Conversation with the Comments

Laurie and Debbie say:

Our recent post on Social Phobia and Social Oppression started a thoughtful conversation in the comments section.

Lynne Murray points to Josh Kornbluth’s Red Diaper Baby (“His reaction was to get to kindergarten and try to organize his fellow oppressed kids”) and goes on to make the excellent point that “any system of belief can be oppressive when forced on the unwilling.”

Dan’l worries that we crossed the line into “reinterpreting [the writer’s] experience to fit [our] position,” saying that there may well be a tendency toward shame and insecurity deeply ingrained in the structure of the human personality.

Sage relates the experience of growing up in an alternative household (perhaps with nudity?) and never feeling shame and insecurity about her body.

Dan’l’s criticisms in particular bring up two major points: first, it is entirely possible (and we should have said) that the writer’s strong physical revulsion could be equally well explained by response to oppression as by internalized self-hatred. It is certainly possible to have an internalized body reaction to oppression without experiencing self-hatred. We both read some level of self-hatred into other parts of the article, and at the same time, it’s always important to take other people’s self-descriptions at face value.

In a broader sense, we’re interested in is the question of whether or not shame and insecurity are hard-wired. Throughout the history of Western culture, at least, runs a thread of believing that whatever human traits the people who run the world are invested in are hard-wired. Remember, those traits can range from “women can’t orgasm” to “all women are sexually voracious”, and can include both the innate passivity of children and the undeniable pleasure of vomiting in company after a large meal.

Shame and insecurity are powerful tools of social control. We do not in fact believe that the desire to instill shame and insecurity is hard-wired into the “ruling class,” but we could make that argument as convincingly as many other arguments about human wiring. What is certainly true is that shame and insecurity can be, and very often are, exploited. If the powers that be can encourage us to believe that we are forever doomed to experience these unhappy emotions, that only makes their job of continually refreshing and restoring those emotions even easier, and makes it that much harder for anyone to find a way out of the maze.

shame, insecurity, guilt, self-hatred, human behavior, social control, sociobiology. Body Impolitic

2 thoughts on “Conversation with the Comments

  1. This discussion keeps reminding me of a passage from Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (winner of the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Title Award, seriously, I love the dude). He discusses shame as a way human groups control “out of line” behavior. Here he is on shame versus guilt:

    “If you wish to feel shame in its pure form, this stepping outside what is expected of you, simply stand out in a busy street and shout out the time in minutes and seconds over the heads of everyone who passes by, and do it for five minutes–or until you are taken away. This is shame, but not guilt, because you have done nothing your society has taught you to call wrong.” The Origin..etc. Afterword, p. 463

    (Jayne’s controversial theory is pretty well explained at

  2. I confess that my original post was incautious; it is not the feelings but the capacity for them that must certainly be hardwired in the human nervous system.

    Yes, there is a Western tradition of using hardwiredness (usually under the guise of “it’s just human nature” or some variation of Social Darwinism) as a mechanism for control, and also for excusing unethical behavior. This is an error, because (as I’ve said before in these comments) hardwired capacities do not mean that we are robots, and we prove that we can overcome our genes’ most powerful imperative every time we use some form of contraception.

    That said: If a capacity for same and insecurity is hardwired, then almost certainly the use of it to manipulate others is also. Current theory suggests that a major impetus for the development of our monster brains was an “arms race” among our ancestors to manipulate each other socially, including the ability to trigger “altruistic” behavior in others.

    If this is true, then Bill Burroughs may have been right: language may really be a virus…

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