Everyday miracle:  everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

Everyday miracle: everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

When people ask me what I want to replace violence as the main motivating force to behave in our society, I instantly reply “shame”. I think a lot of people believe that I’m kidding when I say this. I am not kidding. Shame is an incredibly powerful tool that, when wielded properly, brings out our better selves at almost every turn. I would argue this is because it operates on the basis of our deeper conscience, which is fundamentally tied to a very deep sense of right and wrong. If you’re willing to go there, I think this conscience itself is often, if not innately, tied to the divine.

The friend I call Drew Tirrell was here about a month and a half ago and we spent half a day arguing about “structural violence” vs. what I would call “actual violence”. It’s important here to recognize that I think a whole mess of things are wrong with the world (scroll down through a few posts if you don’t believe me). There’s inequality and vestiges of imperialism everywhere you look, people eat animals and abuse them along the way, people are turned into materialist hoarders rather than harmonious cooperators. The list goes on for several pages that I won’t indulge in now. But physical violence, for me, is the king of all ills, the one that this planet seems most designed to teach us is wrong. And I would argue, and did argue with Tirrell, that this is simply a priori. But if pushed to make utilitarian-style arguments for a fundamentally means-based issue, I think that violence is basically the only thing we’re incapable of reacting to rationally. Not only does it do immense direct physical and emotional harm upfront, but it is innately cyclical, stripping free will, triggering our fight-or-flight response, and coercing us into our worst possible selves. Given that our greatest gifts are our free will and rationality, it’s easy to see why I think this is so wrong.

I think a lot of people have erred over the years by saying that to overcome violence, we must all expunge anger from our hearts. That the only way to achieve non-violence is to be free of all ill will, all negative emotions. You could argue (and many have) that the only reason I disagree is because I have a lot of anger, that I carry the hurts and wrongs of the past and have been wrestling with a deep-seated propensity to defensiveness and anger since I was at most nine years old. But I just don’t think it’s realistic, on this planet at this time, for human beings to eradicate all their anger, all their ill wishes. Emotions have never seemed like an arena where people can exhibit much control, whereas actions are a realm in which complete control is possible. Difficult, often, but possible. This is a big part of why I refrain from mind-altering substances, to maintain maximum control over actions, whatever inferno may be raging in my heart or mind.

Basically, I see it as a matter of priorities. Having anger in one’s heart is probably objectively worse than only feeling love all the time. But on the scale of problems we face as a species right now, this is roughly 372nd, while physical violence is pretty clearly #1. So we should probably table #372 for a couple centuries while we get the top five sorted. Which is not to say that it isn’t great if you can make progress on things lower down the list. But it seems silly to worry about them in a world of drone strikes, occupations, organized militaries, and all the other hallmarks of violence so familiar to our condition.

Which brings us to shame. People think violent coercion is the only thing keeping us from all going out and fulfilling our basest hedonistic desires through wanton violence and oppression. No doubt that the threat of violence can be an effective deterrent, and often is. More often, it’s a really ineffective deterrent, which is why the history of human societies is so littered with revolutions, rebellions, and uprisings, and about 99% of them are violent in nature. When you coerce someone through violence, direct or implied, you are subjugating them, making them bend to your will. You are overpowering them. The reason they refrain from doing what you are preventing is that they feel weaker, less capable, and dominated. Perhaps only in 1984 have we ever seen an example where this results in a person actually feeling good about this coercion. And that required so much torture, physical and psychological, that the person who emerged was probably not really the same as the person who went in to the Ministry of Love in the first place. (Uh, spoiler alert, I guess?)

Shame, on the other hand, appeals to someone’s better self. Yes, it is not completely pure. It does make people feel bad about themselves and their actions sometimes. That said, I think pretty much all corrective advice does this. For someone conscientious or who cares about their behavior, it’s pretty hard to tell them to do something better without making them feel bad that they didn’t in the first place. Maybe some folks are more at home with themselves and being corrected than I am, but I think it’s fairly universal that there’s some upwelling of regret or shame in all correction. It’s that little spur of negative feeling or memory that reminds you to do better next time. The little pulse of regret to make you reconsider your inclinations that would lead to the same outcome when you see that situation again.

Shame is the primary tool at work in all non-violent revolutions. Gandhi and King shamed the occupying British and the dominating racists, holding the lens of public scrutiny up to their brutality and getting them to voluntarily withdraw and stand down. That’s the thing about shame – it doesn’t force you to change. It gives you a strong strong encouragement, but the mechanism of that encouragement is rooted in your own conscience. Or, at worst, the judgment of others, and humanity’s collective conscience. There are many who argue that our consciences are developed as learned behaviors, that they have no innate sense of justice, that if we are raised in a society where people molest their children and eat their grandmothers alive, their conscience will tell them these things are right. The examples of Gandhi and King debunk this myth, however, for the British and Southerners were raised in a particular order, with a set of beliefs that made them superior to these upstarts who wanted to show them another way of doing things. If one’s conscience were merely learned, they would never have been able to back down or admit the error of their ways – they would have gone to their graves believing it was right to beat people with sticks and ravage them with bullets and dogs and feeling no shame or remorse. And sure, not everyone backed down voluntarily or the first, second, tenth time. But in the end, the intuitive power of shame elicited better selves and most of those people died deeply sorry for their role in oppression.

But shame is not just in play in revolutions. Shame is in fact much more powerfully and subtly in play in most of the actions which keep everyday society ordered. Plays, for example. Presentations. Yoga classes, like the one I attended last night, my first in over three years (and long overdue). Regular classes. Planes, trains, automobiles. At every turn, these events could be spoiled by people making a scene, screaming obscenities or making wildly inappropriate gestures. But this almost never happens. It’s not because it’s not tempting to do these things – I would argue there’s a very strong primal pull to spoil sacred moments of our society with disruption, if only to see what would happen, if only to feel the power that anyone has to do so. The desire to scream in the middle of a moment of silence, to be the one exception to the rule, is sometimes breathtaking. But almost no one ever does, because of shame.

And shame is probably too negative a word to strictly describe that phenomenon. There’s something deeper and more positive, a kind of collective spirit. The reason I don’t scream in the middle of such silences has less to do with the fear of shameful repercussion than it does with appreciation of that moment of pure effortless harmony in which we are all collectively engaged. People like to think of humans as obstinate and unable to be corralled, innately selfish, greedy, and naturalistic. But that’s garbage. Every time we all attend a play and no one makes a sound, every time we all stand in a line without mobbing the front of it, every time we listen to a debate round without interrupting, we are cooperating on a very high level. We don’t think about these things often because they are so common, but these represent levels of collective effort that demonstrate a more communal society is more than possible.

And maybe this takes more work for me than it does for most people. I’ve never been quite sure how common the instincts I wrestle with are. When I acted frequently in plays, peaking at the local theater as Oliver two straight seasons in a hybrid play of “Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol”, I was almost constantly fighting with a voice in my head that described the power I held over the audience and how much fun it would be to smash it. There was an almost audible naysayer in the back of my mind telling me to shatter the fourth wall, to swear or to say “you are all just watching a play” in the middle of my lines. I never once did it, never even stumbled over a line with this temptation, but that voice has never left me. Hundreds of competitive debate rounds in high school, hundreds more in college, practice rounds, presentations and speeches – that voice is never far from my consciousness. Any time I have people in total thrall, most on pindrop, in full command of my words and the audience, that’s when the voice is at its loudest, telling me to just try chaos.

I’ve tried talking to people about this with mixed results. Many people relate at some level or another, people describe it (and I did in one of my books) as the instinct to drive a car off the road in the middle of an otherwise unfettered journey. When I told my college debate coach, Greg, how much this haunted me in my debate career, he expressed complete shock and said there was no one he worried about this with less. If anything, I think it’s because that struggle is so practiced for me that he worries so little – my obsession with controlling my actions leads to an exaggerated confidence in the defenses holding at all times. People don’t realize, often, that I selfishly desire violence and react in anger like anyone – the only difference is my commitment to controlling these desires.

And maybe it was just a giving in to that voice that made Andreas Lubitz take his plane down a notch. Maybe he was constantly telling himself that he’d pull up at the last minute, that he just wanted to see how much power he really had at that moment and he would call the whole thing off. Who knows, maybe he intended to do that and just miscalculated. My goal here not being to exonerate or excuse Lubitz’ deplorable actions in any way, but just to speculate on human complexity and how much our safety and good will depends on the willful denial of self-control, all the time.

I know there are myriad counter-arguments to the shame thing. The most prevalent being that shame has often been utilized to teach us things that are wrong, to prevent us from taking good corrective actions. Shame has been levied against women, subjugated races, gays and lesbians, and all manner of the oppressed. Shame is a tool that has been misused and mistreated to bring people down, to prevent people from speaking out, to subvert consciences rather than extoll them. People have been made to feel bad about their innate characteristics, their beliefs, their true identities, their feelings. People have faced years of therapy, sometimes fruitless, in an effort to expunge the shame they feel for bad reasons.

I have two key responses:

1. It’s a comparative debate, folks. Shame, like any tool, has been misused. But compared to physical violence and the threat thereof? No comparison. Would you rather be ridiculed for your beliefs or shot for them? Yes, ideally we will get to a world where no one even needs the threat of feeling bad to keep from murdering or stealing or oppressing. But we’re a long way from there, and I think shame is a good intermediate step between violence and us all just being that good all the time.

2. The problem with past instances of shame has not been with the means, but with the value structure surrounding them. I don’t think there’s anything innately bad about feeling bad about doing something wrong. The problem is when one feels that way and hasn’t actually done something wrong. We can regret the long history of LGBT oppression in our society, but we still want homophobes to feel ashamed of being biased. Don’t we? If not, what’s your mechanism for getting racists and homophobes to reconsider? Isn’t most of the country trying to publicly shame Indiana right now? Aren’t most of you applauding that? If we don’t have shame, getting people to reconsider their selfishness and look at others as humans and feel bad about wrong actions, what do we have left to get people to confront injustice?

It’s better if the shame comes with the possibility of forgiveness, to be sure. The shame of shunning and total exclusion, on a societal level, should probably be reserved for murder and rape and the most heinous behaviors. And even then, hey, maybe the Scandinavian model that you can eventually be welcomed back into the fold is best. But if we’re going to build a world around absolute violence or absolute shame, I’ll take the latter any time. It’s not even that big a switch. Most of your day, you behave better more from the threat of shame than the threat of violence. Now we just have to extend that privilege to Syria, Congo, and the poorer neighborhoods of the rest of the world too.