Guilt may be corrosive, but shame can pierce our very sense of identity.
Shame is the feeling of humiliation triggered by the real or imagined gaze of the other; bringing ridicule, exposing dishonourable behaviour or evoking a sense of failure to live up to important values. As with guilt, the interplay between internal/internalised elements (like conscience), and the force of others’ judgements and reactions, is variable and can be complex. For instance, someone with strong self-belief will be less vulnerable to others’ views. Perhaps the key difference between guilt and shame is that the former refers to what one has or hasn’t done, whereas the latter is more about who one is. Guilt may be corrosive, but shame can pierce our very sense of identity.
In ‘shaming’ as deliberate action, the other is by definition real. A deliberate social sanction is applied by one individual or group against another, to punish and/or alter behaviour, via exposure and a message of disapproval or reproach. The objective may be reinforcement of prevailing values (for example, against WW1 conscientious objectors), or spreading new values (as in flight shaming).
Shame and shaming have great relevance to climate psychology and it is worth looking at how they operate in this context, as well as considering their efficacy. Here are some instances:
1. ‘Greta Thunberg weaponised shame in an era of shamelessness’. (Washington Post).1
2. ‘Flight shame could halve growth in air traffic’. (BBC News).2
3. ‘The real kicker is shame’. (CPA podcast).3
Involvement in a collective sense of shame about climate and ecological degradation is a common feeling amongst those who have become sensitised to the climate emergency. This invariably co-exists with other emotions such as anger (outward-directed) and forms part of the distress which needs to be understood and contained in any therapeutic intervention based on climate psychology.
Each of these examples illustrates ways in which shame can be deployed. Point 3. also involves defences against shame. In point 4., there is a spontaneous recognition of involvement in harm, where cultural norms may have previously masked awareness but new awareness removes that comfort and leads to shame. In point 2., there is a concerted effort by a group to shift the norms of acceptable behaviour, and the predicted outcome is a partial success because, given shared values, some recipients of the message are amenable to it. (Peer group values and reinforcement are obviously a factor here). In point 1., the term ‘weaponisation’ reflects a more aggressive onslaught on widely embedded values and behaviour. Intense resistance is anticipated and is challenged with weapons/arguments such as inter-generational justice. The child-to-adult dynamic is used to intensify shame by pointing out that the ‘grownups’ are the ones acting irresponsibly.
The question underlying all these examples of shame and shaming is how effective they are in challenging the cultural complexes that underlie humankind’s path of ecological and climate destruction. Several of these complexes have been named by climate psychology, for instance, the culture of un-care – the illusion of autonomy/denial of dependence and enduring sense of entitlement to high carbon lifestyles, together with the consumerist paradigm of wellbeing and indifference to the other-than-human world – which has been widely explored in ecopsychology.
1. Washington Post, 25 Sept 2019. Available online (paywall).
2. BBC News, 2 Oct 2019. [Online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49890057
3. Hickman, C., with Sharp, V. (2019). What’s under the surface in the attacks on the school strikers. [CPA podcast].