One of my very first encounters with feminist philosophy was with Sandra Bartky’s writing on shame. I was put in mind of that when Shelley Tremain recently sent in the following comment, and thought it was food for thought for a new discussion topic:
I want to add something to the discussion about shame and disabled people. I think it is very important not to underestimate the impact of shame on disabled people’s lives. Shame is one of the deepest sources of oppression with which many disabled people must contend. Many disabled people receive government assistance as their only source of income, and for this they are made to feel ashamed. Disabled people as a group, on the whole, are regarded as asexual, and because of this many, if not most, disabled people have low self-esteem and self-worth and feel a sense of shame. Disabled people’s bodies are vilified, regarded with disgust, and represented in the media, literature, popular culture, etc. as ugly, and for these (and a host of other) reasons disabled people, understandably, feel shame. Denying that disabled people are made to feel ashamed of themselves is a denial of many of the most fundamental ways we are oppressed.
It has been decades since I first read Bartky’s work on shame. There is much to be said about shame, but I struggle with the search for antidotes. Those who make us feel shame are also most likely to chide us for suffering from it. Part of Shelley’s point is that at the least, misrecognition of shame is to be avoided. And some of the sources she identifies in her comment are the product of the wrong ideals; for example, receiving government assistance is a source of shame in a culture in which people with lucky and uneventful lives hold up extreme individualism and self-sufficiency as an ideal for everyone, while fancying they live up to this ideal.
Tremain’s and Bartky’s combined insights clarify my own resistance to the simplistic characterization I have heard before, that your ‘guilt’ is the view others hold of your wrongdoings, whereas ‘shame’ is your view of yourself. This neat map carries the implication that if shame is internal to you, then you are in control of its removal. But our shame, its creation and its denial by others can also be products of oppressive practices, including the doubly-binding demand that we get over it. I smile ruefully at the memory of Barbara Ehrenreich’s argument in her book, Bright-Sided, that one is expected to be cheerful in the presence of breast-cancer, running for change and drinking Shiraz labled “Hope” with an image of a pink ribbon. I phoned my mother yesteday, and we joked that her shame after having a breast removed was so 1980s of her, wasn’t it? She recalled how her posture changed when she first went out after recovering from mastectomy. “I tried to walk with my shoulders forward so the difference in my bra cups wouldn’t be so noticeable.”
She marveled that she’d never told anyone that before. Shame, it turns out, is better recognized.