Fall 2008

The Pedagogies of Shame

What’s so negative about negative emotions?

Christina Tarnopolsky

In recent debates about the place of emotions in liberal-democratic theory and practice, many have challenged their characterization as irrational bodily disturbances that disrupt rather than enhance our deliberative capacities. Yet there still seems to be a distrust of certain emotions, and connected to this, an unquestioned acceptance of a distinction between “positive” and “negative” emotions. Even theorists who argue forcefully that emotions can and ought to play a role in democratic deliberations and practices often find a place only for “positive” emotions such as love, trust, and compassion, while carefully excluding “negative” emotions like shame. For instance, political thinkers such as Jon Elster, Martha Nussbaum, and Toni Massaro have all argued that shame is problematic precisely because it 
is so painful to experience and because the primary reaction to it is one of hiding or covering the self.[1]

Distinguishing between negative and positive emotions is not new for theorists of liberalism. In fact, this strategy was first invoked by a number of early modern liberals, such as Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume, concerned with designing political institutions that could overcome the wars that were plaguing their own polities. Their strategy was not, as it had been for many medieval philosophers, to condemn all of the passions as dangerous affects that are best repressed.[2] Rather, they chose to use greed, avarice, or the love of lucre to counter the passions for glory and honor that were allegedly at the heart of political and religious wars.[3] In a second move, the former passions, condemned by the ancients as some of the lowest forms of human motivation and by the medievals as cardinal sins, were reclassified as “interests.”[4] Finally, these theorists accorded “interests” the status of rationality by arguing that they, unlike the “hot-blooded” passions, were calm, calculable, and communicable to others.[5]

According to this line of reasoning, shame was seen as one of the dangerous and warlike passions linked to glory and honor, all of which needed to be kept out of politics. As Stephen Holmes argues, “the principal aim of liberals who wrote favorably of self-interest was to bridle destructive and self-destructive passions … [and] to induce people, so far as possible, to act rationally, instead of hot-bloodedly or deferentially.”[6] Linked with this was a tendency to see people still moved by passions, rather than reason or interests, as “ignorant,” “primitive,” and part of the “lower orders.”[7]

Three centuries later, political theorists are no longer convinced that greed is likely to lead to a decline in aggressive warfare. However, many have adopted a number of elements from this early liberal strategy, including the distinction between “positive” and “negative” emotions, the distrust of “primitive” emotions like shame or honor, and the belief that such emotions must be carefully excluded from the public sphere. The criteria they now use to distinguish between positive and negative emotions are different from the ones chosen by the early liberals, but they still target shame as characteristic of a more primitive stage of human development.

A classic text useful for correcting these simplistic views of shame is Gorgias, a dialogue written by Plato in 380 BCE. In it, Plato uses the figure of Socrates to demonstrate the various ways in which shame can disrupt or enhance deliberations within a democratic polity. Analysis of the dialogue demonstrates why it is that no emotion should simply be classified as “positive” or “negative” for democratic politics, given the complex roles played by emotions in both personal and political life.

Plato and the Politics of Shame
Gorgias stages a conversation between Socrates, a teacher of rhetoric named Gorgias, his student Polus, and a potential Athenian statesman named Callicles. The dialogue is unique in the Platonic corpus because all of Socrates’ refutations involve shame at a crucial step in the argument. Plato actually has two of Socrates’ three interlocutors pointedly complain that shame (aischunê) has been used as the crucial element in Socrates’ refutation (elenchos) of the other interlocutors: Polus asserts that Gorgias was “ashamed not to agree further with [Socrates] that the rhetorical man also knows the just, noble, and good things.”[8] Callicles then reiterates this charge with regard to Gorgias, and adds that Socrates caught Polus “being ashamed to say what he thought” and so agreeing insincerely that doing injustice is more shameful than suffering injustice. Finally, Socrates twice states that shame has been involved in his refutations of Gorgias and Polus, and his lengthy encounter with Callicles involves repeated attempts to make Callicles feel ashamed of the consequences of his indiscriminate hedonism thesis.

The first thing that Gorgias teaches us about shame is that there are many different reactions to it. Under the critical gaze of Socrates, each of his interlocutors is eventually forced into the painful recognition that his definition of the best life is inconsistent with other things that he also believes. Hence, they all experience the painful cognitive-affective recognition of the gaze of an “other” that reveals a certain inadequacy in the self, which is central to the experience of shame. They then react to this experience either by professing confusion (Polus), by trying to hide from this revelation about themselves (Callicles), or by altering their definitions and even their way of life in accordance with the insights gleaned from the conversation with Socrates (Gorgias). In the dialogue itself, Gorgias illustrates a positive reaction to shame by continually re-entering the discussion after he has been shamed by Socrates, either to push the discussion forward and learn something new about rhetoric or to contest the cowardly way in which Callicles is reacting to Socrates’ shaming refutation. 

Most contemporary political theorists who have criticized shame focus only on the reaction of hiding or covering the self in response to the pain that is inherent to shame. Such theorists overemphasize the painfulness of the experience and assume that it is necessarily linked to its perniciousness for the person suffering shame. Overemphasizing the pain of shame can lead to the kind of politics favored both by Polus and Callicles who, in describing to Socrates how one should address the Athenian Assembly, tell him that one should flatter the audience. In tailoring one’s remarks to the audience’s existing prejudices such that it never has to hear anything unpleasant about itself, this strategy seeks to avoid the painful feelings of shame on the part of both the speaker and the audience, who share a common political identity. Flattery aims at the pleasant without the best because it aims at the pleasures of mutual recognition without regard to whether we ought to be complacently pleased with the self-affirming image of the good citizen it offers us. As Socrates puts it, such orators are like pastry chefs who offer children the sweets they want without ever considering whether these are beneficial and whether, like doctors, they might have to administer painful procedures to achieve the health of the patient.

In contrast, the Socratic model of politics involves a kind of shaming as an integral part of deliberation and debate. Here, it is important to note that in Attic Greek the word elenchos, which is used to describe Socrates’ incessant questioning of everyone he meets, means both a disgrace or dishonor and a cross-examination for purposes of disproof or refutation.[9] Socrates shames those he meets in an attempt to get them to think reflexively about their actions by recognizing the gap between their self-images and their specific actions, and his refutations are perplexing and painful because they always sunder the interlocutor’s easy identification with his beloved ideals. But what can be positive about this painful experience is that it can disrupt one’s unthinking identification with a problematic ideal, and it is this potential that underlies Socrates’ shaming encounters with his interlocutors in Gorgias. 

There are then important differences between the “flattering” shame that Polus and Callicles preach, and the “respectful” shame practiced and preached by Socrates. In the case of “flattering” shame, one fixates solely on the pain that is inherent to the recognition of losing one’s ego-ideal under the shaming gaze of the other, and tries to avoid such pain altogether. The speaker’s sense of shame thus attunes him to his listeners, but in such a way that neither he nor they ever need endure the pain of having their identity or ideals criticized by the other. A false consensus forms wherein “debate” becomes a reciprocal exchange of pleasantries.

A 1971 protest by the Gay Activists Alliance outside the New York City Board of Education in protest against the Board’s policy of refusing teaching licenses to persons it suspected of being homosexual. Photo Richard C. Wandel. Courtesy Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center.

“Flattering” shame thus endangers democracy in two ways. First, it aims at the pleasures of mutual recognition, thus foreclosing the possibility that the person we are addressing might show us something different and even unpleasant about ourselves. And it proposes a world of complete certainty and invulnerability inhabited by mythic “normal” citizens, omnipotent and free from all forms of pain, including that inherent to the emotion of shame. Those aspects of the self that do not fit this mythic image are then displaced onto other individuals or groups in the shaming practices of derision and stigmatization.

Socrates’ sense of shame, on the other hand, offers a model of respect that is grounded in preserving our openness to judgment by the “other.” This kind of “respectful” shame is oriented toward dissecting the mythical unity of the image of the “just” or “normal” citizen in an ongoing project of mutual reflection. The morality grounded in this kind of “respectful” shame consists not in assimilating to a standard or norm, but rather in remaining open to the ongoing possibility that who we are cannot be captured by any particular norm or self-image we currently possess. It also requires understanding that the demands of morality might well run counter to the false moralism of the established norms of society and its conceptions of citizenship.[10] These elements of Platonic “respectful” shame provide the basis for a critical examination of a widely held contemporary view of shame such as the one offered by Martha Nussbaum in her book Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and The Law.

Shaming Shame’s Critics

 Nussbaum’s strategy, which harkens back to the early modern liberals in significant ways, is to differentiate the emotions that entail a denial of our vulnerability and humanity from those that serve as valuable reminders of it. According to Nussbaum, these latter emotions can help us enact reasonable laws that respond to the types of harm that befall vulnerable human beings.[11] She lists anger, fear, grief, compassion (and later, guilt) as emotions that are linked to our normative conceptions of what a “reasonable” person should do in response to such circumstances.[12] Alternately, she argues that the emotions of disgust and “primitive” shame are more likely than others to be linked to faulty values about our humanity and to a denial of our vulnerable natures. “Primitive shame” for Nussbaum arises out of the infantile omnipotence experienced in the womb that lingers in all of us to some extent, thus posing an “ongoing danger in the moral and social life.”[13]

At other places in the book, however, she does suggest that when connected to valuable ideals and aspirations “constructive” shame may have a positive role to play in human development and political life.[14] The problem is that not everyone transcends primitive shame and even those who do still carry remnants of it around with them. Thus shame is “likely to be normatively unreliable in public life, despite its potential for good.”[15] Beginning with a distinction between “primitive” and “constructive” shame, Nussbaum ends up reverting to a simple condemnation of shame and warns that we need to be more skeptical about “even the moralizing type of shaming.”[16]

Nussbaum and Plato actually agree on a number of issues. The fact that Nussbaum finds “primitive” shame to be pernicious for liberal democratic institutions, which should produce and sustain a respect for liberty and equality, and for a norm of humanity as “a condition of shared incompleteness”[17] is consistent with Plato’s criticisms of “flattering” shame. Moreover, the “respectful” shame that Plato advocates rejects rigid, static norms or idealized “others” in our political deliberations (especially when these take the form of an omnipotent and wholly autonomous “other”). Similarly, Nussbaum argues that shame can occur against an antinarcissistic background of respect, where both parties acknowledge their mutual responsibility and interdependence.[18]

However, one of their key differences lies in the fact that she argues that certain emotions are more reasonable and more attuned with a realistic notion of humanity than other emotions. Secondly, while Plato believes that “flattering” and “respectful” shame represent two distinct kinds of shame, Nussbaum thinks that “constructive” shame is always likely to revert to a more “primitive” form.

But her first argument, which relies on a rigid distinction between “positive” and “negative” emotions, is in tension with her own theory of the emotions more generally, which states that all emotions “are responses to those areas of vulnerability, responses in which we register the damage we have suffered, might suffer, or luckily have failed to suffer.”[19] Shame and disgust, like grief, fear, anger, guilt and compassion, can all alert us to important problems in our physical, social, and political environment.

Even more problematically, Nussbaum’s argument that shame is one of the emotions that inclines us to conform to the problematic standard of the “normal” seems to be in tension with her view of shame as the painful emotion that responds to our discovery that we are in some ways “abnormal.”[20] Shame then would seem to be a very valuable emotion precisely because it shows us that we have fallen below the standards of the “normal” that our society sets for us and that we have internalized as a personal, though also deeply social, vision of “normality.” Indeed, this is what I argued with respect to the painful moment of recognition within shame. In this moment the person recognizes that they are in some sense inadequate or weak in relation to an ideal they hold dear, and the experience can then serve as a valuable reminder that we are not the omnipotent, autonomous beings that tend to be valorized in our notions of the “normal” citizen. Indeed Nussbaum herself later admits that this type of recognition can underlie the more constructive shame that humans acquire as they become mature adults.[21]

The problem, for Nussbaum, is that even constructive, or what I would call “respectful,” shame never fully overcomes the “primitive” shame that points backwards in time to an ever-present but deceptive longing for the infantile omnipotence of the womb, and inwards in space to a concern with the narcissistic self. Shame makes us want to hide from our humanity, because “its reflex is to hide from the eyes of those who will see one’s deficiency.”[22] Emotions like compassion, guilt, anger, or fear, on the other hand, point outwards to a world of distinct others, and forward to a mature acceptance of our vulnerability and relatedness to others who have their own desires and life projects.[23]

There are a number of problems with this position. First, is it so clear that the emotions of guilt, compassion, and anger are so easily separated from an emotion like shame? Instead, I would argue that shame, guilt, anger, and compassion all need to work together to motivate individuals and polities to change themselves in response to actions that they deem unworthy of their own ideals. They need to feel guilt and compassion over what they have done to others, but also shame and anger at what they might have become by performing these actions. Although Nussbaum follows Kant in arguing that guilt is a salutary emotion connected with reparation and forgiveness, with agency rather than with thoughts about the self, and with treating other people as “separate beings with rights, who ought not to be harmed,”[24] this strict separation of shame and guilt falls apart when we examine the ways in which these emotions motivate us in our lives. 

Moreover, these kinds of interconnections also occur in the case of the other emotions. The person whose sense of shame attunes them to a desire for the infantile omnipotence of the womb is the same person who will feel angry and lash out at those people who show them that they are vulnerable. Such a person will also fear this exposure in any of their social engagements and will feel compassion for those who share their desire for invulnerability. In other words, their fear, guilt, anger, and compassion will be no less “unreasonable” or attuned to the infantile desire for omnipotence and the need to hide from their humanity as would be the case with the person who is experiencing “primitive” shame. 

Secondly, Nussbaum’s view of shame assumes that our reaction to the moment of recognition—the moment when we realize that we are “abnormal” or have fallen below a standard or “other” which we hold dear—is always one of hiding. Here Nussbaum is criticizing not so much the cognitive content of feeling shame, but the ways in which we react to the painful and perplexing recognition of our inadequacy as this is revealed in the occurrent experience of shame. The reaction of hiding is only one of the possible ways in which a person might react. The other ways include either trying to contest the very standard by which one has been ashamed, or trying to transform oneself in accordance with the new insights for action that have come to light in the shaming situation. In fact, it is impossible to understand how anybody could ever move from the “primitive” shame that is supposedly characteristic of childhood to the more mature shame that Nussbaum describes unless one learns how to transform oneself in accordance with the new knowledge and situations one encounters. By dramatizing the process of learning about oneself and others through shame, Plato’s dialogue both instructs and invites the reader to continually actualize such an education in his own public and private life in a way that is foreclosed by Nussbaum’s treatise against shame.

Plato would argue that all the emotions discussed in this essay serve the necessary function of warning us about our mortality and vulnerability, but what makes them “irrational” or “primitive” depends on whether we try to cover up this insight with pleasant but false myths about our omnipotence, or whether we try to come to terms with our vulnerabilities in our mutual engagements with others. Indeed, if “primitive” shame really lingered in all of us to the extent that Nussbaum fears, it would be hard to understand how we could ever have moved towards more democratic and egalitarian institutions in which we all necessarily share in ruling and being ruled, shaming and being shamed in order to survive in an uncertain world.

  1. Jon Elster, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 153; Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 183; Toni M. Massaro, “Show (Some) Emotions,” in The Passions of Law, ed. Susan A. Bandes (New York: New York University Press, 1999), p. 89.

  2. Barbara Koziak, Retrieving Political Emotion: Thumos, Aristotle, and Gender (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), p. 8.

  3. For a full account of this, see Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); Stephen Holmes, Passions and Constraints: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); and Cheryl Hall, “Passions and Constraint: The Marginalization of Passion in Liberal Political Theory,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 28, no. 6 (2002).

  4. Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests; Cheryl Hall, “Passions and Constraint,”
 p. 733; Barbara Koziak, Retrieving Political Emotion, p. 8.

  5. Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, p. 33, p. 50; Cheryl Hall, “Passions and Constraint,” p. 733.

  6. Stephen Holmes, p. 4, quoted in Cheryl Hall, p. 733.
  7. Michael Walzer, “Passion and Politics,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 28, no. 6 (2002), pp. 619–622.
  8. All translation are from Plato, Gorgias (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), trans. James H. Nichols, Jr.
  9. H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 531.

  10. Dana Villa, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 3.

  11. Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity, p. 7.

  12. Ibid., pp. 8–12.

  13. Ibid., p. 192.

  14. Ibid., p. 15, pp. 211–216.
  15. Ibid., p. 15.

  16. Ibid., p. 220.

  17. Ibid., p. 16.

  18. Ibid., p. 213.

  19. Ibid., p. 6.

  20. Ibid., p. 173.

  21. Ibid., p. 191.

  22. Ibid., p. 183.

  23. Ibid., p. 69, p. 207.

  24. Ibid., p. 209.

Christina Tarnopolsky teaches political science at McGill University. Her interests include emotions, aesthetics and politics. She is the author of Prudes, Perverts and Tyrants: Plato and the Politics of Shame, which will be released by Princeton University Press in winter 2010.

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