Shame: still a feminist concern

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.

12 thoughts on “Shame: still a feminist concern

  1. This topic deserves more attention than it gets, and I look forward to comments on this post. Thanks for drawing attention to it. Please be assured, you have my permission to insert the word “to” which is missing from the first sentence! (I noticed that only upon reading your quotation of my comment.)

  2. Doh! Sorry, Shelley, I didn’t catch that either. Agreed that the topic deserves more attention. I wonder why it doesn’t, but then I’m put in mind of arguments (including Susan Brison’s in _Aftermath_) that there are topics we wish to look away from.

  3. Thanks for posting this. It seems like a topic that’s difficult to talk about, but also one we should be talking about.

    I don’t have any insightful philosophy to contribute, but I’ll share this anecdote. I’m disabled, and I do some work on disability. But my disability is such that on some days (have finally stopped calling them “good days”) it isn’t obvious on casual interaction. I was giving a paper on disability on one of these days, at a department where I didn’t know anyone personally. So I decided to make a concerted effort to cover up any signs of disability — to “pass” — in order to see whether people would make comments/ask questions/etc of a speaker they thought was non-disabled which they might be reluctant to voice to a speaker they knew to be disabled. During the question and answer period, I was holding a glass of water. I had a slight spasm (passing is never foolproof), and spilled the water all over myself. The chair quipped “Hey, maybe you’re disabled!” Everyone laughed. And while they were laughing, I was overwhelmed with a deep, profound sense of *shame*.

    For reasons I can’t really explain, it remains one of the most acutely painful experiences of my career. Before that talk, I would’ve said I didn’t have much (or any) shame associated with my disability. I would’ve been wrong.

  4. magicalersatz, that’s a horrible experience and I’m so sorry you had to endure it.

    I am disabled. One of the reasons I didn’t go to graduate school in philosophy was that negotiating access to classes and exams through my undergraduate years had so worn me out that I didn’t want to have to do it anymore. It is exhausting and humiliating to have to request accommodations anew every semester, and while the disability services office was extremely helpful, I always got the impression from my department that accommodating me was a bother. What cemented my conviction that universities are not for me was tallying the number of open-to-the-public events at my school that were held in inaccessible rooms. (Of course I was welcome to attend them and it’s not anyone’s fault that they forgot about accessibility; it never is.)

    When I think about quitting—I had applied for graduate schools, gotten in to most of the places I applied, and declined all the offers—I still feel weak and stupid about not being able to navigate around barriers and up flights of stairs like a normal person, and ashamed about “letting it get to me”.

  5. Interesting, B! My partner left academia after the master’s, unable to negotiate needs that he was ashamed to have to ask accommodation for. He has since said more than once that all things considered, he feels he made the right choice, but it was a difficult and depressing process for him to give up his dream of a career in higher ed. Unfortunately, he says that, in his opinion, his idealized picture of a career in higher ed does not match the realities he observes of a field resistant to change and slow to appreciate new models of interaction and accommodation. I’m sure not everyone would agree with him, but I sadly acknowledge that he’s got good reasons for his view of my profession.

  6. Wow — thanks for sharing your story, B. I’m always astonished at the extent to which I have to fight for access and accommodation for my disabled students. I like to think of universities are progressive, accommodating places, but battles over access pop that bubble pretty quickly.

    I remember in particular a student with cerebral palsy. We’d asked that this student’s classes not be in held in rooms where he’d have to climb stairs to get to his seat (e.g., a tiered lecture theater). But his classes kept getting scheduled for rooms with stairs. When I complained about this, the reply I was given was that they thought it should be fine, because he was physically capable of climbing stairs.

    Yes. He could climb a flight of stairs. In about 5 times the amount of time as the rest of the students, with lots of tripping, grasping, and flailing around for balance on the way up. He’d have to show up early to class to start the stairs, and he’d still be on them when class started. Everyone else would be in their seats, looking at him. And so he was embarrassed to be in a classroom with stairs — it made him feel ashamed and unwelcome. When I tried to explain this, the (very heartfelt, well-meaning) reply was “Oh, but he shouldn’t feel that way!”

  7. Lack of accessibility and lack of supports both within and outside of the university also mean some of the biases of the profession that advantage some, especially disadvantage disabled philosophers and should be recognized as mechanisms that force disabled philosophers from the field. I’ll mention just two biases of the profession that work against disabled philosophers:

    (1) the bias that a PhD should be completed in 4 years (or less), and (2) the bias in Canadian philosophy departments, particularly in the western provinces (I don’t need to name them; one can simply look at their faculty rosters), against PhDs from other Canadian departments.

    (1) is a bias that operates to the disadvantage of disabled people especially because they (as comments above suggest) often require a longer time to complete their course work, in particular, due to the impossible obstacles put in their way when they try to gain access to an education on a par with their non-disabled classmates;

    (2) is a bias that operates to the disadvantage of disabled people in philosophy especially because many disabled Canadian graduates from Canadian departments stay in Canada, where they will be close to their families and friends, because they rely upon the support and assistance these people provide. I know that in my case it would have been inconceivable for me to move out of the province in which I lived, and in which my family lived, in order to do a PhD, let alone to move out of the country.

  8. Oh Shelley, most definitely. Both of these are present a horrible bind. Don’t get me started on the self-hatred displayed in Canadian academic philosophy!

  9. How does my comment @8 tie in with the post’s topic of shame? I probably don’t need to spell it out, but here it is: The aforementioned (and other) ableist biases that condition hiring in philosophy departments in Canada, disguised by the ideology of “merit,” virtually guarantee that disabled Canadian philosophy PhDs, despite their efforts and accomplishments, will fail. This is, of course, no one’s fault but their own, and thus is an “appropriate” reason for them to feel inadequate.

  10. Thank you for addressing this topic. I, like magicalersatz, am disabled but look ‘normal.’ I had a rare and severe lung disease for many years that was finally ‘cured’ by a lung transplant. Recently, I had my first bout of rejection that left parts of my lungs scarred; now I have trouble breathing just walking around my house, doing things like preparing tea! The years that I had the lung disease, I learned to hide my needs from others as to not be a burden on them, and out of embarrassment as now I was ‘slow’ and couldn’t keep up as I used to. A real hit on the identity and self-esteem, especially as I have always enjoyed being very active, independent and on-the-go.
    Now I feel some of the same shame as when I had my ‘old lungs.’ This has caused some problems for my relationship with my very wonderful and accepting partner. I have tried to deny my needs, not show him if I am not doing well. I even deny it to myself. I currently receive disability and deep down I feel so ashamed of this, like I am cheating or something. That people judge me for it, when the truth is one day (or even hour!) to the next I do not know if I will feel so tired and rotten I cannot even get up off the couch.
    Anyhow, I am currently trying to wade through these feelings and to come out accepting myself as I am, and understanding that the people who love me don’t see that I am weak or a burden.
    Thanks again for the article.

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