courtroom casino

A shivering mass in a cold-lit courtroom,
slunked skinny in government issue chair,
the lone “ring leader” sat in grim-lip stare.
Straight ahead at nothing in particular upon
a judge’s dispassionate immovable face, the
charged steered a red-rimmed vision eroded.
A shuffle, a gurgle, a sigh, a sniff and a cough,
and the whole matter was decided on a whim.
Scales tip in no one’s favor but the beholder.
A life’s mere matter, flesh forged in fire image
and fluttering time, like dust on butterfly feet.
And the revolving door justice spun 7’s today. 

Prison Phone Calls:  when capitalism incapacitates its most precious capital–people

She has slept away her first five days here, awakening only to fret, face swallowed up in full furrowed brows, swollen eyes and shrivelled spirit, grieving inconsolably over something lost, something she fears is lost anyways. She cries. Fifty-five years old, weathered, burnished skin adding ten years to her face, she was picked up for drugs or prostitution; I do not remember which. She once told me in between spurts of awakened anguish over her dogs. All I remember is the agonized tears and the dogs…read more

Shameful Justice: Does Shame or Guilt Punish Fairly in America?

Credit: Justice

A time for telling truth has come upon us now.
We needn't lie to get us through these times
You see it in my slain eyes and tensioned brow.
I don't pretend freedom's guilt in these rhymes.

What is guilt of freedom but knowing another suffers unjustly or that injustice exists and society closes its collective eye to it? I am not a proponent of guilt as one of the healthier emotions and certainly not as an effective tool of justice. I do, however, live in a guilt and shame justice culture.

Cultural anthropologists define a shame culture as one that controls its populace or maintains social and familial order through shame as opposed to a guilt culture which controls its populace and maintains order through guilt or fear of retribution (Wong & Tsai).

China, with its Confucian-infused culture, as well as Japan are shame cultures whereas the United States is clearly a guilt culture with punishment the primary tool to deter crime and slake the revenge thirst of victims and their families. Shaming is sometimes used in the American judicial system, though sporadically and sometimes tyrannically. Particular judges, exasperated with repeat offenders, look for alternative ways to stop criminal behavior where incarceration has failed to deter.

Thus, there have been news flashes old and new of shaming as justice. For example, the earliest one I recall is the repeat offender of child abuse/neglect, pregnant with her fifth child, who was given the choice to do time or do Norplant, the contraceptive implant. Holy hell broke loose in the media and public opinion as to bodily rights, Nazi judges, and the like. People do go on. Funny thing is, if memory serves me, the woman took the Norplant, but later reneged and hired lawyers.

Then there were the cases more recently of people having to stand by crowded public thoroughfares carrying shaming signs, like the Ohio woman who was sentenced to hold a sign that said, "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus." While that strikes me as a fair amount of burning shame and better than going to jail, other signs are not such a measured singe. Around the country, convicted sex or violent offenders, as conditions of parole or terms of sentencing have been required to post signs on their property that warn the public of the danger of entering the property of a convicted felony rapist, batterer or child molester.

However, the ostracizing as well as the collateral damage to innocents in cases of more severe crimes, ones deemed morally reprehensible and not a mere moving violation on steroids, may be too disruptive and destructive. One can imagine angry communities burning down houses with those signs or children of offenders suffering the crimes of the father or mother.

Some offenders suffer enormous shame and abuse in prisons just by the conditions of unending days of boredom, violence, degradation and isolation. So, the result, to some, of those conditions-of-parole shamings or shaming sentences may be an unending prison of ostracization. One might think certain offenders should be forever imprisoned--or capitally punished--but it depends on the offense and the offender, doesn't it? Some offenders can be rehabilitated and returned to the community as productive citizens; some crimes are worse to the community and in their heinousness than others.

The competing concerns of the community, the larger society (for revenge, retribution and safety), and individual offenders (punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation) are always at the heart of the debate, the two always in tension. What role should shame play in mediating the two, from both a retributive and communitarian perspective?

The communitarian view of punishment endorses the use of shame by the community as an alternative solution to incarceration with rehabilitation back into the larger community as the aim. In communitarian-inspired programs, community members, including victims, express their concerns, experiences and feelings to the convicted in hopes of yes, shaming, but not with blame as the terminal goal but reintegration. Retribution advocates, on the other hand, put the responsibility of punishment in the hands of the state to mete out just punishment based on proof of culpability or responsibility and the sentences appropriate to same, largely incarceration and fines.

Shame justice anticipates that an offender is motivated by or demotivated to repeat offend to avoid the loss of status in a community. Retributive justice focuses on society's rights to be unmolested and protected. Retribution is the root of an individualistic society founded on guaranteed freedoms as opposed to a more communitarian-minded society that uses shame not to ostracize but to exercise empathy, identity with the victim, and a sense of honor, in order to reintegrate the offender into the community.

Shame and remorse are the primary motivators in communitarian programs geared toward battling recidivism; empathic ability is a prerequisite. This obviously doesn't work for the sociopath or the disassociated from the main community, such as some ghettoized populations that adhere to the values of subcultures or anti-cultural creeds rejecting the larger cultural norms (See shame prediction for felon reoffending)

Shame is always present in meting out justice, conscience, empathy and guilt its associates or core components. But its effectiveness as a deterrent is certainly debatable precisely due to its power to destroy and deflect. Shame, which is a potent emotion, focuses on the person as bad whereas guilt is more targeted toward the act. In other words, an offender might think, "I am a bad person" instead of "I did a bad thing."

According to Ryan Jacobs, Associate Digital Editor of the Pacific Standard, in an article exploring shame's role in predicting felon recidivism, shame is less effective in diminishing recidivism than guilt. He claims that is because shame is so potent it produces in many the defensive reaction that blames others for the offenders' transgressions rather than directing shame upon themselves; it is hard for them to accept that they are bad people.

Jacobs notes that "blame transference" is a coping mechanism for "the intense self-doubt" caused by shame. He concludes that rehabilitation by shame is dicey due to the susceptibility of any program to this transference tendency of its participants. He recommends "goal-oriented" programs like those of the German and Dutch who allow prisoners to channel their energies into productive work--unlike the American criminal justice system.

"With excessive sentencing, extreme isolation, and little in the way of structured re-entry programs, inmates are practically invited to blame the system and believe that the forces of society have conspired against them." He concludes that this sort of system does nothing to reduce recidivism: "Once released and faced with lower economic prospects and no voting rights, U.S. ex-convicts are treated to the same sense of shame and worthlessness they encountered in prison. Full of blame, that’s probably where they’ll return."

Richard Lovelace, the poet who wrote from prison more than 350 years ago states that "Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage."

While social justice, its efficacy and humanity, is and has been a concern of mine, from both sides of the law, my larger preoccupation has always been on the personal, individual level. A society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals contractually living. I also subscribe to the beleaguered notion that social change begins within each society member, his or her ability to be compassionate, loving, accountable, responsible and forgiving.

So what about personal relationships? How do individuals exact justice in their familial and love relationships, and what role should shame and guilt play? One doctor, Dr. Dan Gottlieb of WHYY radio in Philadelphia believes more in the communitarian approach to personal justice, restorative justice in the family, community and larger society, and his general principles of personal justice lend support to my belief that we affect a society one person at a time to create a more effective and affective, empathic practice of justice in a judicial system--using shame.

This short, somewhat awkwardly but sincerely produced short video elucidates Dr. Gottlieb's psychological interpersonal perspective of shame and restorative justice.
Click here

So what about love relationships? Gottlieb only lightly touches on fair argument-understanding strategies. When lovers claim "unfair," that one thinks "I should be able to cheat if you do," or a spouse believes the I-should-take-up-the-same-amount-of-responsibilities-as-you argument, what kind of justice are they calling upon? What about when spouses or parents use shame: if you loved me, loved me enough, were a good person, you would do x, y or z? Should shame be used in personal relationships to exact justice, revenge, discipline? This inquiring mind would like to know what you, my dear reader, thinks.

Shame, Shame on You–and Me


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
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.