Shaming in a Shameless World: The Broken Dialectic of the Self

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2022 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221089982
Long considered outdated, shame culture has recently
made a powerful and unexpected comeback. For almost a
century, it was deemed a characteristic of traditional and
inherently oppressive societies, replaced in modern ones
by a guilt culture.1 Shame, went the argument, impairs the
whole self, generating a feeling of worthlessness. “I feel
ashamed for being this or that.” Thus, shaming would be
employed by majorities to abusively control minorities’
behaviors. Guilt, on the other hand, involves just “a self-
critical reaction to certain actions: I feel guilty for having
done this or that” (Stearns 2016, 199 – emphasis added).
According to this orthodoxy, unlike shame, guilt would
be a subjective and punctual feeling, easier to address and
to redress. It does not involve the whole self, but only a
particular action at a particular moment in time.
As a result of this understanding, shame has been criti-
cized as the weapon of an intolerant society, deployed to
ostracize otherness, “the painful embodiment of a social
order premised on the subjection and exclusion” of
minorities (Kwok 2012, 28). “In contemporary demo-
cratic societies shame is often construed as one of the
negative emotions that we need to avoid in our delibera-
tions, institutions, and practices . . . Gays and lesbians,
women, the disabled, and members of different races
have all been shamed and stigmatized” (Tarnopolsky
2010, 1). One could add to this list asylum seekers, wel-
fare recipients, and so on—all victims of public shaming.
As Deonna et al. claim, one contemporary dogma is “that
shame is directly morally bad” and “ugly because it
promotes self-destructive attitudes and leads to anti-
social behavior” (Deonna et al. 2012, 16).
This understanding has materialized in concerted
efforts to “shame the shame.” Until a few years ago,
observations such as “Much modern sensibility feels that
it is a shame that shame exists” (Hollander 2003, 1068),
and “We are ashamed of shame” (Konstan 2006, 110)
were commonplace. The gay parades, later LGBTQ
parades, started to be called Pride Parades in the 1980s,
but they became a widespread and popular phenomenon
only in the 21st century. Coined in 2006, the term #MeToo
became a mass movement in 2017, encouraging the vic-
tims of sexual predators to drop any feelings of shame
and to denounce their powerful abusers. The examples
could go on and on.
It appears therefore that public shaming has lost its
power over the powerless. According to their own assess-
ment and rhetoric, former victims of shaming have not
only become shameless but also proud of it.2 Jill Locke,
for example, praises what she labels “unashamed citizen-
ship” as “the work of courageous and unapologetic
89982PRQXXX10.1177/10659129221089982Political Research QuarterlyFumurescu
1Department of Political Science, University of Houston, Houston,
Corresponding Author:
Alin Fumurescu, Department of Political Science, University of
Houston, 3551 Cullen Boulevard Room 447, Houston, TX 77204,
Shaming in a Shameless World:
The Broken Dialectic of the Self
Alin Fumurescu1
Until recently, shame culture was considered a powerful weapon for maintaining the status quo. Furthermore, it
was also considered anti-democratic. Yet nowadays, in the hands of the weak, it has become a powerful weapon
for challenging the status quo. It appears that the efficiency of shame has increased in an allegedly shameless society.
This article seeks to clarify such conundrums by employing the largely forgotten dialectic of the self to highlight the
difference between “being ashamed” within one’s inner self and “feeling shamed” in one’s outer self, as evinced in the
usages of two different words for “shame” in Hebrew and Greek. By contrasting Socrates with Diogenes the Cynic,
this approach shows not only why not being able to be ashamed within one’s inner self is a sign of a totalitarian self
but also why such a self can become more vulnerable to external acts of shaming.
shame, shamelessness, dialectic of the self, totalitarian self, Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic
2023, Vol. 76(1) 432–443

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