In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

Shame, Shame on You–and Me


Credit: shame-full.com

Not surprisingly, the article I posted here two days ago about public humiliation of Chinese mistresses has caused a measurable amount of reaction and debate among commenters on the blog as well as in my personal life. The article sparked a long, ponderous mood and meditation for me over the last few days, ranging from the political to psychological, and finally resting, as so often is the case, in the metaphorical and metaphysical.

It all started with the question of the relationship between shame and arousal. What would have caused these women to become violent, a mob of thugs? I thought about the rage, the human condition, biology. Humans are seething animalia and Mistress-dom, in all of its instantiations, brings out all that is human: love, sex, passion, loneliness, family, revenge, disgust, shame, justice, oozing, seeping masses.

I have been attracted to the mistress, intellectually and experientially, for a long while and so write about it in its broadest range and sense. On my blog, I toss the randomly acquired tidbit in with the big pot of stew of boiling thoughts over time, current curious human behavior in the news mixed with the rangy human theoretical concerns of graduate school professors and wannabes, and contribute to the expansive umbrella of my topic. I guess that is the structure of this blog, as much as I claim to have any.

But back to my musings, my next question concerned the relationship between shame and discipline. It is no secret that humiliation and shame are tools of the American “justice” system. Ask anyone who’s been in jail. She knows the systemization of acts, speech and design–from the guards’ avowed disgust, continual shouting and the panopticon vis a vis inmates–of degradation of the human spirit and person, of the human. Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity queries the effectiveness of penal discipline performed through humiliation, claiming it degrades human-ness. Nietsche also believed shaming another is a deprivation of his humanity. Might the risk of dehumanization be measured against the efficacy of shame as a deterrent?

And what of the relationship between sex, shame and fantasy? It seems that much of fantasy is about domination and submission, often humiliation being one form of psychological control. What has been learned or experienced in childhood, in growing up in a culture, that compels people, some people, to combine shame, sex, power and control? It is not as easy to see this enactment of the prison guard-inmate relationship in our daily relationships, though it exists. Seizure of control by one or the other in a couple, whether by force or manipulation–or humiliation-is often one sided but also a constant shifting, or something in between. The power roles may be patently obvious, the dominant one apparent as the dominatrix, for example, but the inside workings of the couple-hood is not always clear.

When the drunkard comes home and beats his wife and the neighbors send the police to intervene, why does the wife defend the abuser against the police? One might surmise that she is afraid for herself and her children, perhaps, should the police interfere and the crazed eventually returning man believes it her fault. But one could also postulate that she is used to this kind of abuse and would rather have the father of her children around than have him hauled away, absolutely useless to her. She may know how to put up with physical violence, believe she has him under control because she knows what sets him off, knows what his limits are, and what the resulting damage will be–all of which is known.

Fear of the unknown is greater motivation than the shame she experiences in her debasement by another, in the eyes of her neighbors. But shame is a powerful emotion. Borrowing from a conversation with my recovering girlfriend, shame keeps you from being whole, causes cracks and are the cracks, the seepage. Shame is ubiquitous. Jane Bolton, Psyd, MFT, CC in Psychology Today writes about “What We Get Wrong About Shame,” and lists the following as manifestations of shame:
• Shyness is shame in the presence of a stranger
• Discouragement is shame about temporary defeat
• Embarrassment is shame in front of others
• Self-consciousness is shame about performance
• Inferiority is all-encompassing shame about the self

According to Bolton, these unsuspecting traits or emotions are associates of shame: embarrassment, discouragement, self-consciousness, inferiority and shyness. How often do these come into play? Shame is a powerful motivator and de-motivator and manifests itself in many contexts derived from biology and culture. We are programmed with shame from the stories told to us to regulate our behavior from birth: religious stories with fear and morality, codes of behavior that transform beastie children into civil adherents to a perceived orderly society.

All of those synonymous terms are conceived in the presence or eye of the others. Shyness is experienced in the presence of a stranger and discouragement is experienced as defeat due to shortcomings of the actor in the eyes of others. Embarrassment, self-consciousness and inferiority are all attributions of others’ perceptions to self, unworthiness, incompetence, and unattractiveness, perhaps. The byproduct and/or the foundation of these emotions and assessments is shame.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines shame as “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Shame is first a feeling. It is a physical and emotional experience. As Oxford exemplifies, one can be hot with shame, a physical heat resulting from the stabbing emotion that flushes one’s face and felt bodily. The cause of the physical sensation is a realization or “consciousness” of defying or being misaligned with some standard, moral or otherwise, deviated from it.

Notice the definition is devoid of agency. Who is judging the behavior as deviant, self or other? As created beings, biologically and culturally, moral codes of behavior or societal codes of conscience, are dictates that precede human existence. One is born into an ongoing culture with established laws and principles. Those become conscience, form conscience. “Wrong” or “foolish” is a judgment measured against those inherited codes, whether they be right or wrong.

Sex is tied up with morality and behavioral dictates more than any activity or aspect of the human. Everything is about sex and death. Freud got that one right. So, shame (a form of public death) and sex, of course, are integrally linked, inextricably. Think: slut shaming, walk of shame, wall of shame. These are expressions of shamed-sex, deviance, socially unacceptable, judged, and not unsurprisingly, attached to women, harkening back to Victorian attitudes (and long before) of chastity as the creation of desire.

Shame is encoded emotion, powerfully influencing conduct and thought. As such, it is culturally differentiated. And because cultural mores are inherited and amassed over time punctuated with archaic notions of wrong and right, anachronisms, they are often arbitrary and illogical even as they are organizational and self-policing sources for a society.

Take for example, China’s concubine culture historically as well as its modern day mistress culture–the acceptance that wealthy men, at least, have mistresses–(See Jeffrey Hays’ facts and details; the Daily Beast on concubine and mistress culture in China; and chineasy.org)
and juxtapose it against the social “norm” or trend (I claim ignorance) for mistresses to be publicly shamed and beaten for being a mistress. Those two dispositions appear contradictory and hypocritical. Nevertheless, shame is the unifying factor and violence the universal expression in these public beatings.

All parties to this public spectacle are shamed, ashamed or shameful, the beating wives/girlfriends, the mistresses, the onlookers who do nothing and the men who cheat silently turning their eyes from the scenes are all enmeshed in guilt, shame, regret, embarrassment, red-faced and angry.

The wives/girlfriends are beleaguered with the shame of their failings. Why did their husbands find someone else? Where did they fall short? What do they lack? The mistresses are shamed–and guilty–by the laws of marriage and the principles of honesty. Why are they not marriage-worthy? Why must they feel excitement only with secrecy and deception? Who are they hurting? The onlookers regret this public scene and ask themselves about their own motives and derelictions of duty, desire, honesty, guilty about their own inability to act to help the mistress, to take a stand somewhere on the issue, to upheave. And the missing men, well, there are so many questions they ask, don’t ask, should ask, are asked of them. Why do they cheat? Because they can.

So, while there are obvious questions about the dynamics, ethics, morals, justice and character of a society in which mistresses are beaten by gangs of women in the streets while onlookers look away, it is not enough to dismiss it as just a cultural idiosyncrasy as there are human constants underscored here that need recognition: shame dehumanizes and when is it ever acceptable in a society to dehumanize, given the world’s susceptibility to genocide (a hop, skip and a jump away from “mere” dehumanization)?

On the other hand, when judging behavior, the context is important. Part of the strategy to avoid dehumanization is understanding the causes and motivations of behaviors, not necessarily to excuse, but to come to conclusions (and judgments) with circumspection, respecting the complexity of the participants of such a violent practice, for participants and onlookers alike. Sensibilities, of course, are culturally predetermined too, so perhaps the violence of the act isn’t experienced in China to the same degree and in the same way American eyes experience such a display.

When we look upon and judge others, the looking itself is a cause, effect and manifestation of the behavior. Shame is caused by the gaze of others; when we separate ourselves the inner self of desire from the outer self of public expectation, we gaze upon ourselves. Shame is the mistress. Her role is shame-defined by the public but desire is her only transgression, she the victim of the violence of shame. Her “crime” was to consensually engage in love or sex with a man who desired her. She is merely a scapegoat.

The mistress is the metaphoric umbrella for all the dynamics of emotion, psychology, power, artifacts and action called human in this scenario. She is catalyst, container, and contained. In the larger contemplation, she is the metaphor of love’s mind, spirit and body–and is least blameworthy.

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