These words were uttered by down-on-his-luck cabaret singer Carol Todd (Robert Preston) in Blake Edwards’s immortal film Victor/Victoria, one of my all-time favorites. I recently posted this quote on Facebook, amidst other words of rancor not so clever as those penned by the late Mr. Edwards, because someone had told my wife and son they should be ashamed of their behavior.
“Why?” you asked. (Well, some of you did.) “What did they do?”
It doesn’t matter why, because my wife and son had done nothing to be ashamed of. In all of human history, nobody ever did anything worth being ashamed of. That doesn’t mean nobody in history ever did anything immoral, unethical, or downright awful. We know they did. We established public education and TV news so that everyone would remember that they did. It just means that there’s no reason for those people who did wrong to feel ashamed, because feeling ashamed doesn’t accomplish anything.
In fact, I don’t think shame is a feeling. Not a natural one. It’s a dirty, useless, stupid pseudo-feeling that hurts people and ruins lives, without ever righting a wrong or salving a hurt feeling.
I hate shame.
As Mr. Todd notes, shame was invented by pietists. Who are pietists? Why, they’re people who want everyone to be moral. Why do they want everyone to be moral? Well, because God, because their parents, because Jerry Falwell, because Hillary Clinton… because someone told them that they needed to be. Morality, to pietists, is not a thing you explain, it’s just a thing that is. And it never, never changes, ever. Except when it does. But, when it changes, it becomes retroactive, and the people who were moral once become suddenly immoral.
Shame is the pietist’s weapon. Shame is what they want you to feel if you break their moral code. It’s part of their punishment. It’s also part of their deterrent, or so they think. No one wants to feel ashamed, and so they’ll do no wrong. More likely, they’ll do wrong and hide it, so no one knows their shame.
But here’s the deal: Morality is not inexplicable. Morality is practical. Morality makes sense. Morality exists because actions have reactions, and decisions have consequences. Good decisions have positive consequences. Bad decisions have negative consequences. For instance, having sex and getting pregnant when you have no way to provide for a child is a bad decision with bad consequences. So most societies traditionally have a moral code against it. “Don’t do this, because other peoples’ experience shows it won’t end well.”
People can be inexperienced, ignorant of downright stupid. So we have morality to act as a crutch to judgment. Not everyone is smart enough to figure out consequences on their own.
But here’s the other thing: You only learn by making mistakes. So why be ashamed when you make a mistake? It means you’re learning. (Or, it shows that you can’t learn, and need someone to take over running your life for you. There are those out there.)
For years, I was ashamed when I made a mistake. As a child, if I made any sort of error, I would literally go hide in a corner and hang my head. It was a terrible feeling. I still hate to be wrong, but it was liberating to be able to tell myself I don’t need to be ashamed when I’m wrong. I just need to figure out my error, learn, and chalk it up to experience. No shame in the equation.
But we lump shame on people all the time. We make fun of mistakes. We condemn people who screw up. We demand punishment for wrong-doing, even if it teaches the wrong-doer absolutely nothing. No, I’m not saying that there should be no penalty for committing crimes. You’re listening to someone who believes that a murderer is the property of his victim’s family, and they have every moral right to shoot said murdered in the head in the public square if they so choose.
I just think shame is destructive. It does not enforce morality. It’s an emotional weapon. Enforcement of morality should be an intellectual process, otherwise, bad morality is allowed to fester.
And there is bad morality. Bad morality told Americans that loyalty to their country demanded they fight in World War I, the all-time stupidest thing any group of human beings ever did. Seriously, can anyone actually find a reason for that war? No. Because there was no reason. Like shame, it was a series of silly customs which compounded to hurt people.
Bad morality allowed gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people to be shunned, hurt and killed for centuries. Why? Because there was once a practical need for groups to reproduce and build their strength in numbers. So customs developed saying, “When you have sex, have it in such a way that you create children. Don’t masturbate. Don’t have sex with your own gender. That’s bad.” That custom, which served only the group, not the individual (and thus is highly suspect from the word go), turned into a system of morality, enforced by pietists using shame. (Carol Todd was gay in the 1930s, and knew from shame and piety.)
Worse, bad morality and the shame it creates don’t only apply to your own actions. Lots of people feel ashamed because someone else has done something wrong and involved them. Victims of molestation feel ashamed because someone else touched their genitals, or worse, and so they often don’t say, “Hey, a crime was committed against me!” They hide in corners and hang their heads.
Even when it defends good morality and practicality, shame is useless. If you’re intelligent, you’ll see the consequences of bad decisions and either avoid them or learn from them. If you’re stupid, you won’t avoid or learn, and shame will only make you stupid and emotionally wounded.
Shame sucks. Never, ever feel ashamed. If you make a mistake, correct it. Learn from it. If you hurt someone, make it up to them.
But move forward. Don’t feel ashamed. And don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed. It’s not a real feeling, and it’s not healthy.