I was struck when I was watching this video this morning about the role that active passivity plays in controversial issues, such as vaccination and climate change. I’m defining active passivity here as actively not taking action or making a decision, or avoiding any action or decision by claiming reasonable doubt or insufficient information. In the case of both vaccination, as John Oliver presents in this video here, or in climate change (see Rick Perry’s argument regarding whether the causes of climate change are anthropogenic), and you see not a denial or clear counterpoint of proponents vs detractors, but rather on the side of detractors a call for caution and hesitation, care and concern, that slows or stalls any hard decision or action to be taken.
Of course, as a shame researcher and theologian, I spy with my inundated-with-theories eye the specter of shame lurking about here (of course I do, because I have this Hammer of Shame(tm) and I’m always looking for nails!). The other day I mentioned how in researching the origins of shame in Western psychoanalytic theory how Freud linked passivity or an inability to act as a source of shame. According to this early undeveloped theory, the experience of shame irrupts not because of an inappropriate action or feeling or even being an inappropriate person, but because you cannot take steps to distance yourself from that inappropriate action or state of being.
Later shame researchers will move on to talk about the learned behaviors of shame, in that what we feel shame about gets programmed in each person slightly differently, depending on family systems, societal and political contexts, and other factors that shift shame triggers from the universal to the particular. And so it’s worthwhile to ask questions about how shame triggers get set up in each person or in each society. If shame helps codify and concretize norms, what norms are we upholding, and is shame an effective tool in changing those norms?
Jennifer Jacquet cites the research of Cass Sunstein regarding “norm entrepreneurs,” or people who can effectively shift societal and communal behaviors. These norm entrepreneurs use shame gently and effectively to change social mores and behaviors because “they have the trust and attention of the crowd” (Jacquet, 2015, p. 84). She doesn’t mention the opposite though, that norm entrepreneurs may be effective because there is already distrust and skepticism operating toward the position that the norm entrepreneurs are trying to change. Watching both vaccination cautioners at work in the video above, and in reading about climate change deniers, it’s evident that there is at work a combination of distrust regarding corporate interests and their use of scientific studies to gain profit over public health and safety, and also norm entrepreneurs who are hard at work exploiting that division.
Back to the active passivity, which is where the shame comes in. One thesis that I’m theorizing is that in the US, we have shifted from Freud’s view of passivity and nonaction as a source for shame to intentionally and willfully acting in a way that will later prove to be wrong as a source for shame. It’s common to separate guilt and shame by this simple maxim, that guilt is about what you do and shame is about who you are. And while that may have some truth to it, I argue that there’s more to the relationships between guilt, shame, action and being than that hard division. In her study on slut shaming, Leora Tanenbaum makes the distinction of “good slut vs bad slut” by the way that one’s intentionality, or “trying too hard” becomes one of the operative factors that move a girl from sexy to slutty. Dressing or acting in ways that are perceived as intending to seek a sexual relationship or to garner attention (whether you can control that perception is another thing) automatically moves a girl into slut-shaming territory. Having agency over your decisions to wear clothes you know make you look sexually desirable or acting in ways that will lead to sex make you a target for shame. For example, regarding clothing that both their crowds and school administrators might deem “slutty”:
To girls and young women, “comfort” is not necessarily about physical ease. It is a state of mind, and it is also an expression of an attitude of effortlessness. After all, “comfortable” clothes imply that no thought or labor was put into wearing them. The wearers are not trying to don something that makes them look like a “good slut.” It just sort of happens. They choose clothes they like for themselves, that make them feel at ease because they feel confident. In the narrative these girls tell themselves, they erase the labor they expend in putting together their slutty outfits. Therefore, when school administrators call them to task, they are quick to deny any agency — because they are denying it even to themselves. Through this strategy, they can be sexual and asexual, prude and “good slut,” sexy and virgin, all at once (Tanenbaum, 2015, p. 155).
According to Tanenbaum, girls choose this strategy of containment and disavowal because there is no sure way to avoid being labeled as a slut, should someone decide to advance that rumor. But by avoiding any appearance of agency and effort, even and especially if they went to tremendous effort in order to achieve the look, they can also avoid and deny any shame that might come their way, because the shame seems arbitrarily applied. They must appear as arbitrary as the shame itself. The disavowal of agency and intentionality — the active passivity — becomes a strategy and tactic for defense and protection.
This is what I see going on in the big debates about vaccination, climate change, health insurance reform, and just about any other debate regarding the intersection of public health and safety and personal choices. On one side we have norm entrepreneurs who, whether our of concern for others or acting under the influences of power and profit, are exploiting a well-deserved and understandable distrust about the seeming arbitrariness of science and health, where scientists are seen as being paid spokesmen for special interests. On the other we have people acting (and not acting) out of a genuine concern about doing the right thing for the people they care about. And the glue that holds these to sides together is shame and wanting to avoid feeling this painful, powerful emotion. Shame at being a terrible parent. Shame at having made a decision that harmed your child. Shame at not doing right by your community. Shame at appearing powerless to take control of your life. Or shame at trying to take control of your life and failing to get the desired results, because you tried too hard … or simultaneously didn’t try hard enough.
I wish I could come up with some answer to ease or resolve this shame, but I don’t have one at the moment. But I do think that these cases show how shame doesn’t just operate on personal levels, but take flight through our communal and public spaces to affect how we live with one another.