Keynote Address by Sally Munt: Argumentum ad Misericordiam – the Critical Intimacies of Victimhood

This paper will discuss the widespread use of victim tropes in contemporary culture. Since the growth of social media, victim stories have been proliferating, and each demanding a response. Victim narratives are rhetorical, they are designed to elicit pity and shame the perpetrator. They are deployed to stimulate political debate and activism, as well as to foment an all-purpose humanitarianism. Victimology has its origins in Law and Criminology, but this paper opens up the field more broadly to think about the cultural politics of victimhood, to think how its polyvalency can be appropriated by and for different purposes, particularly racial politics. Victimhood is a mediated phenomenon that is wrapped up with shame. In trying to formulate an ethical response to the lived experience of victims, we need to experiment with kinds of critical intimacy that develop a moral alertness to the emotional distances required by victim’s stories, the shaming process, and ourselves as witnesses.

Clara Fischer: Revealing Ireland’s ‘Proper’ Heart - Gender, Nation, and the Politics of Shame

This paper develops the idea of the politics of shame by offering a reading that moves beyond shame as an isolating and debilitating emotion frequently deployed to construct gendered Others as bringing shame onto the nation. It argues that although, in an Irish context, shame has been used to establish normative national subjects in contrast with deviant Others, and has performed the politics of shame by covering, that is, institutionalising, shamed Others, there is another species of the politics of shame. This variant binds “us” as members of the nation through our moral failures, including our shaming of those deemed deviant Others. By exploring the Taoiseach’s (Irish Prime Minister’s) apology speech to the Magdalen survivors, I tease out this particular operation of the politics of shame, which establishes the nation as having brought shame onto itself through its maltreatment of Others. While state apologies are important instances of acknowledgement of wrongs committed, and expressions of contrition and regret that may allow for healing, I argue that the Taoiseach’s apology, in a desire to recover national pride, reproduces the shaming of deviant Others through covering and elision in a circularity of the two manifestations of the politics of shame under discussion. Ultimately, this circularity results in the continued construction of shameful Others, even at that very moment of apology when the revealing of shameful moral failings is invoked as necessary and productive of healing and moral progress.

Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A.: Countering Shame and Stigma – Pro-choice Activism and the London-Irish Feminist Community

From the derogatory remarks made about the Irish Diaspora who fled the Famine (1845-1851) to the tensions surrounding the Northern Irish Troubles in the late twentieth century, the Irish in Britain have encountered significant social shame. The common use of the phrase ‘No Irish Need Apply’ in job advertisements historically, both in Britain and America, highlights the prejudice faced by the Irish working class that emigrated in search of employment. This paper will give a brief historical overview of the social shaming faced by the Irish in Britain. Then, through an examination of the activities of the London-Irish feminist community, part of what has been described as an 'alternative Irish community', it will consider Irish Diasporic groups who have harnessed the freedoms afforded them in Britain to challenge the overt containment of female sexuality on the island of Ireland itself.

In particular, the paper will focus on the pro-choice activism of the London-Irish community in countering the severe anti-choice laws in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will firstly outline the work of Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG). From the early 1980s until 2000 IWASG helped women traveling from across the island of Ireland to access safe and legal abortions denied to them at home. It will then move on to the strategies of resistance used by the direct action feminist performance group, Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. (Speaking of Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion). It will argue that the strategies of resistance deployed by Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. in countering the shaming and silencing of those who have had abortions, in turn, work against the reproduction of shamed subjectivities.

Donatas Paulauskas: How Vladimir Putin Became a Gay Icon: Shame as a Communal Resource for Queer Reparative Activism

In my presentation, I take to analyze “drag Putin” as a recent iconographical phenomenon which has been widely (re)produced in gay prides, public protests, media, and social networks by different LGBTQ/queer groups around the world that seek to confront the homophobic politics of Vladimir Putin. Drag Putin anonymously emerged on the Internet just after the “gay propaganda law” was adopted in Russia, in order to criticize Putin as the face, the “brand” of Russian homophobic politics. However, the ambiguous character of drag Putin has been raising conflicting emotions, opinions and evaluations within queer and trans communities that follow from differently perceived strategies of the visual politics of this image. Trans activists understand this image as transphobic and emphasize the strategy of shaming that seems problematic to them. Their critique addressed to this image draws attention to the aspect that the traits of femininity, gayness and camp are taken to shame and humiliate Putin and this consequently reinforces those traits as shameful. The members of trans community that find this picture insulting assert that “they aren’t jokes”. They insist on reading drag Putin critically in order to expose (internalized) transphobia of those using this image. However, others perceive drag Putin as the strategy of dragging/camping that subverts and “denaturalizes” the homophobic regime of Putin. Hence, I set my research direction to examine the hermeneutical conflicts that shape different perceptions of drag Putin and to investigate the possibilities of a more fair interpretation of this image. In order to go to the core of this conflict while simultaneously keeping a critical distance from these two overly simplistic interpretations and exploring other more complex ways of understanding it, I determine my orientation to “reparative reading” (as theorized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) as the guiding mode of my interpretational work. For it can explain the functioning of those iconographies without falling into “paranoid” theories or interpretations and do justice to all the complexities that structure this image. Reparative reading shows that the critique drag Putin delivers is based on the visual strategy that critically incorporates Putin’s image into the iconography of queer movements and culture, which is in turn supported by critical intimacies, the pleasure of critique and the sexualization of Putin within gay culture. This reparative strategy changed Putin from being a gay enemy to a gay icon for political reasons to neutralize his homophobic politics, discourse and representations while not surrendering to negativity and despair inflicted by homophobic politics. All this became possible only because of the communal resources – such as camp, drag, and (especially) shame – being employed for queer reparative activism. My presentation will show how exactly shame and the politics of shaming can be redirected and reappropriated for reparative ends in queer activism today.

Emma Casey: Discourses of Shame in Working Class Women’s Narratives of Normative Gambling Consumption Practices

This paper draws on feminist research that has considered shame, guilt and anxiety as inter-related social emotions. It explores how these feelings are exacerbated especially for working class women living in advanced consumer economies. The paper will explore the potentials for extending sociological and feminist accounts of exclusion, austerity and inequality so that they incorporate normative, familial consumer practices. The paper will draw on my previous and current work which has drawn on shifting consumption practices as they parallel wider political and social change as being integral to the production and re-appropriation of intimate personal life and particularly inter-personal relationships (see Casey and Taylor, 2015). Central to the paper is the articulation of shame in accounts of normative consumer practice. I show how feelings of shame are commonly articulated in women’s accounts of their everyday consumption practices, but also demonstrate how working class women appropriate their consumer decision making practices in order to make sense of and address shameful feelings. Drawing on the findings of my ESRC funded project Gambling and Households, I discuss extracts taken from my Mass Observation data where shame is not only connected with emotional retellings of the past, but is also manifest in melancholic reflections of the present and dreams for the future. I use gambling as a way of exemplifying these ideas; as a morally framed but highly normative consumer practice where the telling and re-telling of gambling ‘practice’ is framed by working class women consumers within discourses and narratives of shame. 

Luna Dolezal: The Politics of Shame and Gender in Cosmetic Surgery

There have been many feminist critiques of cosmetic surgery practices in recent times, however, with the notable exception of Jane Megan Northrop’s recent study Reflecting on Cosmetic Surgery: Body Image, Shame and Narcissism, there has been little explicit analysis of cosmetic surgery with respect to the experience of body shame. Despite remaining largely unarticulated by both patients and doctors, Northrop argues that shame about the body is the structure driving not only women’s decisions about surgery, but also the entire “transformative arc in which cosmetic surgery is located” (Northrop, 2012: 173). Attempting to transform body shame into pride is, in fact, central to the drama of cosmetic surgery: shame drives women to seek out surgeons; surgeons cultivate it in order to acquire and maintain their clients; and, ultimately, surgeries are performed in order to alleviate it. As such, this paper will explore the dynamics and politics of body shame in the clinical encounter, with a particular focus on the practice of cosmetic surgery. Looking at the highly gendered relations between surgeons and patients which underpin the majority of cosmetic surgery practices, I will argue that the ‘psychological cure’, often cited as a justification for the medical need for cosmetic surgery, must be critically examined with respect to the intersubjective and political dimensions of shame about the body.

Gail Weiss: The Shame of Shamelessness

Many of the most compelling accounts of how shame is gendered, racialized, and connected with one’s social class and/or physical/mental abilities have considered the phenomenon of shame from a first person perspective.  Yet, at the same time, virtually all of these accounts depict shame as a relational rather than a private experience.  As Jean-Paul Sartre suggests through his famous example in Being and Nothingness of the voyeur who thinks he has been caught in the act of spying on the inhabitants of a room through a keyhole, shame is always shame before a real or hypothetical other.   Indeed, for Sartre, shame as well as pride are affective responses we would not even experience if we were not beings-for-others, that is, if we were not always already in relationship with others.  An important question that is often raised, whether directly or indirectly, in discussions of shame-inducing behavior concerns whether or not the experience of shame has unique moral value.  That is, since shame is strongly associated with very negative affective responses (regardless of whether or not the sense of shame is justified), a central question that has dominated much philosophical literature concerns whether the experience of being ashamed plays an important motivating role, or, on the contrary, an obstacle in living a moral life. 

Of course, as feminist theorists, critical race theorists, and disability theorists have shown us, it is impossible to make an assessment about the ethical value of shame without also considering what I would call the power dynamics of shame, specifically the fact that sexual, racial, and other minorities have historically been more prone to be shamed by others, even if they have done nothing to deserve their moral condemnation. Thus, it is clear that we cannot resolve philosophical questions about the moral worth of shame without a critical examination of whether or not an individual should be ashamed in the first place.  In this essay, I propose to approach the gendered and racial dimensions of this question somewhat obliquely by examining how an individual’s failure to experience shame can actually produce a strong sense of shame in other people.  Accordingly, experiencing of shame not for oneself but for an other who is behaving shamelessly will constitute the main focus of my paper. 

My contention is that this rather peculiar “secondhand” experience of shame on the part of another when there is no “firsthand” experience of shame by the original agent has its own unique ethical dynamic that deserves further exploration in its own right.  Given the shame that citizens around the world report experiencing when their predominantly male political and civic leaders behave shamelessly, and given our ubiquitous social media’s own role in shaming people who might not otherwise (and perhaps should not) feel any shame, it is also urgent to consider the gendered and racialized implications of the displacement of shame from men to women and from those who enjoy racial privileges to those who do not. 

Cecilia Sosa: The Children of the Disappeared in Argentina - Humour and the Reinvention of Shame

Thirty thousand lives missing: this was the shameful legacy of Argentina’s last dictatorship (1973-1983). When democracy was restored, the network of organisations created by the victims of state terrorism took the form of a peculiar family. The Mothers and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo are some of the most well-known associations created by those directly affected by state violence. This paper, however, focuses the attention on the activism developed by the children of the disappeared, who, by the mid 1990s, founded H.I.J.O.S’ organisation (which means “children” in Spanish). Drawing upon the work of Sigmund Freud, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick and Henri Bergson, I make the case that humour worked as a form of “coming out” for the descendants of the victims, which helped them to cope with the loss of their parents, when legal justice was exempt from the political arena. Through glimpses into their rituals and ceremonies, I argue that the dark sense of humour that permeated the group contributed to reverse individual feelings of shame, eventually empowering the descendants with a new generational language to deal with loss.

During a series of interviews conducted with H.I.J.O.S.’ members, I’ve noticed that the descendants usually employed the language of the closet to articulate the feelings of shame that they had experienced during their childhood. Once inside the group, those abject feelings of injury regarding their burning backgrounds became reversed. Drawing upon a queer theoretical framework, as well as recent theorisation on affect and political emotions, I explore how the moment of joining H.I.J.O.S. emerged as a turning point within individual biographies; a significant life event that changed the ways in which the descendants conceived their own stories and those of the others. In close contact with their peers, the descendants also learned to rebuild their relations with their missing parents in a sort of reverberation from one to the other. I contend that political activism provided the children of the disappeared with a new platform for survival, which could be compared to the transition of queer subjectivities from individual shame to collective pride. Drawing on the contagious character of shame addressed by Seadwick (1993), I suggest that the children’s ‘escraches’, which involved the targeting of the military personnel at their own homes, enabled the descendants to redirect the public shame they experienced during their childhoods to a collective action against the military repressors. Furthermore, this reworking of shame was crucial to spread the militant energy beyond those directly affected by violence. Ultimately, the expansive mood inaugurated by the descendants’ activism helped to establish a public culture of mourning in which the whole society was invited to take part. To some extent, I contend, humour was children’s biggest rebellion. It built a non-normative position to resist violence while reinventing a politics of shame for the new generations.

Jill Locke: Unashamed Citizenship

In Democracy and the Death of Shame: Political Equality and Social Disturbance (Cambridge University Press, January 2016), I provide a historical tracing of a phenomenon I call The Lament that Shame is Dead. The Lament, I argue, is a nostalgic story of an imagined past in which shame regulated social and political life. It emerges at a fevered pitch as political and social outsiders invoke democratic ideas of political equality to disturb the social order, especially along axes of race, class, and sex/gender. The book shows how The Lament obscures and pathologizes the radically democratic work of the ancient Cynics, literary outsiders in pre-Revolutionary France, US President Andrew Jackson’s populism, the mid-20th century effort to desegregate US public schools, and the sexual revolution launched by late-20th century feminists and gay liberationists. I term many of these radical outsiders “unashamed citizens.”

Whereas the book focuses primarily on The Lament, this paper further sharpens and develops the concepts of unashamed citizens and unashamed citizenship. Unashamed citizens, I argue, self-consciously disavow the terms of shame and shaming and link the silence and self-negation associated with shame to broader political questions of their particular historical moment. Martin Luther King Jr.’s plea—after the passage of the US Civil Rights Act—that “we must no longer be ashamed of being black” captures the ways in which unashamed citizens link the experience of shame to broader questions of political and social equality. More specifically, unashamed citizens track the social change and social equality that is necessary in order to make political equality (as evidenced in the Civil Rights Act) meaningful.

Shame is often celebrated as a “negative emotion” that links people to each other through their common vulnerability and humanity. Accordingly, The Lament and other defenses of shame’s value cast the person who disavows shame or performs “shamelessness” as highly-individualistic and lacking in regard for a common humanity or common world. The self-consciously “shameless” person or the person who publicly argues against the value of shame is characterized as caring only for a world suited to him or herself. Against this view, this paper shows how unashamed citizens call into question the value of shame in ways that in fact support intersubjective relationships and friendships as well as the plurality (in the Arendtian sense) necessary for a vibrant and diverse political world.

This paper develops the concept of unashamed citizenship through case studies of the early-twentieth-century US reformer and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells and the eighteenth-century French feminist writer and playwright Olympe de Gouges. These case studies illuminate how actually-existing people politicize the terms of shame and shaming as part of a radically democratic civic practice. In so doing, they complicate the polarized and de-contextualized environment in which most theoretical work on shame exists.