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
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
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."
to November 17, 1997 Contents Page