I recently took a sabbatical from Instagram for two weeks because the algorithm was killing me. I won’t disclose what my targeted ads were, all I can say is that it took a toll on my mental health, besides that, I really didn’t feel like communicating with anyone. It’s exhausting to keep a check on everyone. Nobody owes it to me, and I don’t owe it to anyone.
After returning to Instagram two days ago, I realised that even though I whine about the lack of privacy, I regularly trade it for convenience. I no longer need to remember birthdays; Facebook reminds me. If I ever wake up late for my classes, google maps will chalk out the fastest route for me to reach my university on time. I no longer need to have those anxiety-fuelled dreaded interactions with waiters at a restaurant, when I can just order whatever I want from all the food ordering apps available and eat a delicious meal at the comfort of my couch. To avail all these luxuries, I just have to make my location, habits and beliefs transparent to the apps to scrutinise.
Shame is an important emotion, it’s indispensable in a society that demands humans to act morally. Plato would feel scandalised if he was alive and saw the lack of shame with which we decide to share deeply personal information online for everyone to see.
Shame acts as a precondition or rather implies that we need to know better than to rebel against the laws that govern the world if we want to live a peaceful life. This is precisely what Plato wants us to know about the nature of moral knowledge: he believes that we already possess the knowledge that is required for a moral life, but we are constantly at war with certain obstacles that divert us from it. For Plato, then, shame is an instrumental force within us that helps us to resist the urge to give in to temptations. It helps us to be true to ourselves in the pursuit of moral life and opens the door to pay attention to the knowledge within us. A man without shame is a slave to desire, and such desire is tyrannical by nature and cannot be satisfied, according to Plato.
People routinely and brazenly confess awkward, shameful personal anecdotes online for a few laughs. Unlike Plato who condemns shameless confession, Foucault believes that it’s merely human to confess. The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that contains us, on the contrary, it seems to us that truth lodged in our most secret nature demands only to surface.
Not only is confession ingrained in us, but it’s also been encouraged throughout human history, through biographies, catholic confessions and re-telling of historical events through personal narratives. Confession can feel like liberation, it seems to unburden us off our shame. If we believe Foucault’s take on confession, it’s a ploy. He believed we always confess to someone, in the presence of an authority, real or imagined. I interpret that as, we only confess to a person who can correct us, or can absolve us from the guilt that comes with shame, and that usually seems to be a figure of authority, like a father on the other side of the confessional box who can give us the exact number of Hail Mary’s that’ll absolve us of our sin. In like manner, we could see online confession as an act for an audience, it’s never gratuitous, it’s always purposive.
I talked about confession as an act of liberation, similarly, during an online confession, the confessor seeks to unburden themselves to their followers in the hopes that their opinions will be validated and affirmed, their awkwardness or quirkinesses will be happily accepted. This approval — which may or may not be followed by an endorsement — by the digital audience fills the shoes of authority for the confessor or, by Plato’s standard acts as the inner voice of moral conscience. This phenomenon has created and narrowed the shared space for understanding the dialogue between groups and has fostered conformity. The natural impulse of a man to belong is maintained in these spaces. What may be perceived as shamelessness might be precisely the opposite.
That leads me to ask, has the behaviour of anyone online embarrassed you? Not because they acted so philanthropically that you felt inadequate by comparison, but because they moved in such an immature fashion or they said something so self-unaware that you retracted into your seat. This second-hand embarrassment is called fremdscham in german, which directly translates to vicarious embarrassment. If you have experienced it, then it is likely that at least for a brief moment you felt motivated to improve as a person. You made a mental note to not repeat the behaviour that made you cringe. If the feeling was powerful enough, it might’ve changed your life for the better.
But what about fremdscham that might stem from the failure of beauty? Moral philosophers usually claim that beauty is an unimportant aspect of moral life. This means that living up to certain beauty ideals is not morally necessary, physical attractiveness is merely a genetic accident. The only legitimate models that people should care about maintaining are the ideals of virtue or character. A lot of people express shame and sometimes express remorse for others because they aren’t aesthetically pleasing, it must be because we have been conditioned into believing that beauty equals to a good character.
Lucy Grealy, in her famous memoir’ Autobiography of a face,’ describes her college experience as feeling acceptance she had never felt before and was genuinely able to open herself to the love that was offered.
But this acceptance offered by a loving group of friends wasn’t adequate enough to alleviate the deep shame she felt about her appearance, it did allow her to ‘compensate for, but never overcome’. It’s usually believed that acceptance and love help shame, but it doesn’t effectively absolve it. Sympathy may lead us to understand that the feeling of inadequacy when it comes to appearance is irrational. This presupposes that it’s not a ‘real’ thing to be ashamed of, which is not true. Ever since evolution, the reasons for humans to feel ashamed have been continuously changing, as morality and priorities evolve. It’s appealing to believe that we shouldn’t feel shame about anything except standard moral flaws since shame is such a sticky, powerful and debilitating feeling, it would be nice to not feel it every time we see our face in the mirror. But every time we condemn someone for feeling ashamed, even though it comes from a place of sympathy, we are unconsciously invalidating their feelings. Just becomes something feels wrong, we can’t conclude that it’s irrational to feel this way. Grealy might’ve been better off is she didn’t feel shame, yes, but that doesn’t render her feelings absurd.
We can comfort who feel this way without trying to correct their feelings.
On a personal level, I don’t know how to alleviate the pain that comes from shame, but my favourite narrative technique — catharsis, may act as a short term therapy and help in purging that feeling. Catharsis’ function can be likened to HIIT, i.e. high-intensity interval training, which is a form of cardiovascular exercise strategy alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less severe recovery periods, until too exhausted to continue, it’s very effective in burning fat and keeps burning it throughout the day even after you are done exercising — what I mean by comparing the two is, similar to HIIT, catharsis gives a short burst of intense pity, fear and emotional pain that serves the purpose of inciting an ancient, and deep aesthetic pleasure that stays. I personally love watching movies that perform this function, and if I’m honest, the only reason I watch movies is for that purpose alone. My favourites rewatches being, Old-boy by Park Chan-Wook, The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke, Irreversible by Gaspar Noe and Requiem for a Dream by Darren Aronofsky. There are many others of course, but my point is, looking at the content of the movies that I just mentioned you can get an idea of what kind of emotional triggers I am talking about.
Let’s dig in deeper. Catharsis as a narrative technique was founded by Aristotle, and ever since, till the Renaissance, literary scholars have struggled to decipher what this type of deliberately obtuse text meant. Aristotle insisted that only a particular kind of character can induce feelings of fear and pity in the readers or viewers. Many writers believe that a virtuous character who has gone astray may do the trick. Still, upon further observation, this theory has turned out to be false, because this situation neither induces pity nor fear, it merely shocks.
To better understand the intricate approach to pain by catharsis, let’s look into an example of a holocaust narrative —’ The Lives of Animals’ by Coetzee, the protagonist, Helen Costello talks about the significant role of the portrayal of an imaginative faculty for moral receptiveness. She writes: the horror that convinces us that what went on there was a crime against humanity is not that despite an understanding shared with their victims, the killers treated them like lice. That is too abstract. The horror is that the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else. They said, ‘It is they in those cattle-cars rattling past’. They did not say, ‘How would it be if it were I in that cattle-car?’. . . They said, ‘It must be the dead who are being burnt today, making the air stink and falling in ash on my cabbages’. They did not say, ‘How would it be if I were burning?’
Following that she adds and concludes: they closed their hearts. The heart is the seat of a faculty, sympathy that allows us to share at times the being of another. . . Some people can imagine themselves as someone else, some people have no such capacity, and some people have the capability but choose not to exercise it. There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.
Coetzee’s message is simple. If we possess compassion in narrative and in how we choose to present it, we are not capable of murder or hate. If we can’t do that, we are unable to express and feel love. Love is healing, the pity that stems out of compassion and respect for the character in pain, the deep shared empathy with intelligent acknowledgement of our privilege as a spectator through catharsis, is crucial in not only grounding us but also reminding us of our humanity.
The most crucial aspect of catharsis, if it sets out to actually bring healing to an individual or a group lies in the listener’s ability to listen and receive, the listener’s availability itself plays a crucial role in catharsis’ accomplishment as an act of two-way therapy. The mourning brought upon by catharsis is well beyond tears, it’s more like the vomit of horrors that desperately needs an outlet than just merely grief.
Genocide narrative provides an in-depth insight into the therapeutic powers of catharsis. A lot of survivors wouldn’t have been able to survive their own survival if they hadn’t turned their silent wounds into testimonies. A lot of their literature relies on being realistically violent. Helen Bamber a human rights campaigner during the post-world-war II period recalls a Yiddish play by the survivors as: ‘I have never seen anything so effective, despite the crudity of the stage and the performance. It was raw and so close to the experience of the audience. There was never any applause. Each time was like a purging.’
This release from the past horrors and nightmares through literature is instrumental in helping the onlookers and survivors to identify their own pain. Shame, guilt and pain are all interconnected and are often repressed as a defence mechanism because they are too unbearable to be registered during the actual event. Still, if all trauma is suppressed, it’ll find other, and often unhealthy ways of expressing itself. Catharsis helps the audience to re-experience their repressed un-experienced experiences.
The detachment offered by this type of narrative might be small, but without it, the audience will just be smothered with gratuitous trauma, that’ll only lead to desensitisation. The process if followed correctly combines empathy and acknowledgement of the audience’s own suffering, thereby giving space for the audience to put themselves in other’s shoe and looking at overwhelming pain of their own and others through a wide sympathetic lens. The first step towards helping and understanding other’s pain and shame come from forgiving and making sense of one’s own self for the pain they have experienced.