Shame controls our lives in many powerful ways. And even though its rules are not written, we expect people to follow their sense of shame as a moral compass. And when it comes to public figures, such as political leaders, we have even greater expectations for their moral standards. Should we worry, then, if political leaders become shameless?
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau recently apologised for wearing blackface make up at a 2001 party, apparently recognising that he must show a sense of shame for his actions.
But other world leaders don’t appear to feel the same sense of obligation. Take US president Donald Trump’s derogatory “grab them by the pussies” comments, and British prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to shut down the UK parliament. Even though the former was widely condemned and the latter was told his actions were downright unlawful, neither apologised. In fact, they doubled down.
While shameful behaviour, defined as a transgression of accepted social conduct, is part of everyday life, shamelessness is actually a threat to social order. That’s because it involves refusing to abide by agreed-upon social rules. Ultimately, by disregarding the values on which we have built our societies, it leads to abuse of power.
A brief history of Western shame
Shame is at once a private and a social emotion. Internally, shame is a sense of our moral compass – an indication of what is appropriate in our interactions with others. But shame is also toxic when used to discipline, to oppress and to exclude others. It seems as though public figures are feeling less and less shame about their own behaviour and more willing than ever to use shame against others.
Since the late 19th century, shame has been regulating behaviour in European societies. As shown in Norbert Ellias’ influential study, The Civilizing Process (1978), institutions across Europe produced educational books, which proposed introducing discipline through shaming rather than physical punishment.
Ellias cites as an example Karl von Raumer’s 1857 book on educating girls, in which he proposes how to answer their sexual questions. The answer – “You should take care not to listen to anything said about it” – should ignite shame in any well-brought up girl. As a result of implementing the principles of the Enlightenment (rationalism and tolerance) shame became the most powerful tool for self and social control in European societies.
But while the tide broadly turned on toxic shame in a personal context during the liberation movements of the mid-20th century, it continues to play a crucial role in politics and international relations. A sense of shame is supposed to prevent leaders from actions that hurt people. Shame also points to a failure to live up to our own or other people’s expectations and values, so admitting to feeling ashamed is an attempt to repair relations broken by a disregard of those values.
In 1970, during his visit to communist Poland, the German chancellor, Willy Brandt, famously knelt down (Kniefall) in front of the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw. This powerful gesture was seen as an expression of Germany’s humility and shame at the Nazi crimes committed against the Polish nation, including the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Years later, a similar apology for “our shame” was issued by chancellor Gerhard Schröeder. These were important steps in creating good diplomatic relations between both countries and in allowing the process of healing for the victims.
Psychologists and sociologists maintain that embracing shame on a personal level allows us to grow by introducing positive changes. In international relations, publicly acknowledging wrongdoing has a powerful reparatory role, too. This is why it can be so powerful when a government issues a public apology for a past wrongdoing.
Not sorry anymore
Despite all this, we seem to be entering an era in which we can no longer expect publicly elected officials to rely on a sense of shame to act with contrition and make amends. Criticism of Trump’s crossing of moral standards seems to provoke even more brazen behaviour, testing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable.
The emergence of “white pride” groups is one example of shamelessly spreading an ideology of hatred towards historically oppressed groups – women, ethnic and sexual minorities. Instead of addressing the past wrongs that continue to hold minorities back, these groups revel in dismissing them as insignificant.
Becoming accustomed to the lack of apology and impudence from public figures has grave consequences. As writer Michiko Kakutani notes in her excellent analysis of Trump’s America, The Death of Truth, people were slow to recognise the danger of Hitler because he unravelled his plans in small doses, carefully observing what people would tolerate along the way.
Although the rejection of shame can have positive effects, as was the case with the liberation movements in the 1970s, we need to think carefully about the complexity of shamelessness and its potential to either liberate or oppress. As history teaches us, it can also be abused solely for the purpose of narcissistic adulation or to hold on to power.