerous other blogs, on either side of the current divide. When all the inside baseball is taken out, any comments about Freethought Blogs or Atheism+, what remains are a few simple, expository paragraphs on the subject of bullying. Most of what I intend to say here about shame is basically the same thing.

People quoting or responding to this piece have lifted identical sections of it to make two identical arguments with opposed agendas. Both sides claim that these bullying tactics show that the other side is guilty of it, and when they claim to be victims of bullying, they are in fact hypocrites. There’s a sample of anti-Atheist+ perspectives responding directly to the piece already linked which shows how one side does it, and this other link from Freethought Blogs is a good example of how the pro-Atheist+ side does the same.

Let me summarize my points so far. Extreme and persistent shame, beyond the healthy internal alert we get when we become aware of having done something we believe is wrong, can have devastating consequences to the health of an individual or a community. My own experience with shame provokes two irrational thoughts to enter my mind: One, almost no one would ever bother reading this anyway, and two, that’s actually probably a good thing anyway.  Then I compare my own work with the piece on bullying, how both make value neutral claims of fact, and how the facts can be easily accepted as true, but evidence of two mutually exclusive positions.

Now I want to combine these points to advance my larger exploration of shame and its impact on individuals and communities, with special respect to the very real people in our very impassioned, and divided communities. When people, with the same understanding of the same information, can derive completely opposed conclusions, then at least one of those chains of reasoning has a serious flaw. It should be even more obvious when the conclusions, compared to the facts, are grossly simplistic. “They are bad guys, we are good guys” isn’t exactly a brilliant thesis, and the complexity of emerging social science regarding aggression and group identity isn’t something we can pithily reduce to pat diagnoses of opponents in online pissing matches.

Maybe that sounds like I’m building a case for an argument as old as our movement itself, “What matters is that I found a way to feel superior to everyone”, but I’m not. I know what posting here means, and I associate proudly with these people and our values, and refuse to be associated with those who do not at least acknowledge why those values matter, or who act maliciously against us.

When I talked earlier about having a queer sense of relief, maybe almost no one will see this anyway, and I raised the specter of recent controversies, it would make a lot of sense that people would think I was talking about fear of reprisal, especially if I was going to have a good “pox on both your houses” wank fest. It’s just the opposite though; one reason I felt that strange relief was because a poisoned part of me believes I’ve nothing worthwhile to contribute, and I’ll only make us all look terrible if this is broadly read.

I called these feelings irrational before, because they are demonstrably not in my self-interest or my group’s interest. That doesn’t mean they aren’t rooted partially in reality. It’s a fact that I don’t have as many readers as others in our community; It’s the internalized shame which tries to tell me this is purely a consequence of my inferiority. For a more complete picture of reality, we have to take into account that I’ve faced life threatening crises since joining this team, including third degree burns on my arm that made writing extremely painful until just days ago. If I’m lucky enough to see any of ya’ll at the Women in Freethought conference this weekend in Dallas, the scars will be pretty good evidence of that. There are many factors, including writing style, topics, site format, external pressures and controversies, social networking, so on that contribute to a fuller explanation of comparably few readers.

But shame induces a kind of tunnel vision, making only one explanation truly compelling when you’re caught deep in it. That explanation is always some variation on “It’s Your Fault”. While it is good and healthy to take responsibility for errors, toxic shame doesn’t merely point out where you’ve made mistakes, it makes you believe that you ARE a mistake. This has a paralyzing effect, which is at its strongest when you seek to eliminate the thoughts or behaviors, which you deem shameful. Many smokers trying to quit know what I’m talking about, or people who start new exercise programs, but it goes further, extending even into therapeutic, nurturing environments where we try to carefully build new habits of thinking about ourselves as people worthy of compassion.

A few years into my own therapy, my therapist tried to confront the problems I have with asking for help and accepting gifts by simply giving me a knick knack from her shelf (specifically a geode), and I was overcome with shaking, sweating, dizziness, trying both to find comfort in teeth gritting rage and to contain the thing inside me that wanted to either hurl the rock across the room or dash my own brains out on it.

The personal paralysis of shame, when experienced as a result of one’s membership in a group, a collective shame, blunts the power of solidarity. James Baldwin, talking about racial injustice and white people conscious of it, said,

“I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason… Anyone who is trying to be conscious must begin to dismiss the vocabulary which we’ve used so long to cover it up, to lie about the way things are.”

If we’re talking about how none of us are perfect, maybe it’s worth remembering that this quote is attributed to an interview he gave in Playboy.

Ultimately, it may be true that I am an inferior contributor, but I can’t afford to think that way, will not improve if I characterize myself that way, and more importantly, none of the causes I care about can afford for me to be so self indulgent.

I’ll continue this topic tomorrow with special attention to controversy and division within movements.

((Featured image is a still from the short film, Demon Me, 1971, by Richard Newton))

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