a pedagogy of shame

In preparation for Luke and my conference talk “Towards a Less Oppressive Social Justice Pedagogy,” I am reading Sandra Lee Bartky’s “The Pedagogy of Shame.” While Bartky is most concerned with the way we systematically shame women in classrooms, leaving them feeling inadequate and having less self-esteem than men, her discussion on shame is pertinent to how we treat others and discuss social justice with those who disagree with us.

She works from the theories of Sartre and John Deigh on shame. Quoting Sartre, she writes that “To be ashamed is to be in the position of ‘passing judgment on myself as an object that I appear to the Other” (227). Thus, shame is the recognition of yourself as an Other’s object. “Shame,” Bartky writes, “is the distressed apprehension of the self as inadequate or diminished.” John Deigh says that we should “conceive shame, not as a reaction to a loss, but as a reaction to a threat, specifically the threat of demeaning treatment one would invite in giving the appearance of someone of lesser worth” (qtd in Bartky 227).

Bartky notes that shame becomes a “cringing withdrawal from others” (228).

This is interesting in light of a 2004 USA Today article which states:

At bottom, shaming punishments are wrong because they constitute an unhinged assault on the shared and exalted moral status — the dignity — all human beings possess simply by virtue of being human.

Dartky argues that a pedagogy of shame for women is particularly damaging because they have been shamed throughout their educational career (and, I might add, throughout their lives as a whole), but it seems that shaming is inherently wrong because it is an assault on the dignity of others, and because it reduces other people to our objects. When you feel shame, you realize that you are someone else’s object: you do not live up to their judgments (or their perceived judgments).

It is worth nothing that shame and guilt are two different things. Dartky writes that “Shame, then, involves the distressed apprehension of oneself a lesser creature. Guilt, by contrast, refers not to a subject’s nature but to her actions: typically, it is called forth by the active violation of principles which a person values and by which she feels herself bound” (229).

Bartky, Sandra Lee. “The Pedagogy of Shame.” Feminisms and Pedagogies of Everyday Life. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996. 225-241.

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3 Responses to a pedagogy of shame

  1. Mike says:

    Shame is public; guilt, private. The Romans had an immense structure of feelings and prohibitions build around shame, and their sense of identity was very much focused on the public persona — see, perhaps as the most prominent example, the horrified reactions as Tiberius retreated from public view to his villas on Capri: he became monstrous because he became private and hidden. After Freud, after Romanticism, guilt rather than shame became our culture’s chief inhibitor of antisocial behavior. But as we begin, as a culture, to turn back towards a networked sense of what McLuhan called “publicy,” I wonder if we’re also turning back towards a renewed sense of shame as inhibitor.

  2. Thank you. Current moves in my teaching(1st grade) in scripted instruction seem to be a system based in shame. This allowed me to name it, think some more and link to some other ways to discuss what I see. I really appreciate your work.

  3. Michael says:

    Thank you for the comment, Sarah.

    Mike, I don’t know if I agree with you when it comes to guilt and shame and which is a dominant motivator of people. The problem with this issue is that the line between guilt and shame is so blurry that it’s hard to dice the two apart.

    I see shame as the largest motivator to keep LGBT folks in the closet for the past 100-150 years, when Freudian psychoanalysis helped provoke a society of analyzing everyone concurrent with the rise of sexually noncomforming identities, leading to a massive invasion of our bodies by science, our families, and doctors (a la Foucault’s History of Sexuality). It seems that we’ve kept LGBT behavior in line through public shaming: the interpellation of queer, faggot, homo, the abuse and taunting of boys and girls who transgress gender roles. It seems that shame is one of the top pedagogies of sexuality.

    And in school systems, I definitely agree with Bartky that shame is used against women.

    I think that Foucault’s Panopiticon metaphor is informing me here. Because we assume we are watched (even though we are not), we internalize and discipline ourselves to conform. We feel shame when we transgress even if someone hasn’t shamed us, but because we feel that someone would. Or, arguably, is it guilt because we’ve internalized those morals and they’ve become our morals?

    I don’t know… this seems like a pretty complicated issue.

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