Shame

September 25, 2008 | 25 comments
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Every medium has an inherent vice. While any form of media can be misused, there is a flaw lurking in the fundamental nature of each medium. Television exaggerates fear, as it transmits the worst events or most scandalous entertainment from the outside world into our homes. Movies indulge our self-deluding fantasies of escape or celebrity. Radio encourages the presumption, in the secrecy of our private chambers, that we sing and dance every bit as good as Milli Vanilli. The inherent vice of the Internet is shame.

The Internet instills shame in two ways. The overflow of information lets us compare ourselves to others without limit, and the limitless prospects of comparison means that there is always someone else who is more successful, better qualified, or more respectable than we are. We are ashamed when we compare ourselves to them. In the other direction, there is an overflow of information about us. On the Internet, everybody knows you’re a dog, and no one hesitates to share their opinion about dogs. Our daily media consumption now includes multiple opportunities to consider just how failed and stunted we may appear to everyone else, and to be ashamed of who we are.

We usually discuss the great and spacious building from Lehi’s Vision in the Book of Mormon primarily as a warning against pride, but this may be a mistake. The angelic interpreter tells Nephi that the great and spacious building represents not only pride but also “vain imaginations.” The danger that the great and spacious building poses for those in the general vicinity of the iron rod—for us, more or less—is not only pride, but also (or even especially) shame.

For Mormons, shame tends to take two different forms. The “liberal” temptation is to be ashamed of the church, of its teaching or institutions or history. While there are some things I might wish had been different, there is a short, slippery slope from being ashamed at how things once were before 1890 or 1978, to concluding that the only honorable place before 1890 or 1978 was outside of the church, to discovering that the church still teaches unfashionable things about marriage and restricts priesthood participation, to deciding that the only place for any right-thinking person today is outside of the church. A little shame will get you a long way. Intellectual pride is a chronic but manageable condition, I think; the real problems start with intellectual shame.

The “conservative” temptation is to be ashamed of other church members. One of the most tiresome parts of online Mormon conversation is the regular accusation that someone or another is not a real Mormon. It’s arrogant and presumptuous and, again, it’s a short slide from “He’s not a real Mormon” to “I don’t want him in my church” to “I don’t want to be in his church.” These uncharitable accusations are unnecessary. We already have a formal system for judging who is and is not a good Mormon, if such a judgment becomes necessary. It is true that people really can do or say things that take them outside of the Mormon community, but we have a fine-grained scale of outward signs for appraising other Mormons, online or off. If someone holds a temple recommend, serves in his or her ward, and attends church, he or she can hold any number of foolish opinions but remain part of the body of Christ, and I separate myself from him or her at my own peril. Some of the largest and most important parts of our body are periodically full of crap, but they too are essential.

As with the easily exploited emotions of hate and fear, there is no lack of people willing to exploit others’ shame. Some people would like us to be ashamed of what Mormons believed or used to believe, while others want us to be ashamed of fellow Mormons. And that’s where I get off the bus. The resolution to live shamelessly may not be particularly admirable, but the alternative looks worse.

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25 Responses to Shame

  1. Julie M. Smith on September 25, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    “Some of the largest and most important parts of our body are periodically full of crap, but they too are essential.”

    You should win an award for that line.

  2. TMD on September 26, 2008 at 12:28 am

    Excellent post. Shame is an indeed powerful and negative emotion, and one that has a very strong ‘avoidance’ tendency associated with it. The point about intellectual shame being more dangerous that intellectual pride is very well made.

    As an aside, I’ve long thought–half in jest–that the great benefit of pride as a sin is that you know God MUST love you, so turning to him is easier…not the case with shame.

  3. Todd Wood on September 26, 2008 at 12:29 am

    Here is my problem, Jonathan, as the outsider living amongst all my LDS friends.

    I can’t always tell what should be the LDS “crap” belief and what should not. Who is the interpretive authority? Is it that which is to the left or right of you? or of bloggernacle? or of the bishops of the local wards in my community of Ammon? or of Ensign publications by the General Authorities? or of the prevailing biblical scholarship? etc.

    I know what scriptures say about shame: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame”.

    Vertical relationship with God swallows up the shame one experiences by the horizontal relationships in earthly community.

    And believe me, I am not trying to be a pious, pompous hyprocrite here on T&S. I am often ashamed of words that I say and thoughts that I think, but God help me not to be ashamed of Him.

  4. DavidH on September 26, 2008 at 1:34 am

    “I am often ashamed of words that I say and thoughts that I think, but God help me not to be ashamed of Him.”

    Amen and thanks Todd.

  5. Jonathan Green on September 26, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Todd, obsessing over the codification of doctrine is not at all what I’m discussing, and you will not find any solutions to your problem here.

  6. Mark Brown on September 26, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Jonathan,

    This is an excellent post. It seems petty to quibble with something this good, but, hey, what is blogging for?

    While I understand your point about the danger of allowing shame to separate us, I’d like to suggest that you are overstating it. Think of family members. They can do things which cause us deep shame and humiliation, but they are family, nonetheless. If we think of the church in this way, we can acknowledge the shame while still retaining a deep sense of loyalty to one another.

    The metaphor which Julie liked in comment # 1 is wonderful. I think we can extend it in a way that members of a church with lay leadership can appreciate. Just as we all take turns being bishop, MIA Maid advisor, RS Enrichment leader or scoutmaster, we alternate turns developing our talents as the large intestine. If this week it is your turn, it behooves me to exercise patience and forbearance with you, because next week it will certainly be mine.

  7. Mark Brown on September 26, 2008 at 10:53 am

    I also think there should be a Jonathan Green Translation of the New Tesatment. It would say: “Neither can the head say to the colon, I have no need of thee…”

    I would stand up in church and testify of its truthfulness.

  8. Gerald Smith on September 26, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Mark, from #6, When it is your turn to be the large intestine, will you cause all of us to feel constipated?

  9. Gerald Smith on September 26, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Mark, from #6, When it is your turn to be the large intestine, will you cause all of us to feel constipated?

  10. Velska on September 26, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Well, I’ll take the risk of stating the obvious: I am sometimes ashamed of what I do or say (or don’t do or say); I think that is a part of mortal experience, to notice I still have some ways to go.

    But being ashamed of other saints or teachings of the Church has an element of pride, too. To say I’m ashamed of our ward members is to say I think I’m better than they are.

    Nonetheless, there are times when I witness public comments of some fellow saints and I don’t feel proud to be one of them. One yahoo was speaking at sacrament the other Sunday when a nonmember was present, who has been sitting on the fence for a little while; I was seriously afraid of that pushing him permanently to the wrong side. Then I tried to change my attitude…

  11. Dave on September 26, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Fine post, Jonathan. It makes me think of the discussion about shame-cultures and guilt-cultures. Sounds like you are saying we should move away from a shame-culture perspective (where our emotional response is based on what others think of us, our beliefs, and our acts) toward a guilt-culture approach (where our emotional response is based on what we think of ourselves, our beliefs, and our acts).

    But while we as individuals may be able to change our own orientation to a healthier guilt orientation, institutions — including the Church — still tend to use group shame rather than personal guilt as the primary motivator. I do find your distinction between liberal shame and conservative shame to be very useful.

  12. John C. on September 26, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Todd,
    FWIW, every single Mormon is equally confused by this issue (as are most evangelicals).

  13. kevinf on September 26, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    I keep waiting to be released from developing my talents as the large intestine.

    Otherwise, though, a great post. We do seem to be straddling group shame and private guilt, just another one of our prevailing paradoxes.

  14. ed42 on September 26, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    What is Shame? God blessed me with the ability to not get a !@#$% what others think

  15. Tracy M on September 26, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    If someone holds a temple recommend, serves in his or her ward, and attends church, he or she can hold any number of foolish opinions but remain part of the body of Christ, and I separate myself from him or her at my own peril. Some of the largest and most important parts of our body are periodically full of crap, but they too are essential.

    I’m making a refrigerator magnet out of this and handing it out in RS on Sunday.

  16. mlu on September 27, 2008 at 1:00 am

    Our ward used to have a woman who spoke much of every testimony meeting about her shame. She never used the word, but she was obsessed with feelings of inadequacy. I’m a little slow, but I finally figured out that what was most characteristic about her was that, though she never said anything nice about herself, she never stopped thinking and talking and talking about herself. Every one of her stories was about what she had done wrong. It was all about her. Her shame was really another flavor of pride: seeing everything through the lens of self.

    (I wasn’t ashamed of her. I was bored with her, though).

    I think we should live without shame, in the sense that we shouldn’t think much about ourselves, when there is so much work we could be doing.

    Guilt is different. It’s a powerful sense of our distance not from the false standard of our neighbor but from a true standard that we ought to be thinking about.

    I’m guilty as hell but I’m not particularly ashamed of it. I am working on it, though.

  17. Jonovitch on September 30, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Todd, I’ll take a stab at one of your questions: “Who is the interpretive authority?”

    If a statement, policy, publication, doctrine, or whatever is signed and endorsed by the entire First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (all 15 of them collectively), you can consider that pretty doggone authoritative. You can probably be fairly safe saying the same with just the First Presidency, but I like an extra measure of unity when it comes to what’s official in the Church.

    “Ensign publications by the General Authorities” are not authoritative, although you’ll get many in the Church who claim that they are. The truth is, such talks, quotes, books, or whatever remain personal opinion until they become endorsed by the entire First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

    My favorite example of personal opinion too often mistaken for authoritative fact is the book “Mormon Doctrine” written by Bruce R. McConkie (under no supervision, before he was called to the Twelve, and for which he was chastised, and which he had to revise, and even parts of which he had to recant). In the other corner is the book “Jesus the Christ” written by James E. Talmage (who began work on it before being called as an apostle, but completed the book as an apostle, in the temple, reading and reviewing every chapter with the First Presidency and the Twelve, revising as necessary).

    While neither is canon, it’s not hard to tell which one is just shy and which one is not even close.

    I think some of the guilt and shame in the Church comes when we compare ourselves against a false standard (the non-authoritative opinions of individual “authorities” no matter how high-ranking they are, and no matter where we find them). The true standard to measure ourselves against is found when we dive into the scriptures (whether ancient, modern, or recently revealed and unanimously endorsed by the top 15 authorities in the Church), eliminating all outside sources of non-doctrinal opinion that have little bearing on our personal salvation.

    Jon

  18. Jonovitch on September 30, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    On another note, I believe that guilt and shame are man-made emotions. They are negative. They are painful. They are not helpful. I don’t believe God is their source; I believe he only uses positive emotions to influence and persuade and guide us. God is constructive — a creator — not destructive.

    I don’t believe God gives us guilt and shame, rather that we create it in ourselves, or that the devil whispers it in our spirit-ears, and tries to exploit it to drag us down. While guilt and shame are mentioned in the scriptures, I am yet to be convinced that God is the source of them. The negative feelings seem to always be mentioned in the context of man recognizing his spiritual distance from God, who is the source of truth, light, love, compassion, repentance, forgiveness, etc.

    Jon

  19. Ugly Mahana on September 30, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Re: # 3

    Compare Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 with John 3:8.

    Good post. I’m sorry I can only add to the threadjack.

  20. Jim Cobabe on October 1, 2008 at 8:49 am

    Jonathan, I am confused by your perspective because I have consider guilt and shame only from the intrinsic view. Perhaps my perspective is too limited.

    The scriptures teach that our conscience is given to us in order for us to judge properly (Moroni 7). When we feel guilt and remorse, this “godly sorrow” leads us to individual repentance. Thus shame and guilt are essential to lead us to correct wrongdoings, repentance, and self-improvement. Or am I missing something?

  21. Jonathan Green on October 1, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Jim, yes, what you’re missing is that I’m writing specifically about being ashamed of the church or fellow members. There are any number of acts we can commit for which we should properly be ashamed.

  22. Jim Cobabe on October 1, 2008 at 11:46 am

    Jonathan, perhaps some hypothetical notion of collective guilt is the idea you’re getting at.

    I have never cared for the concept. It leads to all kinds of complicated schemes like karmic debt and societal reparation, etc, that do not sit well with me. Our creed is that men are responsible for their own sins. That is plenty for me. Let others take care of their own burdens of guilt and shame. Guilt is only of use to us if it leads us to repent of personal wrongdoing. I cannot repent for the acts of another, no matter how worthy my intent. Concepts like collective guilt simply do not fit in here, and are not compatible with the idea of individual accountability.

    Nez pas?

  23. Jonovitch on October 1, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Jim (20), I don’t equate guilt and shame with “godly sorrow.” In fact, I see them as being opposites.

    Not sure how to put it into words, but I can and do feel godly sorrow for my errors without being burdened by guilt and shame (finally — wasn’t always this way). I’ve learned to not let feelings of guilt and shame drag me down or hold me back as I try to move forward. I don’t need to feel bad to progress; I actually think it can be detrimental. Hence my prayers to lift the burdens of guilt and shame from my soul.

    “Godly sorrow” seems to be more of a recognition of spiritual deficiency, and a desire (or in some cases, the hope for a desire) to improve. Castigation does very little to elevate someone who’s down.

    Hope this makes sense. It does, kinda, to me. :)

    Jon

  24. Jonovitch on October 1, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Ugly M. (19), remember that D&C 68:4 was given by the Lord, through the prophet, to a handful of apostles/elders. While it’s true when apostles are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” they speak scripture, it’s impossible for us to know when that’s the case.

    Hence, I listen closely to the 15 apostles when they speak in General Conference (as opposed to other random authorities), but I still hold out the possibility that even they are speaking opinion. In contrast, when all 15 prophets, seers, and revelators speak unanimously with one voice, I can be pretty darn certain that they are indeed collectively speaking the will of the Lord.

    It’s subtle, but there is a very important distinction.

    Jon

  25. Kent G. Budge on October 8, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    The scriptures seem pretty clear that we must endure “the shame of the world.”

    However, I suspect the qualifier is important. Shame, in general, serves some important social functions. We [i]want[/i] the fear of being frog-marched in front of news cameras to act as a disincentive to crime, for example. I further suspect that shame is a necessary step to the development of guilt, which is a further necessary step to the development of a conscience and of a capacity for Godly sorrow.

    And maybe that’s the key to what I’m trying to say. We don’t want to get stuck in the shame phase of our ethical development, necessary though it is at a certain point.

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