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 â€” the dignity â€” 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.