Shame on you, shame on me: a pandemic of shame

by Pierre Brouard

More than ever, as we grapple with a virus which is causing so much fear, shame is a key tool for social control, and an often dangerous one.

This was certainly true for the Polish professor with Covid-19, Wojciech Rokita.[1] Rumours had spread – both online and in local media – that 54-year-old Rokita had not complied with his quarantine and had visited a car showroom after being diagnosed. A lawyer representing Rokita’s family said the professor had not violated his quarantine, and had taken his own life as a result of the “wave of hate” he faced online. In a similar vein, there have been reports of increased suicides in France, of people scared of Covid-19 but also scared that they had infected others.

Shame is a social dance. The shamed and the shamer are bound together in an interlocking rhythm: to experience shame you must know that, one way or another, you have transgressed the social order. To shame another you must be a vigilant observer of that very same social order, and of the transgressor. They need each for the dance to stay in rhythm.

Shame is highly emotive: whether you are the shamed or the shamer you can be sure that you will experience an intense flush of emotion: humiliation in the shamed, hubris in the shamer.

The Dutch sociologist, Johan Goudsblom,[2] notes how shame has almost universal manifestation in human beings: “involuntary bodily changes – the most spectacular of which is blushing – and a number of behavioural reactions such as hiding one’s face behind one’s hand, or bowing one’s head down, which may be highly spontaneous, but which are also susceptible to learning, controlling, ritualising.” [3]

More of shame as ritual later.

Not only have we all been there, “in shameland” as Goudsblom calls it, but we will carry the memories of it as long as we live. Sometimes a memory of shame can evoke the same feelings of many years ago. Every now and again I recall an experience where I, then a young gay man, was humiliated by two older gay male academics who were evaluating a research proposal of mine: the mere recollection can induce heart palpitations, sweating, rage and helplessness. I had revenge fantasies for years! Some people take their revenge in other ways, they kill themselves when they cannot endure the shame visited upon them.

An intriguing aspect of the manifestations of shame is that while they signal a desire to be small, invisible, unnoticed, unseen perhaps, they are very successful in drawing attention to the self: they are conspicuous. A blush says “look at me, don’t look at me” suggests Goudsblom.

This desire to be seen and yet not seen is one I will come back to later. But for now I want to suggest that this is also a possible motivation in the shamer – when we shame other people we want to signal something about ourselves, and to ourselves: that we are virtuous, that we “know better”, or even that we occupy a morally higher ground. Even when we anonymously report those who, for example, disobey a lockdown order, our intention is that they are seen and punished: our shaming of others must manifest in some form of visible sanction.

The idea that shaming and being shamed are inextricably linked is further explored by Goudsblom. For humans to survive they must resolve, or live with, the tension between solidarity and hierarchy, dimensions of social groups, the groups we need to learn to be human. Hierarchy is on a continuum from respect to contempt, while solidarity is seen on a continuum from affection to enmity.

Shame occurs when ties of solidarity and hierarchy are impaired: we have broken the rules of the powerful (the president as stern father, for example) and we have distanced ourselves from emotional ties (our connections to our fellow lockdown-ees). Shame is both a personal and social injury, even death, or at least it feels that way. It is always unpleasant, and painful. The social body has been damaged as much as the psyche.

Social pain, says Goudsblom, “involves a two-way traffic. In the act of shaming, messages of pain are exchanged. When others catch someone in the act of doing something unseemly, they may actively ‘shame’ that person. Victims realise that they have harmed their own position; they are in danger of humiliation and expulsion, and let it be known to the others that they acknowledge this. The inner awareness is as it were the ‘domestic policy’ of shame, the outward display its ‘foreign policy’ aspect.”

So social pain is social in two ways: “it is inflicted socially by the people who ‘shame’ (as punishment) and it is demonstrated socially by the person who is ashamed (as atonement).” Perhaps punishment and atonement need each other to be meaningful.

One of the key intentions, it would appear, in Covid-19 shaming is the desire to defend a particular status quo, to protect the social body from harm, and to shore up the defences against an “invader”, a physical virus which can kill. This is the “noble” in Covid-19 shaming: an act often praised, and indeed seen as a social good. I take no particular issue with this view: to shame the lockdown transgressors is to defend against the shattering of a group, a society, literally a defence against physical disintegration. Whether this achieves this aim is debatable: there is evidence sometimes to suggest otherwise.

Dr June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University, and author of Shame and Guilt, doubts shaming will prevent poor pandemic behaviour. “By shaming people, we’re actually encouraging the opposite,” she says. “When people feel shamed, they tend to get very defensive, they tend to blame other people, they’re disinclined to take responsibility, and they’re not any more likely to change their behaviour.”[4]

What I wish to add here to this issue is the question of fantasy in shaming, the fantasy of not only of defending the social, but defending the self, through the invocation of defence mechanisms. The key defences against psychological (not social) disintegration are the mechanisms of splitting and projection.

In an essay on defence mechanisms, Joseph Burgoin[5] describes splitting as a mental process that enables us to makes distinctions: to take an undifferentiated, confusing mass of experience or information and divide it into categories that have meaning.  Without splitting, nothing would make sense to us.  We wouldn’t be able to understand the world around us because we couldn’t divide the mass of sensory input into meaningful categories.

But splitting can also do the opposite: it can remove meaning by separating parts of a whole that actually belong together. “This is where it becomes a defence mechanism and is used to ward off unbearable feelings and emotions,” says Burgoin. “Let’s say that I have a hard time bearing my anger and aggressive feelings. In truth, I’m a nice and also a not-so-nice person, with a mixture of loving and hating impulses; when the anger and hatred can’t be tolerated, however, I will split them off: the loving and socially acceptable feelings – those are me – and the hostile aggressive ones are not me.  Thus I have split myself (more accurately, my awareness of myself) into parts and disowned one of them, which almost always goes hand-in-hand with projecting it outside.”

So splitting and projection are defences (against the awareness of unpleasant parts of the self) which work together. When we split off a part of our experience (the undesirable quality) and “project” it onto another person we “see” in them what we are unwilling or unable to see in ourselves, often leading to misperceptions of other people, and perhaps the self. It can be argued that another function part of the projection

There is an irony here: splitting and projection, I have argued, are defences against psychological disintegration because they protect and maintain a vision of the self one can tolerate. Yet being able to tolerate one’s good and bad, dark and light, is also a sign of psychological integration, an ability to cope with ambivalence and ambiguity.

One of the consequences of excessive or splitting is rigid (either/or) thinking: people who break lockdowns are bad, not capable of good. As a person who obeys the lockdown, I am good, not capable of bad. Shaming others serves the purpose, then, of reinforcing the good of the self, denying the bad and antisocial, seeing it embodied in others. In some cases, excessive splitting and projection is accompanied by grandiosity, and self importance: I have done the right thing, without my action people would died.

It can also be argued that in shaming others we assuage the guilt we may feel: either we have done the very thing we accuse others of, but were not caught; or we know that given different circumstances we may have been tempted to, for example, break the requirements of lockdown. This guilt has to be disowned and placed on others, for self respect to be maintained.

In Covid-19 shaming, then, the shamer and the shamed are joined in a ritual of splitting and projection. The shamer sees the shamed as bad, and the shamed must internalise this badness to meet the requirements of atonement. The rituals of atonement are all too familiar to us. Sincere “sorrys”, chastened cadences, embarrassed explanations must meet the required standard. And even when they do, forgiveness may be withheld, the enjoyment of moral power must be not be denied just yet.

A key consequence of lockdown shaming is to deny the full humanity of the shamed. They are villains, the repository of our collective projected rage, and in a sense we cannot see their humanity. And it is much easier to shame individuals or categories of people who are powerless to challenge the labels we use to other them, than to see that lockdown violations may have more complex roots. These can be psychological, but often they are sociological: people on the margins have little to lose.

The South African state has perfected the art of shaming in this lockdown. People who want alcohol are bad, smokers are irresponsible, people wanting cooked food are “spreaders”, a word that is naked in its blaming and othering. There are also implicit suggestions of patriotism or treason – it’s for the good of the nation, for the safety of the people – so you need to obey. If you do not, you are not only a “spreader” but also a betrayer of the nation state.

The best weapon against shame is empathy says psychology writer Melissa Kirk[6]. I would argue this not just the empathy of looking into the eyes of the homeless teenager on your street corner and feeling his  pain and desperation – lockdowns are not kind to people who live with the precarity of daily begging – but the empathy that says this inequality is shameful, how can we tolerate a society that tolerates this?

Through Covid-19 we have an opportunity to learn that shame and shaming ennoble no one, and they don’t advance our responses to the pandemic.



[3] Casimir and Schnegg note that while what is considered shameful may be context specific, data across 135 cultures shows that the phenomenon of blushing in shameful situations is a panhuman one. See