Tragedy comes from repressed shame, not from being too permissive with people.
As the day has gone on, I have watched the violence of today’s tragedy in Connecticut breed more violence. I have listened and read as my fellow people have said hateful things about the killer and loathsome comments about human nature. I have heard that he should have stayed alive so he could be publicly beheaded or rot in jail. I have heard that his next of kin should have to be punished. I have heard people call other people animals that need to be controlled more rigidly. I have heard outcries for stricter laws to keep us protected from people like this “monster.”
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
It is because we are in a world full of repressed shame, anger, and hate that we have tragedies. Not because we are too permissive with people.
Repressed Shame and Violence
I’ve been reading a lot about violence lately. Specifically the relationship between violence and shame. Here’s what I have learned: shame and violence are highly correlated. We have an epidemic of repressed shame in our world. We have an epidemic of violence in our world. This correlation must be taken into account before assuming people to be dumb beasts in need of coercion.
“ … violent criminals are not violent because they are dumb, out of touch with reality, or unable to recognize hypocrisy, dishonesty, and injustice when they see it. They are violent precisely because they are aware of the hypocrisy, dishonesty and injustices that surround them, and of which they have been the victims” (p. 101) —James Gilligan
James Gilligan is the author of the book Preventing Violence and has had more than his fair share of exposure to violent criminals in Massachusetts prisons and prison mental hospitals as a Director of Psychiatric Services. He concludes, from his research, that in order for violent behaviour to occur, it is necessary for the person to first feel unbearable feelings of shame. This is not to say that shame is the only factor, since other common factors play a role (e.g. lack of nonviolent skills to deal with shame, adherence to traditional “masculinity” roles, severity of shame-inducing incidents in childhood). The point he makes is that shame precedes violence. That, in order to get a person to commit a horrific violent act, you must humiliate him first.
This is a finding that I have seen widely replicated. In the 1970s, psychoanalyst Helen Lewis coded her therapy sessions for markers of different emotions and found that shame was the dominant emotion in most of her transcripts. She also found that most people did not call it shame. They used words like “rejection” or “awkwardness.” Finally, and this is similar to Gilligan’s findings, shame markers always, consistently proceeded anger markers.
These are not the only findings such as these, nor the only applications. Historians have identified shame as an important precedent to conflict and war. Think Nazi Germany as violence after the shame of the treaty of Versailles. IRA violence after the shame of rejected demands for Home Rule. US violence in Afghanistan after the shame of 9/11. North Korea. The pattern continues.
“I think we shall have to choose in the next few weeks between war and shame, and I have very little doubt what the decision will be.” —Winston Churchill
The Cycle of Shame and Violence
This is not to say that I excuse violence and think it should continue because it is justified.
I understand that no one wants to hear “he was a victim” about the man who shot down 27 people including children. People want to blame, scream, and have a public hanging. This is a natural reaction to being hurt. In a way, this sort of reaction strengthens the proposed relationship between shame and violence. We feel shamed for having a killer take not only lives, but something that is so important: our sense of safety. The backlash is violence.
How long will that cycle continue?
How long will we feel justified hurting someone who has been hurt by someone who has been hurt by someone else? Will it continue until we’re all victims and killers?
This reminds me of a clip from Bowling for Columbine:
Michael Moore: If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine or the people in that community, what would you say to them if they were here right now?
Marilyn Manson: I wouldn’t say a single word to them I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.
The existence of tragedies does not call for condemnation. The answer to violence is not more violence. An eye for an eye and the world really does go blind. To know of monstrous deeds done by a human being does not mean that human beings are monsters who need to be caged and punished.
What we can do is to give compassion to the victims and their families. We can show empathy for the suffering of people hurt by violence. We can seek to prevent violence and halt it in its tracks. We can sense the importance of human dignity and strive to preserve it in order to prevent such horrific acts of violence in the future.
I hope I have inspired you to take this as an opportunity for compassion. The shame-violence cycle will go on forever, bringing down more casualties as it rolls along, until it stops or takes us all down. Compassion is the only antidote. The cycle stops with empathy and love.
Be part of something revolutionary and dare to choose love.
For those of you interested in my resources and the immense amount of detail I have omitted for the sake of brevity, I invite you to explore:
Shame: The root of violence by Prof. Chris Poulson
Shame, Guilt, and Violence by James Gilligan
War and Emotion: Hypermasculine Violence as a Social System by Thomas Scheff
This was previously published on Authentunity.
Image credit: Grey World/Flickr