A look at how shame culture is still pervasive in the modern world
By Aaron Grierson
People often say “what goes around comes around” or that what was once popular will come back into style in the future. This is observably true in cases like artistic tropes or certain styles of fashion. However, for a great many other things in our societies, they may only come “back into style” as far as academics or a human interest piece in the news are concerned; but they are always there, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.
One such example recently resurfaced in the Canadian media, specifically within the Greater Toronto Area. The story, boiled down, is about Jian Ghomeshi, an employee of CBC Radio (Canadian Broadcasting Company) at the time, who, through various means over the last several years gained the reputation of a “sex god”. This may in part be due to his history as a musician, or more generally to his radio persona. Regardless, it was observed by multiple co-workers and one even noted that, â€œhe seemed to have different tiers of girlfriends.â€
As it turns out, heâ€™s rather like Christian Grey, with the exception that he did not present his sexual partners a contractual agreement. It all started with one, but within days the number of women coming forward to support allegations of sexual assault and harassment increased. Â The victims were not just limited to co-workers, but extended, as it turns out, regularly to interns, especially from Carleton University in Ottawa. 
This might sound like I’m stating the obvious, but it is connected to something far more pervasive than modern tastes and taboos. Shame culture is a society â€œin which conformity of behaviour is maintained through the individualâ€™s fear of being shamed“.Â Â This culture stretches as far back as the ancient Greeks, where offences carried out by the major heroes resulted in their public shaming. For example: in Homerâ€™s Iliad, Agamemnon takes Briseis, a woman who was promised to Achilles as a war prize, to compensate for having to give up his own concubine. Achilles is so put off by this public affront that he withdraws from the war to sulk in his tent.
Shame culture is rooted in the concepts of pride and honour, where keeping up appearances and maintaining it in the eyes of one’s peers is considered top priority. This is clearly demonstrated in the Iliad as the entire war is a matter of honour, and, it’s interesting to note, that the Iliad text is still one of the largest surviving from that period. While the Greeks wrote it as a tool to reign in heroes, the concept of shame can be applied to any level of society. For instance, a shameless man would have no regard for the publicâ€™s opinion on his drunk behaviour and he would be entirely apathetic to who sees him and what jeers he attracts. At least until he sobers up and comes to terms with the consequences of his actions.
In this example, we see a shift from shame culture, as the Greek heroes knew it, towards a guilt culture, as portrayed in tragic plays (Ancient and onwards, Shakespeare, and even contemporary playwrights are often concerned with the mind of the tragic â€˜heroâ€™). Be it Heracles, Othello, or Macbeth, these figures all suffer first from within their own minds, rather than because of others’ opinions. Of course, this is not strictly a Greek / Western notion.
We, and doubtlessly the generation of people that have come before us, are stuck somewhere in the middle of these cultures of guilt and shame, though we donâ€™t always hear about it. Even amongst circles of friends in schools today, one might be shamed for not having partaken in some unwritten rite of passage. Or at least some movies would have us believe that this sort of thing actually happens. Even in the workplace, something as simple as participating in an office event, or not, can make all the difference when it comes to being ostracized.
A more prominent example of shame culture would be our ideas of the human physique, specifically weight. We are often made fun of, or expected, to be of a particular weight, less so because it is healthy, but because it is the social standard which is generally preached. Admittedly, this social phenomena primarily targets women, but men are subjected to it as well, and not just in the schoolyard where our child-selves might have thought little about poking fun at someone for their belly. I mean hey, most male underwear models I see when I force myself into a mall are typically muscularly toned, and in many cases, have freshly waxed or shaved chests. These sorts of ideals are everywhere in the public eye and are engrained in our psyches from a young age. Such passive pressure can negatively influence people about how they feel about themselves. In the same way that social media is used by companies and groups as a form of advertising, itâ€™s also a place where people can share imagery or opinions that agree with these standards without getting paid. As an interactive tool, social media helps propagate shame culture in the modern world. From mean tweets to terrible private messages, the possibilities are both endless and subtle. Such exposure can potentially inspire adolescents, or even adults, into unhealthy eating habits and a contorted self-perception, which could lead to self-harm.
If I donâ€™t see this kind of shaming online, all I have to do is look into a popular menâ€™s fashion store and remind myself of how much closer I am to the classical ideal body type than what is trendy at the moment. I hold nothing against those slimmer gentlemen, but I find it downright perplexing as to how I should dress in a suit jacket that is barely broader than one of my thighs. It makes no damned sense. Setting aside these peculiar fashion choices, itâ€™s not like I have to worry about my weight, thatâ€™s just one small example. I donâ€™t feel the need to go to the extremes that can occur when a person is worried about their appearance. Going back to the more ideological sense of shame culture, I believe that the idea of shame is meant to help us control one anotherâ€™s behaviour in the same way that the law does. I mean, it seems very handy that most (wo)men who’ve been drunk and walked the streets haven’t thought such silliness is acceptable. And it seems useful to not have people go about engaging in sex with coworkers, as it can, and I feel it very often does, disrupt the workplace.
It seems safe to say that the ego involved in Ghomeshiâ€™s escapades ultimately came back to bite him. Heâ€™s been fired from the CBC, and will probably never work in the media or in the public eye again, even with the off chance he is acquitted of all charges. He has also been publicly shamed through various forms of media, rather than being upheld as some sort of sex icon.Â And so it should be with someone who oversteps the bounds of consent, especially so viciously. He may even suffer from bipolar disorder or some condition that includes sudden mood swings, which would, at the very least, help explain why his behaviour would change so dramatically. But we donâ€™t know that, and it does not excuse such violent offences, which, unfortunately, has been somewhat glorified by the 50 Shades of Grey series.Â Realistically, if a person is good at their job, the exposure of their less-than-vanilla personal life should not warrant their termination, except in cases like this, where the terms of consent have been breached.
And is it really such a bad thing that some of us are a little bigger than others? Broader than others? I donâ€™t see how attempting to streamline a worldâ€™s worth of human bodies into a couple of shapes is constructive. If anything, it would be like killing the fashion industry slowly, or at least crippling it in the same way that the global economy is currently hobbling along. You would have, and pardon the pun, a much slimmer market to target. There wouldnâ€™t be the same diversity, the same cacophony of flavours in a balanced meal, the same humanity. I often question, and sometimes write, about the degrees to which we as a society of individuals seem to be pushed, or jump willingly into artificially enhancing ourselves. And I donâ€™t just mean putting on an outfit that accentuates our lovely figure.Â Iâ€™m referring to our tendency to being pressured to the point where weâ€™re just plastic, permanent. Where your entire being can be redone to ‘perfection’ if youâ€™ve got the coin for it. Imagine that, a world where the word â€˜humanâ€™ is seen as a limitation, not a privilege. Where synthetic is the name of the game. Such thinking might be a stretch for science fiction, but no story Iâ€™ve ever encountered has been free of social pressure. Even if we are freed of these fleshy bodies and are literally incapable of feeling shame, I donâ€™t know if weâ€™ll be free of negative social pressure. Then, or ever.
Â ‘Jian Ghomeshi: 8 women accuse former CBC host of violence, sexual abuse or harassment’, Donovan, Kevin; The Star, 2014
Â ‘Timeline: Jian Ghomeshi charged in sex assault scandal’, Tucker, Erika; Global News, 2014
Â See the above reference
‘Greek Civilization: From Shame to Guilt’, Bellitti, Anthony; Helicon: The Yale Undergraduate Journal of Classics, 2013
‘Shame culture’, Gill, N.S.; About.com, accessed 2015
‘Ghomeshi staff complained about ‘culture of fear”, Bradshaw, James and McArthur, Greg; The Globe and Mail, November 2014
‘Behind the CBC decision to fire Jian Ghomeshi’, Bradshaw, James and McArthur, Greg; The Globe and Mail, October, 2014
Aaron Grierson is a Senior Editor for the magazine.