Today we hear from Lewis B. Smedes and then in my next blog from James W. Fowler. At the end of yesterday’s blog about Lucy Grealy the last few words hinted that shame could have a strong social dimension. Both Lewis Smedes and James Fowler have something to say about this. Shame is not just an individual thing. We’ve already noticed how one person’s shame can affect a family or a group in society. But shame can run even deeper than this and it can deeply affect the people of a particular group and propagate through the generations. Shame is a social phenomenon.
Lewis B. Smedes states that “we feel shame when our families are scorned by other families, our race by other races, our communities by other communities.” The end result of this kind of despising is that “we are tempted to treat as despicable and disposable creatures [those who we despise]. If my ‘superior’ group believes that your ‘inferior’ group is the cause of our group’s troubles, we may exterminate you, as the German’s exterminated the Jews. If your ‘inferior’ group stands in the way of our ‘superior’ group’s manifest destiny, we may destroy you, as European Americans destroyed Native Americans. If your ethnic group is weak and we need you, we may make slaves of you, as Americans did to Africans. If your group is hungry and your very existence challenges the selfishness of our rich group, we will turn our eyes from you and treat you as if you did not exist. If your ethnic group threatens to corrupt the purity of our ethnic group, we will, one way or another, purify ourselves of your presence.”
So, Smedes contends, slavery is the logic of social shame: “When I, in the pride of my group, despise another person simply because she is a member of a group that my group despises, I shame her. If I will not fellowship with you simply because you belong to a group that my group considers inferior, I shame you. When I will not allow you to have the same rights that I have simply because you belong to a group that I think threatens the privileges of my group, I shame you, I have reduced you; I have turned you into a non-person with no identity but the name of the group that my group despises. I have taken the first step that, in other days, could have made you a slave.”
This social shaming produces a culture of shame in some social groups. It takes on a life that is beyond the control of an individual, or even the social group to which she belongs. It becomes in-built in generations that follow.