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Is Shame the new normal?

Columns 2024-06-15, 9:31pm


Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sharma

In recent times we seem to be more ashamed of ourselves and our dealings than before. Aren't we ashamed of our looks, our culture, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our poverty, and our politics. Despite warding off words like 'shame' and 'shamelessness' from our lives, these seem to have returned to us with full force. To be sure that it has indeed been so, I checked data generated by Google Books' Ngram which indicates that the use of the word shame, which stayed low in usage till 1980, has risen in usage since then.


What seems notable now is that shame in its present manifestation is not a relic of our 'shame-culture' of the past. It isn't an emotion that two-people used to slug it out on the street as just a personal matter. Instead, we are now getting trapped in some kind of spiral of shame. If one were to agree with author of 'Shame' Professor David Keen at the London School of Economics and Political Science, shame has been integrated into the political economies that produce and reinforce it.    

One can look around to find that shame is playing an especially important role in very disturbing political scenarios. It seems to be more of an opportunity than a problem for leading political leaders. From Trump in the US to Johnson in the UK, from Bolsonaro in Brazil to Duterte in the Philippines, and from Modi in India to Putin in Russia, there are a series of leaders who seem to possess an amazing quality of shamelessness. These leaders appear to have turned shame into a political currency. 

These leaders play a double game by first stirring shame, and then proposing promises to remove it. They do what the market does with the consumer. Market interests both foster and feed a deep underlying shame about everything from our looks to our bodies and the rest of it, and then help us throw off shame by buying and selling magical products. Shame seems to have been used as an instrument to first demoralize people and then make them vulnerable to manipulation.

Come to think of it, shame has worked as a convenient emotion that makes people question their own worth. It stirs deep-seated prejudices that coalse to emerge as a social construct that is more damaging. Though politicians present shame as a spur for improvement of one's life, the reverse is more often the case. Donald Trump is one amongst many who has demonstrated shamelessness many times during his years in power. But there are many more on both sides of the Atlantic emulating him.  

In today's polarized overheated political environment, shame as a social construct has been conveniently used as the go-to attack on one's perceived enemies. The victims of poverty are filled with shame to be its foot soldiers, and those who benefit tend to exhibit shamelessness. Shame and shamelessness work in tandem to create the power of an emotion as a formidable political force with deleterious impact. One only hopes that there is a limit to which shame and shamelessness itself can be sold as an attractive spectacle.  

(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer and researcher specializing in development issues. He is based in New Delhi, India)

First published in Outlook on June 15, 2024.