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Productive Uses of Shame in Premodern Societies


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While shame is often understood and felt as a negative emotion, it can have productive uses. Shame was viewed productively by the Bengkulu of Indonesia and the Mehinaku people of Mato Grosso, Brazil, where young men in the village spoke of shame tied with shyness and an inferiority complex when approaching their village elders, which for them was a sign of respect (Stearns, 2017). Because of their sensitivity to shame, the Mehinaku people were serious about healing the painful aspects of shame (Stearns, 2017). The shamed individual would intentionally remove themselves from the community temporarily, opting for walks in the woods, tending to their garden, or curling up in the fetal position in a hammock (Stearns, 2017). These rituals allowed them to move through shame gradually, and in private, before re-entering the community. During this time, they reflected and made better sense of how they had violated community standards (Stearns, 2017). Having shame as a moral compass aided these communities in meditative self-reflection and introspection.


In Trauma and Its Institutional Destinies, Karyn Ball (2000) shared that for Jean-Paul Sartre, shame resulted in self-consciousness, whereas for Virginia Woolf, shame provided insight into the “dynamics of power” (p. 32). According to Ball, Virginia Woolf believed that shame shows us where power is being violated, abused, or sent out of balance. These readings of shame as providing enlightenment and raising our consciousness were also found in ancient Greece and China. Studies show that shame featured prominently in shaping seminal texts in Greek and Chinese philosophy, as well as other intellectual life, including the book of Genesis in the Bible. Greek philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle spoke of shame. Stearns argued that Socrates saw that in questioning his students relentlessly, he could generate shame in them, using the painful elements of shame to provoke stubborn students into dropping arguments with him. Socrates used shame to stir discomfort in students on purpose with the hope of striking humility, which he felt was socially useful. Plato, however, was more mindful of how humiliation underscored shame, believing instead that when combined with respect, shame was beneficial, like the Mehinaku people approaching their village elders with humility (Stearns, 2017). On the other hand, Aristotle found shame to be productive as a moral blueprint for ethical behaviour, believing shame was useful for judging oneself internally to build better self-understanding that could guide human moral conduct (Stearns, 2017).


In China, it is said that Confucius centred roughly 10 per cent of his work around discussions of the importance of shame in regulating social relationships, addressing the topic more directly than the Greek philosophers did and influencing other East Asian societies that looked to China for cultural cues (Stearns, 2017). Confucianism articulated shame as a source of discipline and conformity, valuable in upholding moral standards best represented as boundary violations, showing up when socially acceptable patterns and behaviours were ignored (Stearns, 2017). As such, Confucian thinkers believed that shame forced people to live up to moral codes that were fundamental to social relationships and subjected them to punishment if said standards were violated (Stearns, 2017). As such, shame was used to punish bad behaviour, promote conformity and orderliness, and uphold community standards. Of interest here is the interconnectedness between shame and power and what happens when community standards are violated or not met.


These are some of the ways shame was useful to premodern societies.


Until next time, in solidarity.


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