Emory Report

 November 17, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 13

Shame may be a powerful
deterrent to crime, antisocial acts

Emory scholars are putting their heads together to ponder original solutions to pressing social problems like gang violence and other antisocial behavior. In the course "Shame, Guilt and the Rites of Reconciliation," theology Professor Charles Hackett challenges graduate students to explore the origins of such cultural and social concepts as sin, responsibility and reconciliation and their application in today's world.

The seminar, offered for doctoral credit for the first time this fall, bridges the disciplines of theology and psychology. Together the group attempts to reconcile contemporary psychoanalytic theories of shame and guilt with the history and theologies of confession, penance and reconciliation in Western Christianity. The students look at how these processes are manifested in modern culture and how these insights can shed light on seemingly intractable social problems.

The American penal system is based on a guilt paradigm-the belief that making people pay for crime modifies behaviors, said Hackett. This simply doesn't work, he said. "We need to move toward a shame-honor culture. To threaten a gang member with imprisonment for a drive-by shooting is pointless. Time away from society is no deterrent. They aren't motivated by guilt; they are driven by shame. The shame of failing a gang initiation has a far greater impact on a youth's behavior than time in jail. They will do anything to avoid letting the gang down."

The idea of shame and its impact on behavior offers critical grist to the social debate, noted Hackett, who wears two professional hats, one as professor of theology in liturgical practice and the history of hermeneutics, and the other as a private practice psychotherapist at Piedmont Hospital. In this dual role, Hackett is well situated to observe and comment on what he considers a virtual revolution in psychology and the treatment of patients-the discovery of the power of shame and its wide sociocultural implications.

Psychotherapy has advanced dramatically in its understanding of the abuse of shame and its impact on individuals. "The more aware we become of how universal and fundamental shaming effects are, the better we are able to develop ways to diagnose and heal the patient," Hackett said. "Once shame is identified, therapeutic change begins to move much more rapidly."

Until recently, shame had been grossly misunderstood and undervalued for its societal impact. Theorist Helen Block Lewis first discerned the differences between people who are more or less prone to shame. The latter possess a kind of internal gyroscope-orienting the world around them to themselves; the former tend to orient themselves to what goes on around them. Therefore, they are more vulnerable to the impact of shaming messages.

Unlike guilt, shame has several essential characteristics, Lewis posited. It's universally felt; it stems from relationships and how other people see us; and it has great impact-a person's entire sense of self can be diminished by shame.

Shame is an emotion that is "hard-wired" into individuals from birth-a natural response to something distasteful or unpleasant. Contrary to its negative perception, shame generally is believed to be a neutral event. Many cultures use the emotion as a basis for group order. It works from the bottom up as well as from the top down in hierarchical societies, noted Hackett. In the Middle Ages, a knight would have been shamed equally to act as king or serf. "Like anything this powerful, shame can and has been abused," Hackett said. "The cultural and social implications of this new understanding is tremendous."

His students are compelled to examine a breadth of approaches to shame. How someone views an incident or issue is dependent upon their group, their cultural perspective and their audience. This background information becomes the lens or filter through which people interpret events. When a teenager steals a hubcap, he is seen by different people in different ways. "To a psychologist, the youth is maladjusted. To a policeman, he's committed a crime. And to a theologian, he has sinned," said Hackett. And there is a world of difference in how a Japanese psychologist would view such behavior and how it would be seen by an American.

We apply this same filter when we read historical accounts, including the Bible. We are all biased by our own perspective and sense of normalcy, Hackett pointed out. "We have to get past cultural and historical biases and linguistic differences to understand what was meant [in the Bible] at the time it was written and how it can be correctly understood today."

-Lyn Allgood

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