Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 6.4 The social denial of shame

6.4 The social denial of shame

Cooley (1902/2006), Goffman (1959/1990) and especially Elias[1] (1939/2000; 1989/1998) were all concerned with the concept of shame and they agreed that shame was a “repressed emotion” in western society, but they treated the phenomenon of shame indirectly most of the time. Goffman often referred indirectly to shame or shame-related affects. He did not have or use a working concept of the relation between shame as an emotion and as a behavior. Without this it is not possible, for Goffman or others, to show the central role shame has in mental illness and the societal reactions to it (Scheff 1984).

Elias has carried out an historical analysis of shame in The Civilizing Process (Elias 1939/2000) and has analyzed excerpts from literature from five different European countries from the Middle-Ages up to the nineteenth century in his study, and uses his analyses to outline a theory of modernity. Elias suggests in my opinion that a key aspect of modernity is shame, and shows the connections between changes in the structure of society and changes in the structure of people’s behavior and psychical habits. He writes in the preface of this book:

The nature of historical processes, of what might be called the “developmental mechanics of history”, has become clearer to me, as has their relation to psychical processes. Terms such as socio- and psychogenesis, affective life and drive-molding, external and internal constraints, embarrassment threshold, social power, monopoly mechanism, and a number of others give expression to it (Elias 1939/2000: xiv-xv).

And when it comes to shame, he writes:

The feeling of shame is a specific excitation, a kind of anxiety which is automatically produced in the individual on certain occasions by force of habit. Considered superficially, it is fear of social degradation or, more generally, of other people’s gestures of superiority. But it is a form of displeasure or fear which arises characteristically on those occasions when a person who fears lapsing into inferiority can avert this danger neither by direct physical means nor by any other form of attack (Elias 1939/2000: 414-415).

His central thesis is that decreasing shame thresholds at the time of the breakup of rural communities, and decreasing acknowledgement of shame, have had powerful consequences on levels of awareness and self-control. His analysis includes the central causal chain in modern civilization – denial of the emotion of shame and of the threat to the social bonds that cause and reflect that denial. Not only are we ashamed, says Elias, but we are ashamed of being ashamed, and also ashamed of causing further shame. Shame has gone underground, leading to behavior that is compulsive and outside of awareness:

Neither rational motives nor practical reasons primarily determine this attitude, but rather the shame of adults themselves, which has become compulsive. It is the social prohibitions and resistances within themselves, their own superego that makes them keep silent (Elias 1939/2000: 153).

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