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Shame and shamelessness

I was listening to Laura Ingraham on my way into work this morning and heard a clip from Hillary Clinton’s conversation with Ellen Degeneres. None of the stories I read picked up on this aspect of the interview, nor, I think, did Ingraham get it right.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a transcript or a clip on the web, but here’s the gist of what I remember. There’s discussion of Degeneres’ sexual orientation, a reference to Larry Craig’s behavior, and then, at the end, some talk about shame. It would seem--perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think so--that the world in which Ellen Degeneres and Hillary Rodham Clinton want us to live is one in which people wouldn’t have to be ashamed of their sexual appetites and predilections, in which we would have transcended the need for shame, and in which shamelessness as a distinguishing descriptor would be impossible. Did anyone else hear what I heard?

Update: Here’s the Youtube clip: the movement is from an oblique reference to Craig’s unwillingness to admit who he is (Ellen and Hillary know him better than he knows himself) to gay marriage, "don’t ask, don’t tell" (which HRC says requires someone to lie about who he or she is), back to gay marriage (HRC: "we need to open the door for people to define their relationships"), which leads Ellen to deplore the shame that leads people to do "sad" things (HRC: "that’s exactly right"; Ellen: "It’s all about shame"; HRC: "It is.").

Update #2: For the record, HRC performed well before this friendly audience, displaying a certain warmth and informality. The charm offensive is still on.

Discussions - 32 Comments

I didn't hear this but I am not surprised one iota. Liberals have been attacking the "shame culture" of the past for a long time. Of course, if what were previously considered immoral actions are no longer seen in that way, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, one should express pride in them. There was an op-ed in the NYT about a year ago that expressed a very similar sentiment about abortion - i.e., that women should not be ashamed of and quiet about their abortions, but should indeed be vocal and proud. After all, these actions are perceived to be neither immoral nor unconstitutional anymore. They are rights, according to nature and the Constitution.

Ok, I'll bite.

I assume that you find this dicussion problematic because you would feel uncomfortable in a world without shame avoidance. That is, I assume that you don't personally look forward to experiencing feelings of shame, and that you would not wish such an experience on another person needlessly.

If my first assumption is correct, then I would guess that you are then worried about a world in which feelings of shame are deemed unnecessary. In such a world, other motivators have conspired to take over the job that was once fulfilled by shame and shame avoidance: guilt, care for the welfare of others, a sense of duty, a sense of right and wrong, and so on.

So, here is my question: If those other motivators can fill the niche vacated by shame and shame avoidance, why would you miss it?

As the liberal in the crowd, let me offer the notion that people would miss shame and shame-avoidance because they identify with those who induce shame, and not with those who experience it. Put another way, it feels good to expose the unworthy, and in a world without shame, we would miss that kind of fun.

If guilt is an internalized or "divinized" version of shame, then I suppose that it might do the work that I would have shame do, though I think that the two are hard to dissociate in practice (especially where moral education is concerned).

I don't take much pleasure in shaming others, and would to the degree possible like to avoid exposure to behaviors for which they (and, of course, I) ought to feel ashamed. And isn't that the point of shame--to try to reduce the likelihood of shameful behavior? I'd be much happier in a word, not in which nothing was regarded as shameful, but in which people recognized the shameful for what it was and sought to avoid behaving in that way.

As it happens, I'm teaching a unit on "shame" in my Philosophical Anthropology course. Among the readings, Kurt Riezler's 1943 article (in the American Journal of Sociology) entitled "Comment on the Social Psychology of Shame"; two chapters from David Pryce-Jones' The Closed Circle: An Interpretatio of the Arabs (the chapters are: Tribal Society & Shame and Honor); and a little piece by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr, "Saving Liberalism from Liberals," which can be found at "The Harvard Crimson Online": originally published on Monday, November 8, 1993. Harvey expresses 'common sense', DP-J reports the analyses of many sociologists and native members of Arab societies, and Riezler tries to get at the natural phenomenon of shame. The latter might interest Fung.

What exactly is the difference between "shame" on the one hand and guilt, or a sense that one has failed to live up to ones duty, or the realization that one has done wrong? Surely shame is merely the manifestation of these other things?

The Democrats may actually believe in an "anything goes" approach to sex, but I notice that they never announce this to the public while campaigning in the mid-west. It's almost like they are hypocrites.

The view of shame predominant among liberals is that it's a great political tool against conservatives and their causes, but otherwise should be shut and locked firmly in the closet. Its purpose is not to hold society together or improve individual conduct, but to increase the (already great) power of the right kind of people by shamelessly destroying hapless targets.

In Social Psychology, we distinguish between shame and guilt in a couple of ways. Referring to our anthropologist friends, there are the "shame" cultures and the "guilt" cultures, and the distinction has to do with the difference between internalization (guilt) and mere adherence to code (shame.)

Francis L.K. Hsu prefers the terms: "suppression" vs "repression" cultures, again referring to the difference b/w sociocultural methods (usually religious, but sometimes more Freudian) encouraging identification and internalization with the "code" (repression) versus simply adhering to the code (suppression.)

Social Psychologists Harvey, Hunt and Shroeder associated shame with public exposure of a transgression, and guilt with having denied a deserving party of his/her deservedness. Expiation of guilt occurs between the guilty party and the single victim, while expiation of shame involves either a public acknowledgment of the transgression, or ostracizing the transgressor.

This is interesting, because according to some of these criteria, Larry Craig would be "guilty" of being gay, but "ashamed" of his restroom antics. Strangely enough, his Republican friends seem more concerned with his status as gay or straight, while Democrats don't care if he's gayer than Richard Simmons, they just find his public behavior disgusting and shameful.

Paul, I'll look for Riezler, thank you.

Strangely enough, his Republican friends seem more concerned with his status as gay or straight, while Democrats don't care if he's gayer than Richard Simmons, they just find his public behavior disgusting and shameful.

I guess you have had all Republicans and Democrats on your psychoanalysts couch and you base this pronouncement on what they told you. I thought there was some sort of confidentiality agreement though?

What a pathetic fool you are.

I was listening to Laura Ingraham on my way into work this morning

Ah, now it all makes sense, Joseph! :-)

If the point was: Craig has no reason to be ashamed of the fact that he's gay, then that's reasonable. If the point was: Craig has no reason to be ashamed of his desire to find partners in airport bathrooms, then, well, I'm not so sure I agree.

There is a kind of religious argument that you must face the things that make you ashamed and learn to transcend them. That's probably true, but a little more nuanced than the point you ascribe to the vast HRC conspiracy.


My choices on the 15 minute drive from home to school are an absolutely insufferable NPR host, a self-indulgent libertarian, and Laura Ingraham, who is also somewhat self-indulgent but occasionally has interesting guests. I can't abide by the rock talkers, and country music left me cold some time ago.

The narrow point of the conversation was that if we don't shame gays, they won't be driven to behaviors that are "sad." The bigger point is that we have to let people define their relationships for themselves and push shame out of the picture. Are HRC and her genial host willing to draw a line anywhere? Is anything inherently shameful?

You're basically right about Ingraham, although I find her own views not very interesting. Here, I think you overread what they were saying on the show. Even if some things are inherently shameful, as you put it, being sexually attracted to members of the same sex is not one of them. And it's odd to draw the line arbitrarily somewhere (self-consciously) just to preserve the ability to draw it anywhere. I don't know precisely why one would want a category of "the shameful" as such, one that is not just a functional description but one that maps with actual practices. Maybe you can tell me why?

A "pathetic fool?" John, get ahold of yourself.

Hey Paul(Weaver)...I take it you know this John guy? He makes good points sometimes... but as you say "pathetic fool" reminds me of the line uttered in Mortal Combat II before the fatality is delivered... "weak pathetic fool" I think it was.

In any case I am never sure of what Harvey Mansfield is up to...I do believe I know what Machiavelli might say about should avoid it. Either by avoiding doing those things that bring shame/blame/guilt or by rewritting, outwitting or conquering the norms that determine that which is shameful. Feelings of shame and guilt incapacitate us, prevent the conquering of Fortuna. And since life is about conquest and competition feelings of guilt just get in the way(For the Prince anyways).

Is Dr. Knippenburg suggesting that HRC is advocating on behalf of a lawgiver who would do away with "shame"? Does HRC continue her charm offensive? Is HRC a Machiavellian prince? Or a lawgiver seeking to issue a challenge to the dominant ontologies and fortuna?

Is HRC seeking not just triumph in the form of the white house but broader triumph in the game of the politics of heart and mind?

Of course she is!

"Are HRC and her genial host willing to draw a line anywhere? Is anything inherently shameful?"

Of course she is...the whole purpose is redrawing the lines to suit your ends. And HRC has ends...but is anything inherently shameful to Machiavelli? Rulling poorly, getting outplayed or outmanuvered...perhaps. As they say in Mortal Combat II "you weak pathetic fool" Finish him!

I am sure Dr. Mansfield would outplay me here and point out that there are limits to the plasticity of nature...that shame/guilt plays a vital role in maintaining order...that one cannot hope to attain glory by triumphing over the hearts and minds of men in such a way as might be destructive of the capacity to govern in general.

Points well taken... but what would Machiavelli say about the supposed crime of "hypocricy" in reference to Larry Craig? I think he would say that Larry Craig should be shamed...not for the particular actions, but shamed that he was caught. Shamed that he failed in the game of hyprocricy, also known as politics.

If there is a political philosopher of shame, shamelessness, hypocricy, prudence it must be Machiavelli?

So the question is... can shame still exist for those who take Machiavelli for granted?

This is all proving to be an interesting, if not frustrating, turn of political events. The "Craig Affair" is now a two-edged blade against the Republicans: Republicans as perverts and hypocrites; Republicans as lacking toleration and compassion for gay people. I have to hand it to liberals ... they're damn crafty in their indignation.

Liberals are not anti-shame; they are selectively anti-shame. They very much want to maintain shame in the toolbox to help shape and guide society. It's just that they want to dictate what is shameful.

If Don in AZ is right in 13 then the democrats and HRC in particular is a good Machiavellian Princess?


Ingraham & Co. took the discussion in a different way, hearkening back to stained blue dresses and such.

It strikes me that the drift of the conversation on the TV show was that self-expression is good and shame is bad. I hope they don't mean it, because, if they do, they've lost the distinction between liberty and license.


By "pathetic fool," do you mean that I am both pathetic and a fool? Or, do you mean that, as a fool, I do a pathetic job; that is, I am a pathetic, unworthy example of a fool?

Joe Knippenberg - While HRC and Ellen appeared to be narrowly discussing gay civil unions & marriage and the shame individuals feel for being attracted to others of the same sex, you seem to be interpreting their conversation as though they were talking in very broad terms, of some wholesale elimination of shame. Can you say what, precisely, you think Sen. Larry Craig should be ashamed of? Should he be ashamed that he's (fairly obviously) sexually attracted to other men? Or is it that he's apparently quite indiscriminate in selecting sexual partners? Or is it that he's violating other people's reasonable expectations of privacy in public restrooms? Or is it that he (possibly) would have engaged in sex acts in a public restroom, improperly/illegally utilizing the place as a bordello? Or is it that he has violated his marital vows, cheated on his wife, and (quite possibly) exposed his wife to the risk of acquiring various STDs? Not being at all precise here makes this whole discussion frustratingly muddy, I think. Regarding the source of his shame, I would answer all of the questions above, except for the first, with a "yes" (of varying degrees of strength). Yes, he should feel shame, and guilt for all of those things, all of those offenses. The first question I would answer with a no. I would also suggest, with some confidence, that Degeneres and HRC would answer them similarly. It seems clear enough from their conversation that this was the extent of their problem (sadness) with him feeling shame - his shame for being attracted to other men. He should, of course, feel shame for the rest of it. They did not explicitly point it out (probably seeing it as a given, and not necessary to do so), but I suspect that they wish to "to let people define their relationships for themselves and push shame out of the picture" only in regards to consensual adults in consensual, one-on-one relationships. You said "The bigger point is that we have to let people define their relationships for themselves and push shame out of the picture. Are HRC and her genial host willing to draw a line anywhere? Is anything inherently shameful?" Your Santorum-esque attempt to contort their discussion into some implicit, subtle approval of an amoral, free-for-all society where, the suggestion goes, everyone can, should, and will have 20 spouses, with some of them being children and dogs, well, that's just not helpful to discussions of this issue. I would bet you $30 that they'd both answer "yes" to both of your questions, if asked.

While the whole scenario of the show segment (Chatty Cathys who largely agree yakking superficially about a couple issues while the audience nods, chuckles, and suppresses their yawns) does strike me as pretty boring, your backhanded complimentary analysis of HRC's part of the conversation is disappointing, and probably unfair. She "performed very well," "displaying" warmth and informality, all of which is part of her cold and calculated "charm offensive." (Yikes - Did you take that one from the Rove or Limbaugh Handbook for Stopping Hillary?) Have you ever described a GWB speech or interview in such cynical terms? If you're going to apply such skepticism to their public statements, could you at least do so evenly, with politicians of all persuasions? Personally, I see 98.9% of them as playing their roles on a stage, calculating everything w/ how their various voting blocs and benefactors might respond, so that includes GWB AND HRC. But surely it is possible, isn't it, that HRC does truly find Sen. Craig's behavior "sad."

What really stood out for me in the vid-clip, however, was how HRC smoothly dodged Ellen's question of WHY she opposes gay marriage. That answer might have actually been interesting to hear.

Also, I just noticed that the NoLeftTurns homepage now shows about half as many of the recent blog-posts as it did before. Any reason for that? (For instance Joe K's previous post on Larry Craig is already filed away in the archives!)

Only a man such as John Lewis could bring Mortal Kombat fatalities into this. That cracked me up. Well done, John.

No, I don't know the other John. I just thought he went too far with his comment to Fung.


I just googled K. Reizler & Shame, and the 4th entry was a link to your earlier mention of the same work in a NLT discussion on "dignity."

Craig et al,

On what basis could HRC & Co. draw lines regarding what's shameful and what's not? Are any sexual orientations not respectable? Should any not be displayed in public, even if tolerated in private? Is any consensual relationship shameful?

Hey Joe, howzabout answering Craig's questions instead of just posing a bunch of your own? Please answer this one, specifically:

"Can you say what, precisely, you think Sen. Larry Craig should be ashamed of?"

Hats off to Joe on this thread. Very clear, concise arguments and questions that cut to the heart of the problems of liberal thinking on these matters. I cannot post anything new because you keep stealing my thoughts.

He should be ashamed of betraying his wife; he should be ashamed of soliciting sex in a public restroom; he should be ashamed of any promiscuous behavior in which he engaged.

I think that moral disapproval of homosexuality is perfectly defensible, but regard that as consistent with toleration of private behavior. I'm happy with having a political debate over something like same-sex marriage, and do not believe that there is a judicial or natural right to marry whomever you choose.

Fung, I got confused for a second, but I take it you meant Paul Seaton and not Paul Weaver. I am a mere holder of a philosophy B.A. unlike our companion Paul Seaton who is at least a graduate student if not a PhD holder. My apologies for not knowing the specifics.

Joe Knippenberg - Thank you for answering. I'm surprised, but it looks as though we largely agree on what he should be ashamed of.

I still think you have overinterpreted and misinterpreted the points they seemed to be making in their discussion. I did not detect some promotion of an anything-goes morality. If anything, they were working hard to talk about homosexually-oriented men who engage in conduct like that of Sen. Craig, without putting the focus on Craig the lone individual. He's merely the latest example of a public figure to be caught engaged in such pathetic behavior.

Now to address your questions, to the extent I can. Obviously I can only speculate on the viewpoints of HRC and Degeneres.

"On what basis could HRC & Co. draw lines regarding what's shameful and what's not?"

Regarding sexual behavior, their basis may well be that relationships must be within the same species, involve consensual adults operating within a scenario of mutual respect and respect for others within society (as in, for example, no cheating when committed and no sex in the toilet stalls). Behavior that falls within those boundaries would not be shameful. As for HRC and Degeneres, I don't know their viewpoints really any deeper than the glimpse given in that youtube clip.

"Are any sexual orientations not respectable?"

Again, if you've developed these questions strictly based on that HRC-Degeneres chat, then I think you've strayed well into Santorum's dark territory, and I'm tempted to describe that as shameful (!). My guess is that HRC and Degeners would agree with me that the "orientations" you must be hinting at (if indeed they can even be considered as such) - bestiality, incest and pedophilia, for starters - are not at all respectable. They are immoral and completely unacceptable. But the question itself is probably meant to simply instill fear and draw an associative connection between homosexuality and various horrific criminal acts.

"Should any not be displayed in public, even if tolerated in private?"

I presume by that you mean "Should any ORIENTATIONS not be displayed in public..." That's a trickier question. If, for example, you hold your wife's hand in public and kiss her goodbye at the airport, you are, in effect, displaying your orientation, at least to some degree, I would think. Should gay couples not be permitted similar behaviors? I'm generally against public displays of sexual behavior regardless of the orientation. There is obviously a wide range of behaviors for "PDA" - public displays of affection - for which people are always debating the appropriateness of.

"Is any consensual relationship shameful?"

Well, yes, if one or both parties to the relationship have pledged to be faithful to some third party(ies), or if the consent was coerced or derived through exploitation of some sort, which, to my mind, means it isn't actually consensual to begin with. The question brings to mind not only MARRIED Sen. Larry Craig, and MARRIED Fla. State Rep. Bob Allen (of the McCain campaign), who seem to seek male partners for their shameful behaviors, but also MARRIED Sen. David Vitter, who shamefully hired at least one female prostitute. Why do you suppose Sen. Vitter isn't being shamed out of public office by his party? Should he really remain? Does shame have a statute of limitations? Should it?


Thanks for the expansive response. I don't think I'm reading too much into HRC & Co. On what basis--other than the capacity for giving consent-can they draw the line with respect to the number of self-expressing selves who engage in a relationship? I'm also not certain whether we can so easily stop once we start deprecating the role of shame in controlling sexual expression.

My guess is that HRC and Degeners would agree with me that the "orientations" you must be hinting at (if indeed they can even be considered as such) - bestiality, incest and pedophilia, for starters - are not at all respectable. They are immoral and completely unacceptable.

Why? Because they don't have lobbyists? Or none of them have their own talk shows yet?

Paul Weaver,

Sorry, I should have remembered that there were two Pauls commenting on this post. You are right -- I did mean Paul Seaton, who had commented early on.

As for "merely" holding a Philosophy B.A., the intellectual bar on this blog is pretty darned high, and I know some Ph.D.s who would feel plenty challenged by you and other "mere" B.A.s, in philosophy or other disciplines. I AM one of them!

Joe K-

In my neighborhood a few years ago, a husband from Afghanistan killed his wife because his brother had molested her. He then attacked his daughter, because his brother had noticed her, too. Both women, it seems, had brought shame into his household.

I remember this for a number of reasons. First, it occurred next door to my son's friend's house, and it was simply luck that my boy was not involved.

Another reason is that local and national commentators all seemed to agree that this was more evidence that places like Afghanistan are horrible, all the while forgetting that (a) what is shameful is by definition defined and enforced by the society and culture, and (b) our own history is none too wonderful when it comes to using shame to punish females for the behaviors of male aggressors.

Finally, I expect that the mother and daughter DID feel ashamed after they were molested and before they were attacked by the patriarch. Now THERE is a shame: When victims are allowed and even encouraged to take even a fraction of the blame for the actions of their aggressors.

Too often, the acceptance of shame, both as a tool and as a personal burden, disguises its value as a way to keep the powerful in power. While I am projecting, I expect that this is related to the discussion between Ellen and Hillary Clinton.

Haven't read the entire thread, but I agree with Fung's last response.

However, in my opinion, such things should not mean we should never be ashamed or not use shame as a positive tool in shaping society.

Dear Fung, apropos to your last post (I'm late because school's started ... ), you put your finger on what I'm going to explore in my Philosophical Anthropology course: the connections and differences between the "shame and honor" ethos of tribal societies and the natural roots (and, hopefully, proper functioning) of shame. (If I had more time I'd include the concept of guilt and guilt-societies as well, but can't.) Honor rapes and killings, of course, have a certain sort of tribal solidarity logic to them -- and they grossly violate individual liberty and dignity. To understand is not to condone. But the dialectic between moral judgment (whether knee jerk or more reflective) and the desire to comprehend needs to be respected in philosophical inquiry. On another hand, I don't take the capacity to ignore shame and transcend it a/the mark of the philosopher, as certain Straussians and a version of Straussianism do.

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