BY JOSEPH BURGO
Public shaming represents an ironic kind of justice, for it is shame that keeps many victims silent for years. Shame has increasingly come to be viewed as a repressive force whose shackles must be thrown off.
Every day it seems someone is proclaiming that he or she has no reason to feel ashamed of one thing or another — being gay or transgender or overweight; having had an abortion; having survived rape or childhood sexual abuse; or struggling with mental illness or addiction. Bestselling self-help author Brené Brown has devoted many books to helping people resist shame, which, Brown says, "corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change."
According to this widely accepted view, shame shuts us down and isolates us from other people through the feelings of defect and unworthiness it inspires. But shame may also serve as a force for good when we direct it at behavior damaging to the social fabric. As recent studies have shown, shame originally evolved as a means of promoting obedience to the rules that helped humans live and survive together; it deterred actions that might harm the individual as well as the tribe. In our modern world, too, a fear of being publicly shamed encourages adherence to the rules and standards that enable us to live together in a civilized way. When we turn shame upon individuals who violate those standards, we press them to desist.
As part of that shaming process, we typically ostracize or exclude them from society, at least temporarily. People lose their jobs; the public boycotts their work. In a society that values fairness and compassion for others, that forbids the rich and powerful to exploit those who depend on them for leadership and guidance, we feel that these men have received the public humiliation they deserve.
Humiliation should not be the only goal, however — as gratifying as it might feel to see the ruthless and mighty brought low. When public shaming becomes purely vindictive, it serves no purpose other than revenge. To be a force for good, it should leave room for those who have violated our standards to experience remorse and then to make amends. If such remorse is genuine and a perpetrator makes actual restitution to his victims — that is, if he truly reforms — we should be prepared to ease the shaming.
In an age of spin doctors and PR agents, gauging authenticity can be difficult. A news release with a carefully scripted mea culpa, contending that the offender suffers from some psychological problem, such as "sex addiction," doesn’t meet the test. If he then disappears from view, possibly under medical supervision but truthfully hoping that the public will forget the scandal, we know his apology was insincere.
To be authentic, the public apology should be followed by direct expressions of regret to the victims, most likely made in private. Efforts to atone must be directed toward those harmed. And if forgiveness is to be offered, it must come from those who have the most to forgive. This process of rehabilitation and forgiveness takes time.
Over the past four decades, the medicalization of my field — with psychological problems increasingly equated to physiological disorders — has removed much of the shame and moral stigma that formerly surrounded mental health struggles. People are no longer ashamed to openly seek psychotherapy or take Prozac. That is a good thing.
But it has also allowed accused predators such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey to avoid true shame and to distance themselves from their bad behavior, laying responsibility for it at the feet of a self-diagnosis. While they may hope that a few weeks in rehab will convince the public that they have recovered, their behavior doesn’t reflect a medical condition that can be cured. It instead embodies the ruthless abuse of their power to exploit those who trusted and depended upon them.
That doesn’t mean that shame can’t be deeply felt, however, or that a public figure can’t express genuine remorse. The statement issued by comedian Louis C.K. stands in sharp contrast to the responses by Weinstein, Spacey and others, despite those who insist that it contains no real apology or remorse.
Unlike his predecessors, C.K. doesn’t claim to suffer from an addiction or other disorder; he doesn’t sanitize his crimes with cautious descriptions such as "improper behavior" or "mistakes," but instead writes candidly of asking women to look at his "d---." He acknowledges that the admiration his victims felt for him as a comedian gave him power over them and that he "wielded that power irresponsibly." His list of friends, family and colleagues he has injured is lengthy.
"The hardest regret to live with," he writes, "is what you’ve done to hurt someone else." He does not forgive himself or ask for our forgiveness — nor should anyone be expected to forgive him at this juncture. But for shame to function as a force for good, and not merely as an instrument of revenge, we should allow those who genuinely feel shame to reform and make amends. They needn’t be shamed or excluded forever. Questions of forgiveness, though -—should they be forgiven, and when — belong only to their victims.
Joseph Burgo is the author, most recently, of "The Narcissist You Know" and the forthcoming "Shame." © 2017 Washington Post