A 14-year-old girl stood on an Oklahoma street corner last month with a sign: “I don’t do my homework and I act up in school, so my parents are preparing me for my future. Will work for food.”
An Arkansas teenager went into a deep depression last spring after classmates grabbed him in the locker room, pulled down his pants and spanked him. He drowned two months later.
Photographs of Iraqi prisoners show American soldiers laughing and pointing at the genitals of men, naked but for the hoods over their heads.
When we want to hurt people to the core, we know just what to do: We shame them.
That we do this is less a testament to our depravity than to our own suffering: Most of us have been shamed in our lives. We know how awful it feels.
It was my sixth birthday, and my mother handed me a paper bag of suckers to take to school.
“You can share these with your classmates,” she said.
As I walked to kindergarten, I faced a dilemma: If I shared the suckers, I would get a birthday spanking from the teacher. I didn’t want a birthday spanking. Spankings shamed me.
If, however, I brought the suckers home again, my mother would be displeased and might spank me herself.
Still, to voluntarily offer up my backside was worse than having my mother decide herself to belt my bare bottom — her brand of discipline. She’d been beaten as a child, and, as is often the case, the abused become the abusers.
So, too, with shame: The shamed become the shamers, and we have mothers who put their daughters up for ridicule, teenagers who bully and soldiers who taunt prisoners.
Shame is the flip side of pride. A prideful person puts himself above the human race, often inflicting shame on others. A shamed person cowers below the rest of us. But both pride and shame disconnect us from each other.
I didn’t know this at 6. I just knew that I was in a pickle. When I arrived at school that morning, I hid the bag of suckers inside my coat, then dropped my outer clothes into a pile on the cloakroom floor. I wasn’t sure how to deal with the situation.
I supposed I could leave the suckers at school and deceive my mother about handing them out. But she might know I was lying.
And then, it was time to go home. Suddenly I had an idea.
After walking to the cloakroom to get my coat, I sidled out with the bag of suckers and dropped it onto the teacher’s desk. She didn’t notice immediately, busy with fastening other children’s jackets.
Then she spied the bag.
“Whose lollipops are these?” she asked.
“Mine,” I replied brightly, a thick coat buttoned tightly around me. “It’s my birthday.”
The teacher’s brow furled. “Well,” she said, “I think we have time for you to pass them out, but I’m afraid there won’t be time for a birthday spanking.”
In later years my mother apologized for her behavior, and I finally broke free of thinking I wasn’t worthy enough to be taking up space on Planet Earth.
I suspect a lot of us feel that way but act out differently. We use shame to try to control people’s behavior, as did the mother of the girl on the corner. A two-by-four upside the girl’s head might not have been as devastating.
Or we use shame to try to feel superior — if only for as long as we are bullying another — as did the students who paddled their classmate and the soldiers who humiliated their prisoners.
It’s time to stop using shame to discipline and demean.
It’s time to recognize that when we taunt others, it reflects only on us: What kind of person am I if I resort to belittling someone else?
I’d be ashamed to say.
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