Shame and restorative processes

July 26th, 2009 by Howard Zehr in Key Principles

The topic of shame has become a controversial issue in restorative justice.  I’m convinced that an awareness of shame and its dynamics is critical for the field but I also believe there are serious dangers of misunderstanding and misuse.

It seems clear that shame plays a major role in human psychology and interactions.  It is said by researchers to be a fundamental and universal emotion or affect.  However, what triggers shame, how it is expressed and how it is amplified or removed varies culturally.

So shame occurs in all societies (a possible bumper sticker:  “Shame happens”). However, shame researchers suggest that the rationalist tendencies of western society have led us to deny or ignore shame.  As a result we have very limited language to talk about it and few cultural rituals or approaches to deal with it.  So shame goes underground, continuing to operate but often in negative ways. (Some attribute our excessive materialism and individualism to this.)

Shame can be positive when it motivates us to do the right thing – when we modify our behavior, then put shame behind.  But shame is essentially a threat to our self-worth and when shame “sticks” to us, it is debilitating.  In fact, I am convinced that shame plays a major role in much offending as well as in how those who offend experience justice. I’m also convinced that it often plays a significant role in victims’ trauma and the negative ways they often experience justice.  But this is beyond the scope here – perhaps the topic of a later entry.

Donald Nathanson has identified a “compass” of shame.  When confronted with shame, we can respond in four ways:  by modifying our behavior to avoid it; by withdrawing from it; by becoming angry at others, often blaming them; or by turning our anger against ourselves.  The first point on the compass – avoidance – can be positive if it causes us to do the right thing, but there are many negative possibilities. For example, we can transfer the shame, scapegoating and blaming others; we might become excessive perfectionists; or – as is common in American society – we can obsessively acquire the goods and power that give us status.

One negative response especially relevant here is the formation of what criminologists have called delinquent subcultures.  When confronted with shame, we may join others who have been shamed, then reverse the values:  our group may claim that values society calls bad are in fact positive.  This is the root of the “code of the streets” so common in urban America.  The code is, as sociologist Elijah Anderson has written, a way of negotiating respect in a world of values turned upside down.  In this context, for example, one may gain respect by going to prison or acting violently.  This is also one root of what we sometimes call terrorism against western values.

John Braithwaite brought the issue of shame into the restorative justice arena with his important book, Crime, Shame and Re-Integration. He argued that there are two kinds of shame:  stigmatizing and re-integrative.  Stigmatizing shame is characteristic of our criminal justice approach:  using “ceremonies of degradation,” police, courts and corrections (and schools!) tend to label “offenders” as bad, failing to separate the person from the act.  The label sticks and is almost impossible to remove as there are no rituals or ceremonies to terminate the shame.  If it is true, as James Gilligan and others argue, that shame is a major motivator of violence, this helps to explain why our system so often backfires.

Shame can be a positive experience, Braithwaite argues, if certain conditions are met: if we denounce the wrong but not the wrongdoer, so that shame does not become a defining characteristic; if it occurs among people who matter to the one who has done wrong; and if there are rituals to terminate the shame.

Braithwaite’s argument is powerful, helping to explain why punishment’s effects are so often counterproductive. Based on his work, some programs have sought to create situations that would give rise to shame but in a re-integrative form.

But Braithwaite’s perspective has been highly controversial.  Some – such as my friends who come from cultures that have been highly stigmatized – are understandably reluctant to consider shame in a positive light at all.  Others worry that the wrong lesson is being learned – rather than focus on how shame that happens naturally can be made re-integrative, some programs or people seem to focus more on imposing shame, often without adequate attention to how it can be removed.

My own conclusion, supported by researchers such as Harris, Maruna and Maxwell (See, for example, Handbook of Restorative Justice:  A Global Perspective, Dennis Sullivan ed.), is as follows.  Shame does indeed happen in the lives of both those who have harmed and those who have harmed (and in all of our lives). And restorative processes often give rise to shame, for example as one begins to realize the harm she or he has caused.  But shame is too dangerous an emotion to deliberately impose or manipulate. Rather, our emphasis should be on being aware of shame dynamics in these processes and on finding ways to manage the shame – on ways that the shame might be removed or even, through affirmation and acts such as apology and reparation, transformed into a sense of pride or accomplishment.

One of the reasons restorative processes work, these researcher suggest, is that when done right, they provide a healthy way to manage shame.  And while shame is a factor, they suggest that even more significant are dynamics such as acknowledgment, empathy and apology.

The bottom line, as I’ve so often said, is respect.  At an event where I spoke recently I was followed by a young man who had stolen cars from a car dealer and the husband and wife who owned the dealership. Having gone through a victim offender conference, they now saw things as resolved; indeed, they said they were friends.  It seemed clear that shame had been a factor in this young man’s experience but he didn’t identify that.  What made the difference, he said repeatedly, was respect – the respect he felt in the process and ultimately, that he came to feel for himself.

(For material on shame – or more specifically “humiliation” – in a variety of contexts see the international association, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, headed by Evelin Linder.)