Shame has gotten a bad name—literally. Just consider its more recent compounded gerund formulations, such as body-shaming, or slut-shaming. Or the “shame” that is the worthlessness one might feel when subjected to assault or derogation. Shame is asked to signify some of the most pernicious less-than internalizations waiting to infuse our preconscious minds like a bacterial infection. It is clear that we could benefit from adopting new language for these sensations, as milder and more transitory forms of shame can be very good for any human being who is trying to experience this crowded life while doing a minimum of harm to others.
Feeling simple shame after we have failed ourselves, or after we have failed another, is the only verification we can have of an ingrained morality. Simple shame is what you feel after you hear someone mock or slander a friend, yet say nothing. Simple shame is what a moral person feels after she has, in a moment of public rage, verbally abused someone she truly cares about. Simple shame is the only positive affirmation of our morality because other would-be positive affirmations—donating money to a good cause, or helping a lost child find his parent—come with the pleasure of doing a right action, and therefore also come with a shadow of doubt that we may have done this or that good thing at least partly out of self-service. Simple shame is authentic and reliable precisely because it makes us feel truly unpleasant sensations that make us cry or burn with embarrassment—sensations we avoid whenever we can as we construct our public persona. Meanwhile, negative affirmations of morality—thinking, for example, “I’m a good person because I don’t steal and I’m not a murderer and I buy the healthier option of dog food”—are as objectively unpersuasive as any other autobiographical fictions we silently tell ourselves, with no one able to correct us. And if shame is bad, consider how we disparage those who fail or decline its exhibition: We might call someone “shameless.” We might read someone’s astonishing tweet and ask, incredulously, “Does he have no shame?”
Simple shame is healthy shame because it is rectifying and temporary, something more synonymous with “justified embarrassment” than “abject self-loathing.” A persistent sense of shame can become deeply seated, implacable, pathological and distracting—numbing to the point of paralysis. Because of this, one’s mind will go to extraordinary lengths in order to avoid feeling it. In 1967 German feminist psychologist Margarete Mitscherlich-Nielsen (The Future is Feminine, 1987) and her husband Alexander Mitscherlich (also a psychologist, and an observer at the Nuremberg Trials) published a book titled The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior. What they found in postwar Germany was a kind of collective amnesia. In Empathy and Its Limits (2015), German literature professor Aleida Assmann explains a relationship between the findings in The Inability to Mourn and work by German philosopher Günther Anders, who in the 1960s turned his critical attentions toward Klaus Eichmann, Adolf Eichmann’s oldest son. Anders’ most chilling discovery—akin, maybe, to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”—was that among those who passively witnessed Nazi crimes, “amnesia was not an effect of hindsight, a retrospective strategy of disavowal and covering up the traces, but an essential part of the crime itself. Anders: “… repression often does not only start after the deed but already in the doing itself … it even comes before the act and is its effective precondition.” Assmann quotes the narrative of a German man who, one day when he was still a boy and waiting on the street for his father, witnessed a German officer abusing a group of frighteningly emaciated and near-death concentration camp inmates, who were hurriedly being marched westward to prevent their discovery and liberation by advancing Russian soldiers. When his father appeared and the boy started to tell him what he was witnessing, his father instantly took in the scene and with only a look and a gesture communicated to his son not to speak of what was happening in front of them. This father was understandably fearful of provoking a reaction to any expression of outrage or pity. This refusal to acknowledge the more horrific aspects of reality was “a typical reaction among the multitude of Germans.” It was a useful social reflex, reiterated unceasingly within the civilian population.
When one is invited to write something comparing the present situation in the United States to the German zeitgeist just before WWII, one naturally hesitates. Mostly because one does not want to be caught knee-deep in the waters of hyperbole, called out for unreasonably drawing parallels between one’s own life and some of the most unspeakable events in modern history. This might instigate a natural and justified measure of shame to be felt by the writer, who tries to be a moral person. However, there is at least one particular social phenomena in the United Sates today which resonates, arguably, with the communicable derealization of Germany’s Bystander Generation: The Zero Fucks Moment—meaning, the proliferation of cleverly-phrased memetic refutations of a poster’s concern for … whatever. I-Have-No-Fucks-to-Give memes are now in full flower all over social media, and they will likely intensify following the Trump inauguration, fueled by the waves of frustration and disillusionment sure to be felt after an uncouth and unpopular candidate, stained by innuendo and controversy, assumes executive control over America on the heels of a President who was—for all his faults—possibly the most ingratiating, camera-friendly, and urbane man to hold that office since John F. Kennedy. This abrupt transition could result in a record-low number of fucks left to be given. Which may become a problem. Announcing, “I don’t give a fuck!” to the world (or just your 900 Instagram followers) is less of an expression of frustration and discouragement than a performance of defiant indifference. And let’s be real: Not giving a fuck is not caring. It is voluntary disinterest. The expletive “fuck” replaces “care” in order to unmask the resentment the speaker feels toward those in their internet audience, real or imagined, who ostensibly had expected the speaker to feel something for the now uncared-for person or thing. “I don’t give a fuck” is at once an apology for the failure to sustain the human capacity for concern and also a tactic, like the preemptive amnesia described by Günther Anders, to repress the sensation of shame during an evasion of human responsibility.
When people are thrilled by a presidential candidate who calls his rival a “pussy,” when he must reassure his supporters about the size of his penis, when he bullies the powerless and mocks the disabled—and when even those who dislike him laugh along as mainstream television hosts normalize his commission of sexual assault by turning it into a late-night punch line—those of us who wish to remain engaged, informed, and responsive need to forsake the privilege of cultivating a spectacle of indifference. An oft-cited influence upon Trump voters in 2016 was their sense of justifiable insensitivity, or empathy fatigue, usually phrased as their impatience or frustration with political correctness run amok. When it came to issues related to people they did not know, recognize, or understand, somehow they depleted their capacity for care. Those who think differently must at all costs avoid that destination. They must be generous with their fucks.
Ben Reed is a writer and educator in Central Texas. His essay on the campus carry movement will appear in the next issue of The Texas Review, and he recently won the Texas Observer‘s Short Story Prize, judged by Amelia Gray. Ben’s work has appeared in Pank, The Seattle Review, Blue Mesa Review, West Branch, and other places, including the Tin House blog, The Open Bar.