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Without shame in life

Shame. The Politics and Power of an Emotion
Forfatter: David Keen
Forlag: Princeton University Press, (USA)
SKAM / The Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has noble motives for her outbursts against the establishment, but she is also part of a modern trend where shame and shaming have become part of everyday politics and the often dystopian debate on social media. This book takes a closer look at shame.


Shame on you! You should be ashamed! You can hear it for yourself when Greta Thunberg indignantly gives political leaders and the adult generation a wake-up call for screwing up the environment, without showing any real will to do anything about the problem.

In that regard, the Swedish environmental activist is quite typical of his time. She has noble motives for her outbursts against the establishment, but she is also part of a modern trend where shame and shaming has become part of everyday politics and the often dystopian debate on social media.

David Keen, who is professor of conflict studies at the London School of Economics, explains in his latest book how shame is instrumentalized and used as a potent political weapon. And he places special emphasis on the special side of the phenomenon, where a politician who offers his supporters exemption from shame has often heaped loads of shame around himself.

Trump and Eichmann

What could therefore be more natural than to glance at Donald Trump, who, according to most people, has no shame in life?

The classic example is the affair from 2016, in which the Washington Post published a tape recording of Trump and TV personality Billy Bush, in which the two spoke extremely disparagingly about women. As a presidential candidate, Trump was introduced to the case during a debate with rival candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump conceded, but called it 'locker-room talk'. He settled the shame with a thin explanation that this is how real men behave, and with a rhetorical trick he said almost in the same breath that as president he would destroy the Islamic State. Thus he had transferred the shame to the Islamists, and his core voters were well satisfied.

You can distance yourself from shame by shaming others.

The point is that you can distance yourself from shame by shaming others, and there are a veritable multitude of examples of this in the political world.

Another somewhat older example from the book that catches the eye is the top Nazi Adolf Eichmann. He was responsible for sending two million people to the Nazi death camps, and the curious thing was that he displayed very little of the insane racism that should underlie such a heinous act. Then Hannah Arendt in 1963, attending the trial of Eichmann, she was struck by how ordinary this mass murderer appeared, and it led her to write about the banality of evil.

Eichmann was among those who tried to explain himself by saying that he had just done a job that had been assigned to him. In reality, Eichmann's twisted emotional life played out on a completely different level, and it became clear in the post-war period, when he lived in Argentina until Israeli agents found him and took him to Jerusalem. Unlike other exiled top Nazis, the unbelievably self-absorbed Eichmann made no secret of his horrors. On the contrary, he bragged about his efforts during the war, but he expressed shame at not having done the job well enough. Only in this way could he clear himself, as he could accuse the Nazi regime of having failed him, thereby transferring the shame to others.

Of course, one must be careful in comparing a Nazi mass murderer to living politicians, but it is nevertheless striking that for both Eichmann and Trump the feeling of shame centers on weakness and failure, and not, as one might immediately expect, about the concept moral aspects. Despite enormous differences, in both cases it is one narcissistic urge to be able to demonstrate 'success'.

Shame and guilt

Here you can see an important part of the development that the concept of shame has undergone, and it is also the core of Keen's thought-provoking and frightening book. In the first half of the 20th century, people stuck to what we could call the classic meaning of the term, namely something shameful and moral reprehensible. But then the usage died out, and it became antiquated or bourgeois-born to talk about shame.

Shame is so sufficiently diffused that it is almost impossible to present counterarguments.

In today's highly polarized and overheated political debate, shame has become an effective offensive weapon to demean the opponent on a very personal level. Here it is interesting to see that shame can increasingly be differentiated from fault. This latter, writes the author, is linked to an action or a behavior, while shame is about a person and their self-esteem. In that perspective, shame and shaming are potentially far more harmful and can have a profound psychological effect.

There is no doubt that Keen harbors deep antipathy for Donald Trump, and in places the text becomes more polemical than scientifically documented. But he nevertheless has ample evidence for what he writes, and with this book he points out an important and dangerous development in the modern discourse, and this applies not least to social media, where decent argumentation is increasingly difficult. It is effective to accuse a political opponent of having no shame in life, but it is also hitting below the belt. Guilt is about something concrete that you can relate to in a debate, whereas shame is so sufficiently diffuse that it is almost impossible to put up counterarguments.

This is very characteristic of today's public debate, and it is a dangerous trend.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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