If our goal as Americans is to create a politics fit for persons, we need to cultivate the kind of shame that warns us against the use of persons as means to our own ends. Shame, as it appears in common discourse, means “feeling badly about oneself.” Here, however, I’m interested in shame understood as a protective movement that alerts persons to the potential for use and makes possible authentic encounters between persons. A society whose members don’t attend to protective shame can expect political leaders who “could shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters” or influential public figures who commit sexual violence. Beyond these examples, the kind of shamelessness I explore here pervades American public life. It frames conversations from the #MeToo Movement, to immigration, to the way we talk to and about one another on social media. Here I show why a culture of shamelessness leads to violence and how a healthy sense of shame can help us create a better shared life.
Shame is the desire to conceal what I do not want exposed—understanding its proper place in human life is key to treating others with dignity. Karol Wojtyła (1920-2005) conducts a phenomenology of shame in his work Love and Responsibility. “[T]he phenomenon of shame,” he writes, “occurs when that which by reason of its essence or purpose should be interior leaves the sphere of interiority of the person and becomes in some way exterior.” (Interiority is awareness of my own ethical sense, my concern with truth and the good, as well as the inner life out of which I make contact with the world around me.) For example, I might feel shame if I lose my temper in a conversation such that I expose feelings or thoughts I would have rather presented differently. Or, I might feel shame if I notice someone looking me over at the gym and perceive this person treating me as an object of use.
Wojtyła quotes Kant’s imperative, “Act in such a way so that the person is never a mere means of your action, but always an end.” In light of the inviolability of persons, Wojtyła argues that Kant needs a revision:
Whenever the person is an object of action in your conduct, remember that you may not treat him merely as a means to an end, as a tool, but [you must] take into account that the person himself has or at least should have his end.
Where we could treat persons as means to our ends, Wojtyła invites us instead to recognize that a person has or at least should have her own end. The experience of recognition orients us to become aware of situations of potential use.
An experience of shame arises out of two discoveries. First is the discovery of interiority. Second is a recognition that persons are inviolable. The awareness that results is two-fold: I do not want the other person to treat me as an object of use. And, I must not treat the other person as an object of use. In this way, shame is protective: it alerts me to the inviolability of persons, it beckons me to care for my dignity and the dignity of other persons. In practice, say at the gym, protective shame signals to me that I do not want to be treated as an object of use. And, it reminds me that I must not treat as an object of use any other person in the weight room.
Can I call this sense of shame “protective” even if another person proceeds to harm me, or, even if I commit harm against another person? Wojtyła’s analysis is that shame alerts persons to the potential for use and invites us to avoid use. Whether any person chooses to heed that warning is another step. Even in a situation of harm, shame still serves a protective purpose. Let’s say someone assaults me. My sense of shame after an assault tells me that something is wrong: namely, that I should not have been treated as an object of use, that the person who treated me as an object of use violated me. Let’s say I assault a person. In this case, a sense of shame tells me that I have committed harm against that person and violated what I must not violate. In both movements, shame signals that persons are inviolable and that whatever harm (a) I commit against another, or (b) another commits against me, is wrong. There is also work to be done on harm that (c) I commit against myself, but here I’ll just note that this kind of shame is a phenomenon we often ignore.
The next thing to notice is what Wojtyła presents as a choice between love and use. With the discovery of interiority, a person perceives further possibilities in relating to another person. First there is the possibility, “This person could use me.” There is also, “I could use this person.” By use, Wojtyła means “to treat this person as a means to an end” such that I allow some value connected with this person to obscure their value as a whole person.
In the discovery of the possibility of use, a person gains awareness that the values connected with her person could obscure the very value of her whole person. In this movement, the sexual value, political value, celebrity value, or athletic value connected to a person could obscure the value of the whole person. To take an example, the fervor over Trump’s child separation policy arises with the just criticism that Trump and his administration use children at the border for their political value, in violation of their value as persons.
In the experience of shame, persons discover they must not be treated as objects of use, in deed or even in intention. Instead, as Wojtyła puts it, a person desires to be an object of love. The alternative to use is love, which he understands as intending “the fullest realization of the possibilities that dwell in man.” Accordingly, “Love is such action, such an act, which most fully develops the existence of the person.”
Developing a sense of shame, understood as a flight from use, to use Wojtyła’s phrase, is a key part of becoming more fully human. We recognize as “good at being human beings” those who are sensitive to their own interiority, to their value as whole persons, and to the inviolability of every person.
Sometimes, in politics and in personal life, we use one another in ways that violate our dignity as persons. The solution is not to reject sexuality or power or any specific value connected to the person that might obscure the value of the whole person. Instead, the solution is to choose not to treat the other person as an object of use. That’s difficult. But key to the discovery of what it is to be human is the insight that it is possible to choose not to treat others as objects for one’s pleasure.
Through the protective sense of shame, a person rejects use but opens the way to love as self-gift: You may not possess me, I may not possess you; but I can intend your good, and I can receive you. This affirmation of a person gives place to the values connected with a person that, taken on their own in the approach of use, would obscure the value of the whole person.
Significantly, love absorbs shame. Loving a person precludes using that person so in a situation of love, nothing calls up the protective shame. In situations of potential use, shame returns to warn us of the possibility of violation. In sum this sense of shame benefits our politics because it helps persons to recognize the potential for one person to use another person, and helps persons to choose to not use others.
Shamelessness, by contrast, facilitates depersonalizing, dehumanizing actions. The appearance of shamelessness is different from the phenomenon of the absorption of shame by love. Wojtyła traces two ways in which shamelessness signals that something has gone wrong in a relationship between persons. First, shamelessness can signal that a person has failed to affirm the value of another person by moving some value connected with that person—such as sexual value, political value, celebrity value, athletic value—to the foreground in a way that obscures the value of the whole person. This type of shamelessness is part of what’s a stake in the controversy over Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and America’s celebration of football: Do we treat players as persons, or as figures to be spent for our entertainment—and what does that say about who we are?
A second way shamelessness can appear is when a person “reject[s] the healthy tendency to feel shame for the reactions and the lived-experiences in which the other person appears as a mere object of use.” To take up the child separation example again, this type of shamelessness was obvious in what some deemed Trump’s failure to manifest shame when, for the sake of his policy, persons treated children as objects of use.
Shamelessness—using someone for an attribute they possess or rejecting the feeling of shame that surfaces when you see another person being used—is powerful in our communal life. Consistently practiced, both kinds of shamelessness numb our consciences to practices or policies that treat persons as objects of use. Habituated shamelessness leads to violence, in deed or intention, because it teaches me to see others as objects of my pleasure instead of inviolable persons.
If love is the alternative to use, is there a place for love in politics? It depends on what kind of politics you want. The kind of love we’re talking about here is love understood as intending the full development of a person. If you want a politics that makes the affirmation of persons the measure of what we choose to create, then there is a place for love in politics—because love doesn’t mean a feeling, it means a commitment to treat humans in a way that honors their full potential. This is important for face-to-face relationships, but also for our common life more broadly: what is at stake is our success or failure at being human, along with how we respect or violate others’ humanity along the way. The political life we’re making—is it animated by affirmation of persons or use of persons?
There’s an important connection between shame and freedom. In Wojtyła’s interpretation, shame is not associated with repression or guilt. Guilt comes with a sense that I have been or done wrong in a way that leads to harm. To clarify the distinction between shame and guilt: The reason I might feel shame when I notice someone looking me over in the gym isn’t that there’s something wrong with my person or my dress—there’s not: the thing is that I want to be treated as a whole person, not as an object of use. Instead, protective shame originates with reverence for persons and an accompanying desire to avoid use. Because it is a protective movement that, healthily calibrated, recedes when there is no need for defense, shame enables persons to appear and to meet. In this way, shame helps us to be free to refuse to use ourselves or our neighbors, and to become free by willing the full development of others.
Both social media and the habit of abstraction can make us shameless actors. Social media environments make it easy for me to forget that I am communicating with persons, so I have to be extra attentive to avoid actions that depersonalize those with whom I communicate. Likewise, the mental habit of abstraction—“the tendency to treat a person as a generality, to regard a person as an average man” (as Abraham Joshua Heschel says)—can quickly lead me to depersonalizing actions.
Most of the shamelessness Americans harbor is likely unintentional, a consequence not of malice but of a failure to think. This is important because, as Hannah Arendt demonstrates in “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” it is often not malevolence but a lack of thoughtfulness that prepares persons to commit harm against others. “The sad truth of the matter,” she writes, “is that most evil is done by people who never made up their mind to be either good or bad.” The way to make oneself susceptible to evil, she suggests, is “never to start the soundless solitary dialogue we call thinking, never to go home and examine things.” As Americans we are deciding whether we accept shamelessness as a starting point in our public discourse, or whether we hold that human dignity requires that we address one another with some kind of reverence. Wojtyła’s study of protective shame can help each of us to engage in that dialogue with the self.
If we want our shared life to value persons, there is a place for protective shame, the flight from use. A sense of shame can alert me when I have failed to reverence myself or another person, or that I’ve seen someone else do the same.
Shamelessness appears when a person fails to affirm the value of another. It manifests in violence, in intention and in deed. That shamelessness is an American epidemic. It corrodes our political discourse, our relationships, and our Twitter feeds. Wojtyła’s philosophy offers an invitation to attend to the healing flight from use that enables us to live well together.
Sarah Beth Kitch is Assistant Professor of Constitutional Democracy and Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.