Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Shame, humiliation, and embarrassment! Lately I have been paranoid that others consider my thoughts weird and perverted, and I should probably just keep them to myself. Now, I've already gestured towards the discursive uses of 'appropriateness' and 'relevance', and the need to challenge them, but now I want to consider the affects of inappropriateness. I am aware of Elspeth Probyn's work on this front, but it really frustrates me that I no longer have access to university library resources, so I can't study it in the detail I would like.

Here is what I believe to be the vernacular understanding of the difference between shame, humiliation and embarrassment. Shame is about the violation of hegemonic moral codes (which are unstated, but socially understood to be consensual) by a person or group. Humiliation is a technique of deliberately subjugating a person or group by violating their dignity, and is often used as a political or military weapon (think mandatory detention, Abu Ghraib, etc). Embarrassment concerns lighter social gaffes and violations of decorous comportment.

For example, yesterday I was in this posh shoe shop and as I was about to walk out the door I saw my exact handbag in the window display. Thus mesmerised, I failed to notice that the glass door was closed, and thank god I was wearing pointy shoes, because the point of my shoe hit the door before my face did. And everyone would have known that I only hit the door because I was vainly looking at my own handbag! But it speaks volumes about how much better I am feeling now than two weeks ago, because I started laughing instead of running away feeling mortified, and the story ended up as an amusing anecdote over beers with Saige, Patrick and Chloe.

Using Icelandic saga poetry as his example, William Ian Miller distinguishes between the states and feelings of shame by describing an economy of shame. Society may designate someone or something as being shameful, and the morality of this person, object or act is socially negotiated by the degree to which they reciprocate by feeling ashamed. It is often represented as the 'correct' affective response by these shameful people, and the absence of this affect is shameful in itself (eg: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself", "Shame, Australia, shame!"). Think about how Schapelle Corby's tears and puffy red face embody the affect of shame, making her Australia's darling.

Conversely, I had a whole chapter in my bogan thesis about how Shane Paxton's long hair, symbolising his refusal of a job from A Current Affair, embodied the state of shamefulness, but that Paxton and his siblings never felt ashamed. (I didn't mention, although it might at least have warranted a footnote, about how Paxton's first name coincidentally echoed the word 'shame'. I can't remember now if any media coverage picked up on this - subs are usually quite alert for such serendipities.)

It is considered socially acceptable, even over-sensitive, for someone to feel unintended shame, humiliation or embarrassment, but it is a major failing for individuals to be unaware or defiant of attempts to shame, humiliate or embarrass them. I am largely interested in shame and humiliation because I want to examine why I am so easily humiliated myself. As a child, I used to feel so vicariously humiliated for characters on TV that I would run from the room. I am also one of those people who peeks through my fingers and lets out involuntary cries of "oh no!" at the cinema, as Saige may recall from the time we went and saw Sideways.

But more to the point, I am capable of feeling humiliated when no deliberate attempt to humiliate me has taken place. This is a deeply affective, embodied reaction: often, the mere memory of some long-ago humiliation is enough to make me blush, cringe or shiver. The trouble is that this dissonates with my comparatively non-existent sense of shame. I value straight-talking and willingly share my thoughts with others, even if others might consider them shameful. This was actually going to be the subject of this post, but I've gone down a productive tangent - you'll realise that I am prone to tangents both in my casual conversation and in my thinking and writing, but as Ellen DeGeneres entitled her autobiography, there is always an underlying point to my tangents, so I feel it's productive to be patient and wait for their relevance. I think I'll actually return to my original point in my next post.

But then when I think back over my shameless words and acts, I feel terribly humiliated. For example, a while ago I told that boy who rejected me recently that when I thought about him, I smelled my fingers. He thought this was a hilarious bon mot. Here's the dissonance: he had thought our conversations had reached a phase of jocular, meaningless sexualised banter; but I was telling him that his previously expressed interest in me was reciprocated. And when I found out that the boy was not after all attracted to me and in fact had actually been pursuing other girls all the time I had imagined him pursuing me, I realised what an appallingly misjudged thing this was to say, and I felt terribly, terribly humiliated.

How he must have basked in the flattery of my overtures, knowing all the time that he was not going to do anything at all about them! How gauche I was to say what I thought and wanted! It was not just this one comment, you see ... there were many more comments and actions which, when piled upon each other, created an almost unbearable feeling of burning humiliation in me. Even tears and alcohol could not douse it, and no doubt I will still feel its residual warmth for years to come.

The only way in which I can recuperate my humiliation is to turn it into an amusing anecdote that elicits laughter or sympathy. (However, some of my humiliations are so deep-seated that they will never be funny, and I have never told anyone about them.) But interestingly enough, this will only work if the story gets the right affective response. When I told Stuart about the Finger-Sniffing Incident, he made a strangled sound, hung his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. Jeremy needed it explained to him, but after that he just said, "Jesus!" Tash laughed and clapped like a spastic, which was my favourite response.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Site Meter