Thursday, 9 July 2009

How we are Wrong: Part Five - The Shaming Principle.

The origins of this term lie with the author Lee Harris - "the shaming code". When I first encountered this term“from the Suicide of Reason”, I must admit that I misunderstood it. I was skimming through his book on a pre-reading and read some remarks on this term, it was not the full definition however. Nevertheless, it is the misreading of it that I will be offering here; it has only a slight resemblance to the original term. It was, if you will, a serendipitous mistake.

I will now define what I mean by shaming principle. I intend this to be a psychological term that covers a spectrum of cognitive phenomena relating to experiences we have with our parents, friends and loved ones. A full understanding of this, can, perhaps, be best grasped by an example. First though, let me explore the outer edges of this issue - how people are “wrong” and how it relates to the shaming principle.

I think it can be said with some confidence, that modern education has produced a generation of men and women who are well aware of political correctness. For example, if a teenage boy were to stand up in class and say that black people are all violent or stupid, or that a womans place is in the home; he would almost certainly meet with opposition, both from teachers and fellow pupils. More importantly though, he would be well aware that he would be voicing unpopular views. It would, be fair to say that every person knows the problems with, and general repugnance, of such views. Why then, does racism and sexism continue to exist? There are many factors of course, too many to go into here, however, as I mentioned in my last post, the role that parents and social groups play in determining ones social, political and religious outlook is a very large factor indeed - one that I will be discussing here.

Many times, humanists, liberals and moderates ask themselves this question - how can people believe such nonsense? How can people hold beliefs that are without credible evidence, that are deeply immoral or, are held in the teeth of contradictory evidence? Though there are many factors that we can use to explain these misadventures; I intend to offer an specific error theory.

So, how then can children, who later grow to be adults, hold exactly the same beliefs as their parents, which, to other people seem ridiculous? I believe one of the reasons for this is shame: they do not want to feel ashamed of their parents. For example, we all love our parents, and we, to some degree value their insights and wisdom. Some of us, its true, value our parents wisdom more than others. It should also be said that there is a range of experience that our parents have a greater hold over us, some more so than others. For example, our parents are not likely to greatly influence our thinking when it comes to mathematics or musical taste, however, they are likely to exert influence, directly or indirectly, over politics, ethics and religion. These things, I should not need to say, produce very deep and powerful emotions in people. They are to many, much, much more important than, for example, what subjects one likes at school, or what music one listens to, they are, sometimes, life and death.

Here is my hypothesis: for people to admit to themselves that ones parents are wrong, or even worse, that they hold ridiculous or immoral views, would be to experience feelings of shame and guilt. Doubly so, for they experience shame, both for the fact that their parents hold beliefs that are contrary to reason or majority opinion; and, secondly, they experience shame, for the sole reason that they recognise the shame as shameful. We don’t want to think ill of our parents, and when we do (even slightly or unconsciously), its doubly troubling because that is what we are feeling - and we are not supposed to feel that.

Loyalty and love, and shame, then, are what motivates people to hold outlandish beliefs. In order to avoid the cognitive dissonance of having racist or credulous parents - we practice a method of self deception, and bad faith. There can, also, be a third way that shame operates on us: we don’t want our parents to feel ashamed of us. For example, imagine the shame of Catholic parents, in good standing with their community, having a lesbian daughter, or an atheist son. This leads to people becoming hypocrites and self deceivers, presenting one face to the world and one to themselves. Such a situation, needless to say, is not likely to make for happy men and women.

Daniel Dennett, talks about a similar "shaming" process in relation to people believing in God. Love for ones family and fear of letting loved ones down, can make people outwardly and even inwardly “believe” what is contrary to reason. Family can be a comforting and supportive institution, it can, however, be a oppressing and stultifying one. How then can we overcome this problem?

I would offer similar advice to what I gave in my last post. Namely, that the fact that we can recognise this process, that we spot this happening to us, is - liberating. Being aware of the ways that we can be manipulated (even if, in many cases its unintentional and undirected) into believing things that are ridiculous. When our consciousness is raised, when we see the conjuring tricks laid bare, when the cloak is ripped away - it is a very powerful and liberating insight. But, how do we deal with the painful experiences once we see that we do not share our parents or our friends beliefs?

What I recommend is courage and perseverance. Do not go out of your way to be deliberately provocative and hand waving, but at the same time you must be principled and steadfast in your views and opinions. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. This of course, does not mean you should be obstinate, or dogmatic, be, however, confident in what you believe, and be prepared to defend you views if necessary. This of course, offers little support for people in difficult situations. All I can offer besides sympathy is that, in the long run, it is better to live life according to ones own chosen principles than live a life that was handed down to you by your family or community. In order for a happy, honest and purposeful life, our convictions and principles must be our own. We should develop them by a long process of education and inquiry. Living a life according to ones own principles, is, in the end, refreshing and vital for ones sense of self and ones self respect. For it is impossible to have any respect for oneself if one does not believe, really believe, what one has to profess in public and pretend to believe in private.



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