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IT is impossible to understand America’s foreign policy, its relatively high homicide rate, its contentious discussions over values, and its zealous sense of mission without reference to shame. In fact, it is difficult to understand most issues that dominate the political and cultural landscape in the United States without reference to shame. Shame figures somewhere in the background of most American discussions of morality or the lack of it. It is in the background mostly because we have lost the language to discuss shame, even as we debate issues that center on it. Symptomatic of our loss of vocabulary in dealing with shame is its murky definition. The Four Horsemen of Abasement are shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. For present purposes , shame is distinguished from the other three because, as a rough definition, it is a feeling that one’s failings (especially one’s moral failings) are or would be looked at by others with contempt . It is distinguished from guilt because guilt involves selfrecrimination . With guilt, we are our own judge, jury, and executioner for our moral failings. It is distinguished from embarrassment , because embarrassment is something that happens after trivial offenses. Embarrassment follows faux paus and violations of conventions, rather than serious failings. And, for the sake of the present discussion, shame is distinguished from humiliation in a few different ways. Humiliation involves a collapse of pretenses; it follows actions by the self, or more often by others, SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) The American National Conversation about (Everything but) Shame DOV COHEN that show that the self is not what it was pretending to be. It is less about moral failings or failings in basic human competencies and more about getting put down or cut down to size (see also Miller, 1993; Gilbert and Andrews, 1998; Tangney, 1992). The words are all familiar, but the distinctions often get blurred by using guilt and shame interchangeably or by thinking of embarrassment, guilt, shame, and humiliation as differing only in matters of degree. The loose usage of these words indicates both the way these feelings are so related in experience and the extent to which we have lost the language to precisely describe them. However, simply because we have lost our precise vocabulary and simply because we rarely use these words does not mean that shame is peripheral. This article describes two different types of shame: “primal shame,” deriving from failings of bravery and courage, and moral shame, deriving from our transgressions (Wyatt-Brown, 1982). These themes shape our national conversation in many ways, even if we do not explicitly invoke them the way early Americans on the frontier, in the churches, and in polite (or aspiring) society would have. Shame and Honor It is difficult to talk about America in some general sense as either a shame culture or a shameless culture because the obvious questions are “Compared to whom?” and “On what dimension?” In terms of, for example, values of sexual purity, America is shameless and decadent in comparison to, say, the Middle East and (to a lesser degree, Latin America) and it is slightly puritanical when compared to, say, Scandinavia (Vandello and Cohen, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c). In terms of its tolerance for corruption, places would be reversed: our crooked politicians look positively upright in comparison with shameless politicians or bureaucrats in some Middle Eastern and Latin American countries and relatively dirty in comparison with those of reportedly clean Scandi1076 SOCIAL RESEARCH navia. (Transparency International, 1999-2002). So in this sense, it is hard to be comparative about such a global term like shame; instead of comparisons, this article discusses how issues of shame or worries about its absence figure in contemporary American culture and its traditions. To understand shame, it is necessary to understand two other concepts: honor and, as we will come to later, self-esteem. Honor and shame are opposites in valence. Precise definitions of honor will differ, but it is something like the status and reputation of a person in the eyes of his or her peers. Honor is defined either by precedence one claims and is accorded or by a reputation for good moral character (and often it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1075-1108
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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