Many people I know say their persistent shame makes them prone to crying far more often than they think is healthy, while in the last year and a half, I’ve truly wept only once. Further, it was because of an experience designed, with the help of a sexual sadist and my own enthusiastic consent, to make me cry. It took them a good half hour or so, but we got there, and hugged afterwards, wished each other well.
Shame also produces powerful sensations of being examined and judged. This makes sense, since you’re examining yourself and judging what you found there, but when it persists, it develops into a kind of paranoid belief that everyone else is too. It’s one reason crying is difficult for me to do, as though part of me is desperate for explicit permission to cry, and I can’t trust that permission unless it’s accompanied by vicious beatings. I’m glad to tie off this extended bit of “too much information” with the good news that there are rare, but growing exceptions to this general rule, and I’m confident that my processing is getting better. Mostly I can enjoy the torture on a purely sexual level now. Ahem.
For ethnic, religious, gender and sexual minorities, however, that scrutiny is far too often, far too painfully real. It is lived and part of what we must develop a relationship to, part of what defines our communities and how we want to relate to “our own kind”, where our kind isn’t just who shares our interests and values, but includes alllllllllllllll these other people we’ve never met, and are somehow able to represent who we are, and we stand in place for all of them as well.
There are many ideologies out there, which would take what I’ve shared here and the blurb about me at the bottom of my posts, then overreach to some extreme conclusions about BDSM, transsexual women, social justice activists, atheists, sex workers, or hell, even former teachers or fantasy novelists. I can’t stop that, and I can’t take responsibility for it. That right there is one of the hardest things for me to say since it’s so hard for me not to take responsibility for everyone and everything, all the while doing nothing or doing only what is most harmful.
That’s part of my conditioning, and maybe you relate. Maybe you remember the benign little compromises, like, “Let’s not tell grandma, it would break her heart, she’ll pass soon anyway,” or “I know, but it’s Christmas.”
Some find threats more memorable, like, “Not while you’re under this roof,” or “You’re never to see or talk to that person ever again,” or all the hundreds of times you heard “or else” that demand conformity, exile, or being made an example of.
Does, “If you loved me…” ring a bell for anyone?
I say ideologies will take what I say out of context instead of people, because I want to be very specific. Yes, people are responsible, but ideology is an essential factor that enables people to see someone else in pain, a pain they know from their own experiences too, and instead of empathize with them, to put the screws on even harder. It does not have to be an explicit, formal ideology, any more than misogyny has to be externalized or vocal to do harm. It is this which makes them selectively ignore vital, human to human signals, and become a kind of prison floodlight, throwing judgment in any direction except directly below itself, where it might notice that it is just a bolted down tool of far larger forces.
Michel Foucault demonstrated well how Jeremy Bentham’s plan for the panopticon prison is alive and exists within us who have long lived under surveillance. I wonder what they would’ve thought about the Internet, and bloggers specifically.
So how does one cope with feelings of constant examination, judgment, and disgust, especially when there actually are large and active segments of society, even institutions, which implicitly and explicitly monitor and punish “deviants”? We’ve already touched on how paralysis is a common result, but it’s not the only one and doesn’t explain the mechanisms leading to any one result. Coping strategies for shame vary in effectiveness according to individual makeup, but do conform to identifiable patterns. Any one person or group may employ a mix of strategies. Escaping into fantasy, exorcising shame with anger, cultivating indifference, striving for excellence are just some examples.
And they all have their place. It is in their extreme forms that these coping strategies become maladaptive, and they are more likely to be extreme when the shame that necessitates them is itself extreme, prolonged, or vague and misunderstood. The search for excellence can lead to living by impossible standards, designed to reinforce your sense of yourself as a failure. Intergenerational abuse is often a story of a child, frustrated at their own inability to stop what’s being done now, growing up and repeating that abuse later.
What is it that makes some wounded people become ineffectual navel gazers or abusers, and other people brilliant innovators or fierce advocates for the oppressed?
Unfortunately, the question itself is as tainted with us versus them nonsense as any fundamentalist screed. There is no such thing as a person without anything to contribute, and there is no such thing as a person who gets it right all the time. I’m reminded of one of Christopher Hitchens’ final public appearances, down here in Texas in fact, where a man stood up to give his emotional thanks to someone he saw as a great hero. The list of Hitchens’ ideas that I found objectionable, ignorant, or genuinely virulent is not insignificant. He also had a powerfully positive influence on my thinking, even in social justice, through works like “The Trial of Henry Kissinger”. And, very close to death, Hitchens accepted this man’s compliment with grace even as he firmly asserted that he not only was no hero, but that we do not need such myths to begin with.
What we do need is a great deal more hands willing to work, especially as strong and vibrant voices for a genuine secular humanist society that takes responsibility for injustice have to take breaks from the hostility they are getting from within skepticism. Our founder declares her intention to double down, and we can all make that burden lighter.
Processing shame, collective shame, is an enormous part of that work, and for a very simple reason that a lot of us are having a very difficult time communicating.
It is not shame itself, even toxic shame, which encourages or discourages ethical conduct. How one processes that shame, over the long term, has a greater impact on someone’s character. Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron, therapists with decades of experience focused on shame, poetically encourage us to develop “humility without humiliation”.
So when I see a great divide springing up among skeptics, and provocative language used to shame various partisans, I see a lot of people who seem to believe we can humiliate each other into enlightenment or submission.
It is as if they subscribe to one of two opposed, but equally dangerous assumptions about who they are talking to. Either they think their opponents are genuinely deluded to the point where the only value in ongoing “dialogue” is to find more things to mock and scorn about them within their own tribe, or they do believe those minds are open to change … if they can just heap enough abuse.
The first is not substantially different at all from the “it’s just the internet, get a thicker skin” argument people seem to think is common sense, but chiseled into sacrosanct tablets, ready to smack anyone with if they dare suggest we should make respect in online discussions the norm.
The second is like a fundamentalist who loves the sinner by excoriating their flesh to get out the hateful sin. No, it does not actually hurt you more than it hurts them, and no, it is not for their own good.
The rich, but ultimately simple idea, which, if more broadly understood, could radically reduce internal strife and maximize our collective power is the intersectionality of oppressions. Libraries are full of literature on the topic, but we don’t have to delve into that to get some immediate benefit from simple examples of the concept.
This particular story, about a high school English teacher, blew up the atheist blogosphere recently, and with good reason. Without mentioning any of the other identities or experiences among us, simply as freethinking people who support the unfettered exchange of knowledge, who among us would not call what happened to this man an injustice? Forcibly transferred away from the students he encouraged to speak and to learn, because one dared to calmly explain what atheism is and is not, and one wrote a profile of a gay student?
If we don’t agree that removing him from that classroom was an injustice, both to him and his students, then I cannot believe you’ve read this far into a two part essay on this website.
However, the story has a happy ending. By good fortune, he enjoys his new position, and trusts in the support of his new school’s administration. When we look closer, ask questions that the article doesn’t directly address, we get reminders of other systemic inequalities. In the summer after his transfer, he was, “looking at other options”. With the support of the Student Press Law Center, a Freedom of Information Act request was filed that revealed the community pressure on administrators to eliminate him. Had he attended that year’s graduation ceremony, a privilege he still had, he would have been accompanied by a security detail.
Do we think this is commonplace? Melissa Harris-Perry also got a lot of attention recently for asking what is riskier than being poor in America and describes neighborhoods we know are full of people without the benefit of security details or advocacy groups, who live 24/7 the reality of being thought “less than” those with paler skin or bigger bank accounts.
Does this mean we should begrudge the white male teacher’s good fortune? Let me be blunt: That man doesn’t have a damn thing to be guilty about, and if he were feeling guilty about it, that’s where his time would be going, instead of busting his ass every day to hopefully make our next generation less ignorant and less blindly obedient.
Acknowledging how much easier it is for a person of color to be quietly fired, or not hired in the first place, is not an attack on whiteness. Acknowledging that the atheist or gay students who remain subjected to that school’s administration, to it’s hateful “community”, are not as fortunate as their teacher is not an attack on him. He knew that, and he took up the responsibility James Baldwin calls us to as members of a society that has injustice within it, to use what he had, including his privilege, to amplify the voices of those who are otherwise silenced.
In the Reconstruction Era of the American South, with slavery formally abolished, the old ways of maintaining power for the powerful had to be tinkered with. Instead of talking about blacks paternalistically, when it benefitted slave owners to promote a narrative of their almost lovable childishness, in need of a more intellectually fit white master, black men were recast as insatiable monsters who would rape any white woman they could find. Frederick Douglass remarked on this directly, many times, with astonishment at how the rhetoric of racism had changed, jarring his conviction that years of gradually increased assimilation and exposure of whites to accomplished blacks who could own businesses and participate as citizens would mean the end of racism.
But there were also the introduction of actual laws whose sole purpose was to discourage any potential cooperation or commiseration between poor whites and the newly free. Poll taxes and literacy tests disenfranchised both black and poor white voters, disproportionately targeting blacks over all, while laws governing land ownership, use, wages and other matters tended to give needy whites just that little bit more, enough for many to believe, falsely, that black demands for equality would mean losing their already meager share. It is in this climate that groups like the KKK emerge, and not surprisingly, end up lending violent support to breaking union strikes and other progressive causes later on.
It is a politics of resentment that divides those with common cause against oppression, and should be familiar to anyone who tries to discuss social justice. The one thing that would make it easier to avoid all of that hostility is fostering a mature sense of social responsibility by learning to healthily respond to shame.
Here’s why. Think of someone just now learning about the history of slavery. Think about a white person learning that history, a white child or adolescent. They can see people who look like them committing atrocities, over centuries, to another group of people who look… somewhat less like them, but undeniably people, surely. Hopefully. Yes, there are so many factors that go into shaping how this experience plays out for them, but really think about how shocking that is to someone seeing it for the first time. Shocking and shameful.
Think about how the first time they probably ever heard the N word, it is more likely to have been from someone they played a game online with. Think about where their black peers in school first heard that word, and it wasn’t a game. Think about them looking at one another for the first time across that gulf of history. Shocking and shameful.
Is it any wonder that someone might feel that shame trying to reach for them specifically? As painful as shame is, is it any wonder that those without a mature ethical framework develop ways to cope with that shock that aren’t healthy?
Think about every time someone’s said “Well I didn’t own slaves, and you weren’t one”. Think about how the very facts of slavery are fought over by textbook developers across the country, giving us disgusting euphemisms like Atlantic Triangular Trade. Think about how Fredrick Douglass’ vision of affluent blacks making themselves known as human beings to whites has been replaced with a national hand wringing over the “failures” of a “black culture” that is “all about the money” and crime and laziness and on and on and on.
Think about “White Guilt”, a sneer aimed at anti-racist allies. Think also about “White Knight” thrown at men who assert feminist principles of dignity and equality.
Consider now that the great shame of our time is simply that we have never yet risen, collectively, to the task of healing the great shames of our past.
Just as anti-racism is not anti-white, just as feminism is not the hatred of men, so too is an effort to get atheists more involved and informed about social justice not intended to make any atheist or skeptic compromise their freedom of conscience. Rather, I see it as the only way skepticism’s specific potential contribution to a truly just world can remain relevant. Only if we make common cause.
We must humanize one another, but we can only do this through a mature ethical frame. Yes, that means we put the slurs down, and work to truly understand that defending the freedom of all people to speak their conscience requires we use that freedom judiciously. Yes, that means that in acknowledging the fact of an unjust world, we sometimes have to point out actual injustices, and sometimes they are the unearned privileges of people we revere and admire. It means no more heroes to follow, and the hard, thankless work of figuring out who we are on our own.
It does not mean stalking social media for quotes to pillage out of context. It is not deriving misguided pride from when we harass those who helped bring us in to the movement right back out. There is no medal for last victim standing, and there isn’t any integrity in being an ass to everyone “equally”. We do not defeat shame by being shameless.
If you stopped reading here, I’d understand. More than understand, I’d be grateful you made it this far. I’ve said all I wished about how I believe we misunderstand shame in this community and harm ourselves as a result. I finish with a story I tell for my own sake, as part of my own process.
I had the great luck to meet someone last year, another atheist, that I shared other important things in common with. I don’t know about you, but sharing atheism by itself has never been something that inspired me to forge a connection with a person over, just like there are trans women out there I would not want to even share a city with.
What this person did not have in common with me was so fascinating that they seemed like the perfect person to get to know. It was like winning the trifecta to know the interest was mutual.
Had I made different choices, I might still be able to call this person a friend. The choices I did make, the ones I am responsible for today, gave them every reason to believe that friendship would be a mistake. In short, I was too intimate too quickly, and too intoxicated too often. I’m not vague about this to protect my non-existent good name, rather to protect them.
Consider how much has been written on our home site, by our founder, across the sister sites and numerous unaffiliated blogs, from the perspective of people who got creepy vibes from people and had to set boundaries. All the ugliness and hatred they’ve gotten for just trying to say, “this is what respect looks like, and that is what it does not look like”.
Well I have been that person on the other end, who made other people uncomfortable. I’ve been that creep. It’s cost me precious happiness to be that creep.
And I’m here because it’s not too late to listen and learn, even contribute. It’s not fair to track that almost friend down, force them to listen to a self serving apology and take responsibility for my shame. I had the choice to continue wishing for forgiveness, or to give it to myself and do the best work I could in service of the issues we both cared about.
A bigger, wiser, and more compassionate skepticism is the place for me to do that, and it can be yours too.
((Featured image is a still from the short film, Demon Me, 1971, by Richard Newton))