“Shame on You,” The Spells We Cast, and the Power of Language
Updated: Sep 19
Photo Cred: Unknown
When I was in high school, I kept a quote book. In it, I kept quotes I’d read that I loved, including many quotes from the Chicken Soup series, which I also loved reading back then too. In any case, I was known among my friends as the one to go to for cheesy and corny quotes if you needed one. This is why I found this cover photo relevant for today's blog. Not only because we're laughing hysterically, something I do now when I see people say, "shame on you," but because she used to come to me for quotes when needed.
I’m not sure where that quote book is, and if I did, I’m sure you’d still feel entitled to know what I keep in there too, but that’s not the point of this blog post.
There was a quote in there that has stuck with me, though I do not know who to attribute it to or the exact wording verbatim. It said something along the lines of, “words are powerful, if you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little,” something to that effect.
As an adult, I see folks in spiritual communities talk about the power of words and manifestation. In the academy, scholars talk about discourse, meaning, and the importance of language. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I used Critical Discourse Analysis as a method, which meant that I paid close attention to how others spoke, the language they used, how it enacted change (or not). I was also mindful of my own word choice at times, toying around with certain words, sometimes consciously, other time, unconsciously, seeing how you all responded in turn, mostly, energetically. This led to epic disasters and other times, genius contributions. A wordsmith and writer, words are my lifeline. They are my weapon of choice.
As a shame and emotions researcher, I get Google Alerts sent to me with keywords like “shame” and “emotions.” I’ve been paying attention to how many articles are spreading globally around the topic of shame, and it’s been quite telling to note how many politicians, news commentators, journalists, public opinion, etc. use the adage, “shame on you.” Why is that? (I never see my blog posts on there so my website is clearly not Googleable. But I digress).
Why do we think that saying, “shame on you,” will actually shame someone? Because we as humans understand the power of words and language in moving people, hopefully, to conform to an ideal that we think we can shame them into.
In the past, “shame on you,” might have worked on me, as I’d shrivel at the thought of anyone seeing me as shameful or thinking that I was deserving of shame. But after many years of studying shame, and working to heal my shame, something that is a daily practice, I have a different relationship with the sentence, “shame on you” now.
I find it quite juvenile now, hilariously manipulative even, especially when used by conservatives of any race. Projection, deflection, denial, and delusion are huge themes that are raised in shame research, so I have a keen eye for when shame is being projected by some of the most shameful to deflect their own shame.
A Google Alert recently showed that a Fox News commentator who shall remain nameless said, “shame on you,” to those who oppose the trucker convoy in Ottawa, Canada. This raised some new insights on, “shame on you.”
“Huh,” I thought, “seems everybody is shaming somebody nowadays, even some of the most shameful who can’t recognize their own shame.” Beyond that, I imagined the power of those words, the energetic subtlety to it, the spell that was cast in the statement.
“Shame on you.” “Shame be onto you.” “May you be ashamed.” “May you have shame.” “May you be seen as shameful.” What if we looked at these statements as curses, as hexes, as spells?
But so many don’t know, or even understand the power of language, words, manifestation, and spells.
I look at shame in similar ways as Sara Ahmed does, as objects. I find the idea provocative and compelling. As such, I’m interested in shame as an energetic object, with flow and movement, circulating our environments, attracted to other like objects, which if already accumulated in your auric field, will only find you, even more than if you already have shame circulating around you. Did that make sense?
Said differently, if you are a person who society frames as shameful (read: Black, or woman, or Native, or Indigenous, or a person of color, or queer, or trans, or poor, or disabled, or fat, or neurodiverse, and, and, or). And if you already struggle with shame, even if due to no fault of your own, I’m imagining what is happening in psychic fields when someone says, “shame on you.”
Do they direct more shame your way? Maybe. And if so, I’d like for us to have more conversations about shame as energy. Because shame is a painful emotion to work with, which is why my work looks at shame as tied to Mbembe’s necropolitics and Lauren Berlant’s, slow death. Shame is fatal, it hurts, it injures. Historian Peter Stearns says that some Japanese cultures were said to have considered shame as a force that “crushes.” I agree, my pelvic bone, low back, and the sciatic nerve can attest to this, although the doctors have no clue what I’m talking about, nor can they see the parallels, nor can I communicate it, because alas, I suck at STEM.
But that doesn’t mean that folks aren’t seeing or experiencing the physicality of shame.
Even white conservatives in America are now saying that shame has health consequences and creating whole bans to evade shame. They refuse to have their children learn about critical race theory in school because it frames white people as shameful, and draws shame in their children, which they fear will cause their kids to have depression and anxiety.
They aren’t wrong, only, they never cared when the rest of us said the same.
All to say, cast your own spells at the shameful. Maybe, it’s time we all started saying, “shame on you,” to those who can’t see their own despicable shameful behavior, and instead, project their shame onto others. I am a firm believer that humans are trash, so, “shame on all y’all,” myself included.
I personally don’t work with spells, hexes, or curses. I consider what happens when my own energy gets returned to me. I’ve put enough toxic and negative energy in the world in the past, and it did return, sometimes, tenfold. This is why I’m now the “God bless you,” “Peace be with you,” type.” Manipulative same way, I know. I do mean it though. I mostly say it to the haters hoping you’re telling me, “Shame on you,” or some other really harmful flex, just so I can send you back your own shame and energy; while receiving more blessings of peace because that’s what I’m putting out.
What do you think about language and words? Are you mindful of your word choice? Do you pay attention to how others speak to you? What spells are you casting? What sayings do we gravitate toward collectively? Have you checked in on your shame today? Are you building shame resilience as Dr. Brené Brown calls it? Has anyone said, “shame on you,” to you recently? Have you said, “shame on you” to others lately? What did you hope to get out of it?
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Until next time, in solidarity.