Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

The Connection between Shame and War

Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

The Connection between Shame and War

Article excerpt

Shame is generally viewed as the last emotion to be studied by psychiatry, psychology and all the psychotherapies. This paper explores the possibility that shame plays an important role in why nations, including the United States of America, go to war. The American government claims to fight wars in the name of freedom and national honor. Is this just another way of saying they fight to avoid shame?

If this is true, where does all this shame originate? You can read about childhood shaming as the basis for the Holocaust and World War Two's German/Austrian atrocities in Alice Miller's work (1990) and in my own paper "The Price We Pay For Shaming Little Boys" (2000). Is it the emotion of shame which compels the United States of America to overpower and control faraway countries?

Hitler whipped up the innate shame of the German nation, constantly reminding them of The Treaty of Versailles by which the defeated German nation had lost much of its territory, its industry, its army and its status as a powerful nation following World War I. To a generation of Germans raised on the humiliation and soul destruction of schwarze pedagogic (black pedagogy), The Shame of Versailles became a potent rallying cry to defend the pride of the Fatherland. Generations of Germans had been raised by well meaning parents who made sure their offspring would be obedient citizens by shaming them and stifling any spontaneous emotion. As a result these children, who had never experienced empathy and attunement, grew up filled with suppressed rage which was too dangerous to expressexcept in war. Their parents succeeded, as had their parents before them, in stamping out any sense of personal conscience. All that mattered was obedience to authority. As adults, these abused children felt better about themselves when they disempowered and cruelly humiliated those over whom they had control.

Today, in many Middle Eastern countries, a family's honor is perceived to be soiled if its women are raped or caught in adultery. To gain back the family's honor, the woman is sentenced to death by the men in her family, allowing them an outlet for their shame/rage response. Rape has always been a weapon of war, used to humiliate defeated prisoners and sully their women, ensuring that the enemy becomes too shamed and demoralized to rise up and fight again. The raping victor, meanwhile, exults in the glory of his power by humiliating the helpless victim. In our own time, the American public was shocked by the sadistic rapes and sexual perversities forced on enemy prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay by U.S. forces.

Shame is an uncomfortable affect which most of us go to great lengths to avoid. Even talking about shame makes people embarrassed. Donald L. Nathanson, recognized expert on this dreaded affect, calls shame the Cinderella of emotions. Nathanson says:

Many of us who have studied shame in depth believe that it is a primary force in social and political evolution. Shame-our reaction to it and our avoidance of it-becomes the emotion of politics and conformity. It guides and creates fashion; its influence in human civilization is paramount (p. 160).

Shame and guilt are often confused. Shame is about the quality of our person or self. Shame says I am no good. Guilt is a painful emotion triggered when we become aware that we have done something wrong. With guilt, we may be able to take steps to put things right or be forgiven. With shame, there is nothing to do. It is about our core identity, the experience of seeing ourselves from another perspective, in the worst possible light; or of fearing that others see the secret self we keep hidden away and only remember when we're forced to.

Shame is harder to measure and more difficult to bring into the open than its near cousin guilt. Guilt has been studied extensively. Psychotherapists are trained to look for guilt. In the diagnostic category of "typical depression" the patient's symptoms are usually found to be based on guilt. …

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