Sunday, November 12, 2006

Shame and Politics

I just finished reading Arlene Stein's book, Shameless: Sexual Dissidence in American Culture, part of which discusses how the Christian Right uses shame as a central organizing notion.

This has been, of course, blatantly evident in several of the moments we've seen in South Dakota politics over the last few months. South Dakota Family Policy Council Director Rob Regier's comments about South Dakotans Against Discrimination Director Jon Hoadley illustrate this particularly well. If you've followed the above link, you know that Rob is now totally absolved from having helped pay for his former girlfriend's abortion, as well as from the life of sin that he was leading during this time. This is not, by the way, because he found God, as he had already found God prior to this. It seems to be because he decided to live his life differently (which makes no sense if you are familiar with the whole concept of grace).

Because Regier turned out to be such an exceptional human being, he apparently had the right to make weird and insulting comments about Jon Hoadley, who, based on what is admittedly a fleeting acquaintance, may just be one of the nicest people (and certainly one of the smartest campaign strategists) I've met:
Rob Regier of the S.D. Family Policy Council personally attacked what he believes to be Jon's lifestyle, saying he "would be dead before he was 40." Jon is 23.

I would just like to point out here that Regier, in the process of sharing his beliefs, has managed to become one of the most hated men in South Dakota. Hoadley, on the other hand, has not only earned the respect and friendship of many during his campaign, but he also managed to educate nearly half of South Dakota voters to vote against the marriage amendment. Further, having been out with Hoadley and friends a few times, I can say that I don't know what Regier could be alluding to. I think perhaps he needs to put away his secreted collection of the Tales of the City series (for the straights: it's basically the gay Sex and the City, and it came first, thank you very much) and come back to reality.

Then there is also the site, which, believing that "shame deters abortions," has posted pictures of men, women, and children (it's never too soon to shame!) at Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls, along with close-ups of their license plates. The hope is that people will be recognized and shamed by the community - or, perhaps, harassed or even killed (the site is connected to The Nuremberg Files, which used to directly encourage violence against abortion providers, and now does so in a subtler, creepy way).

I found another example while poking around on YouTube, where I came across Leslie Unruh's unconsession speech in response to the abortion ban's defeat, in which she said two very interesting things. First, she mentioned a woman who, having shared her story of having had an abortion, no longer felt ashamed. I wondered why she had felt shame in the first place. Who was making her feel ashamed? None of the women I know who have had abortions have felt shame about it (save, perhaps, the one woman I will mention below). And, further, if they were ashamed of having had abortions, then why did telling people about their shameful secret make them less ashamed?

The answer became clear a few sentences later, when Unruh pointed the finger at Planned Parenthood and said, to loud cheers from the others in the Vote Yes For Life office: "Planned Parenthood, you killed our children."

Stein tells us that the Christian Right shames others in order to avoid shame themselves. In this case, Unruh neatly transferred the shame from the women who had had abortions onto Planned Parenthood. I don't believe that abortion is shameful, but this leads me to say, take responsbility for your own decisions. I've mentioned before my acquaintance who had three abortions and blamed Planned Parenthood for each one. I'm not sympathetic. I am not pro-choice so that someone can have three abortions, blame Planned Parenthood, and then go on the road shaming women and spreading false information.

Stein gives us a useful distinction between shame and guilt. Guilt, she suggests, is the result of an act. It is specific. From this, I can suggest that a guilty conscience can lead us to rectify a wrong, to apologize, to make things right. But shame, Stein explains, is much larger. Shame is about who you are as a person. It is about being a shameful person, and that is something that is much more difficult to correct. The Christian Right tells us that we can avoid shame by not being gay, by not having sex, by not having abortions, etc., etc. Simultaneously, they tell us, we are only righteous people if we feel ashamed of all of these things because these things, they say, are wrong. Not being ashamed, then, simultaneously means that one is righteous (if one is heterosexual, practicing abstinence, etc.) or that one is damned (if one is gay, having sex, and unrepentant of this).

It is all in the eye of the beholder, in other words.

And meanwhile, there are some very scared, insecure, and shamed people trying to heal themselves by heaping their own shame on us.

All of this makes the outcome of the election particularly important. All across the country, voters sent the message that we are not ashamed - not about abortion, not about sexuality, not about wanting the war in Iraq to end - and further, that a politics built on shame is not one we want we want to be part of.

A final thought: it is perhaps this intense emphasis on shame that has made several conservatives in the blogosphere and IRL announce that the election sent a clear mandate to stay the course. Because God forbid they should ever feel ashamed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was an interesting thread on the argus leader forums. A couple of the resident south dakota taliban were absolutely howling mad. They wanted to make sure that scare tactics and guilt would be employed in any public school sex ed program. They didn't care about anything else as long as they were darn sure that these students would be fully shamed about sex and to live in fear of it. They were more concerned with telling them the horrible consequences of sex and how (in their words) ineffective contraception was. It sounded like some sex ed version of "scared straight". These people live for shaming others. Their harsh religious beliefs tell them that they are bad, unworthy people who must make themselves worthy of salvation. All of this is too much to handle and they turn that shame and guilt outward.

These people really need to be marginalized so they can no longer damage everyone around them.