Brownstone » Brownstone Journal » The Taboo Ingredient for Progress: Shame
The Taboo Ingredient for Progress: Shame - Brownstone Institute

The Taboo Ingredient for Progress: Shame


But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four. ~ Albert Camus, The Plague

If you are of a certain age and grew up in a middle class American home or better, you were constantly told in large and small ways that both you and the broader culture could always be improved through conscious, earnest, and nonviolent efforts at change. 

The key, it was suggested, was to identity the problem and, through the use of our rational capabilities, come up with a practical plan for addressing whatever issue or injustice we saw as inhibiting the search for human fulfillment, an outlook neatly summarized in that most American of sayings: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” 

What no one told us, however, is that this reformist method of engendering peaceful change was highly dependent on the existence of a broadly-subscribed ethos of honesty, goodwill and, perhaps most of all, healthy shame in the class of people possessing an outsized ability to promote new ways of approaching social problems.

Among the more stinging descriptions you can level at a person in Spanish is that of being a sinvergüenza, or “a person without shame.” Why? Because the Spaniards that invented the term knew from centuries of experience that a person without shame is a person who will ultimately destroy anyone and anything in their path to achieve their narrow personal ends, and that a society, and even more crucially, a leadership class, made up of a plurality of such people, will ultimately destroy that culture’s operative ability to achieve anything remotely resembling the common good. 

Wait. Did I really just make a pitch for the revalorization of shame? Aren’t I aware of all the new research showing that shame is probably the most toxic psychic substance in the world, one that a thoughtful person seeking to construct a thoughtful culture should avoid inflicting upon another at all costs? 

I am, in fact, quite aware of that vein of analysis and have learned a great deal from it. Indeed, if there is anything that I have striven to avoid employing in my roles as a father, educator, and friend, it is precisely the weaponized use of shame. Shame employed in this way as a desperate last-minute controlling method is indeed every bit as toxic as our pop psychology gurus are constantly telling us it is. 

But in our fervent desire to rid ourselves and our culture of this brand of shame we have, it seems, forgotten about another much healthier version of the same, rooted not in the desire to control others, but in the marvelous and organic human capacity for empathy; that is, the process of stepping outside of ourselves and our immediate desires and trying to imagine the inner lives of others, and wondering if anything we have done has contributed to that “other” feeling less than cared for or dignified, and should the answer be “yes,” mindfully experiencing the disappointment of failing up to live up to our ideals. 

Looking around, it is hard to deny that this type of healthy shame, which, if processed well, can lead to productive change and a desire to engage in the practice of repair, is in rapid decline across our culture, and is almost completely non-existent in our elite classes. 

Gandhi, King, and Mandela, to name just three of the more well-known examples, premised their struggles for justice on the belief that, sooner or later, they could touch the highly atrophied sense of shame within those powerful who erected the systems that dehumanized and oppressed them. 

Today, however, we have a leadership class that has not only the desire, but the technological means to simply disappear those whose acts of defiance threaten to spark their empathy and lead them to a potentially life-changing encounter with themselves. 

The things that Julian Assange revealed about the way we conduct our wars evoke in them no angst or shame, but merely an enhanced desire to see him destroyed. The millions of vaccine-injured and vaccine-murdered produce no desire in them to engage in repentance and repair, but rather a drive to simply increase the airtightness of their systems of cognitive security

With these contemporary psychopathic control freaks, the project of modernity, with its barely concealed hatred of wonder, reverence, and contingency has come to its delirious climax. 

That Sophocles wrote about such madness in Oedipus Rex some 2,500 years ago, or the idea that technological advances might not carry with them a parallel growth in human insight or goodness, are of no interest to them at all. 


Hoisting their beloved banner of Inexorable Progress, they guffaw at the naivete of the Tiresias-types in our midst, quite sure that they, unlike the ancient king of Thebes will have flawless predictive vision and will get it perfectly correct this time, that is, presuming they can, as the Francoists in the Spanish Civil War used to say, “Clean up” the remaining pockets of ill-informed resistance within the culture sooner than later. 

Admitting that this sort of authoritarian nihilism is what we are up against is not pleasant or easy to do, especially for those who spent their formative years in that seemingly golden period (1945-1980) when the reformist mechanisms of our culture appeared to be yielding ever more impressive results. But as unpleasant as admitting this is, the cost of failing to do so may be even greater. 

No, I’m not advocating—as many raised in the culture of can-do reformism often accuse me of doing when I come to this point in our discussions about our current predicament—that we simply give up. I am absolutely all-in on martialing as many resources we can to seek redress within what remains of our social and political institutions. 

But as we do so, we must be prepared for the fact that they have many more means than us, and no qualms whatsoever about using the power at their disposal to further denature any and all “legal” procedures we might use to defend ourselves and our rights. 

Why is it important for us to prepare in this way? 

To avoid falling into precisely the states of desolation, desperation, and ultimately, disgusted disinterest that they want us to fall into. 

And, perhaps more importantly, to begin reorienting our thinking processes toward those used over the centuries by the overwhelming majority of those in the world who have not grown up under the fortunate illusion—rooted in taking the historically and culturally anomalous realities of life in the US over the last 150 years as universally normative—that peaceful efforts at reform mostly always pays off if you are earnest and hard-working, and that every problem has a ready solution if we think about it with enough clarity and persistence. 

I am talking, in short, about our need to wade back into the predominant currents of world history and reacquaint ourselves with what the great Spanish philosopher and precursor of the French existentialists, Miguel de Unamuno referred to as the “Tragic Sense of Life”. 

To view life through a tragic lens, as I suggested earlier, has nothing to do with giving up, but, in fact, is just the opposite. It’s about fighting with all one’s might each day to generate meaning, joy, and dignity for self and others despite the fact that the cards may be fatally stacked against us, and that our efforts may not contribute in any clear way to mankind’s alleged “march of progress.” 

It means adjusting the admixture of our core life emphases ever so slightly from the realm of doing to the realm of being, from seeking to control to embracing hope, from a concern with unipersonal lifespans to one anchored around intergenerational and transtemporal notions of time, and finally, from designing grand campaigns that may or may not work, to humbly and consistently bearing witness to what we know in our oft-ignored but intuitively gifted hearts to be real and true. 

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
For reprints, please set the canonical link back to the original Brownstone Institute Article and Author.


  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

    View all posts

Donate Today

Your financial backing of Brownstone Institute goes to support writers, lawyers, scientists, economists, and other people of courage who have been professionally purged and displaced during the upheaval of our times. You can help get the truth out through their ongoing work.

Subscribe to Brownstone for More News

Stay Informed with Brownstone Institute