University College Tilburg

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The Orange Emperor’s New Clothes?

On August 21, 2017, University College Tilburg launched the new academic year with an opening conference on the topic of shame. Jenny Slatman, professor of Medical Humanities in the Department of Cultural Studies, gave a fascinating talk on how shame shapes bodies, literally as well as figuratively.

In addition, a lecture hall packed with newly arrived first-year students engaged in a lively discussion of several questions relating to the topic: What is shame? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Has our society become shameless? By way of illustration to this final question, the screen showed an image of the 45th President of the United States. A volley of approving chuckles in the audience suggested that many felt something is wrong, and that somehow Donald Trump exemplifies this worrisome state of affairs. In what follows, I want to explore the question as well as the response a little further. Has our society become shameless?

On the surface, it may seem as if contemporary Western society is less ashamed compared to societies viewed as more ‘traditional’, both now and in the past. We seem to be less prone to covering ourselves and less afraid to expose ourselves, both literally and figuratively. Literally, when it comes to the body, there is a tacit consensus that individuals should decide for themselves how much of it they wish to reveal or conceal. Hence, grumpy professors who complain that students have forgotten the difference between a campus and a camp site are generally regarded as being slightly backward (or at least old-fashioned). Figuratively, we are not afraid to show our views, preferences and feelings, and even our fears and failings, to others, known and unknown, both online and offline. Some popular social media even encourage their users to express themselves openly by providing buttons and symbols to indicate their emotional state of the moment.

However, does this mean that we have reached the ultimate stage of moral decay, in which all modesty and restraint have vanished and nothing is sacred anymore? Or does it mean, rather, that we have – finally – becomes shameless, and that we should be proud of living in the light, as distinguished from people living in the darkness of a ‘culture of shame’? Either conclusion would be rash and unwarranted. To begin with, we are hardly the first society to take pride in not covering ourselves and to distinguish ourselves positively by being uncovered. In his Inquiry (Historía – hence our word history), written in the 5th century BCE, Herodotus says of non-Greeks: “among […] most of the foreign peoples it is felt as a great shame that even a man be seen naked.” (History, 1.10) As Herodotus implies, and as we know today, Greek men and women took great pride in exercising naked and in public (gumnazomai – hence our word gymnastics, which, for some obscure reason, we moderns prefer to do clothed). They saw it as a badge of distinction, as a mark of civilization, universalism and superiority over their non-Greek contemporaries, who were shocked and appalled by such shamelessness.

If this sounds vaguely familiar and feels vaguely modern, it is no less problematic. For Herodotus’s account raises an interesting question: Is the Greek custom essentially different from that of the non-Greeks? Isn’t their proud nakedness just another cover, and doesn’t the Greeks’ pride in their custom have its reverse side in a sense of shame, just like the non-Greeks’ pride in their customs? For, as Herodotus shows, the Greeks were just as familiar with pride and shame as the non-Greeks: only the objects and criteria of their pride and shame shifted and changed. As Jenny Slatman persuasively showed in her talk, something similar may very well apply to us. We moderns may be proud of our nakedness like any ancient Greek, but on closer inspection, it proves to be a nakedness that has paid several visits (and bills) to the dietician, the gym, or the cosmetic surgeon (or all three combined). Our definition of “acceptable nakedness in which to take pride” is very shallow and narrow, and it leaves the great majority of us with feelings of intense shame.

So let us reconsider. If shame and pride appear to be inescapable, this may be because they are typically human: they distinguish us from all – or almost all – other animals (whether higher primates experience shame and pride is still not clear). The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche summed this up nicely by calling us “the beast that has red cheeks” (das Thier, das rothe Backen hatAlso sprach Zarathustra, II,3). We are animals, but we differ from other animals in our capacity and tendency to get red in the face, either because we feel shame or because we feel angry because of wounded pride and honor.

In essence, shame attends the very primal and intense experience of having failed to live up to some standard, and of standing exposed in having done so. Sure enough, this experience is very negative, sometimes even destructive: shame makes you very lonely and makes you doubt yourself to the core of your being. In this respect, shame is “a soul-eating emotion”, as psychologist Carl Gustav Jung claims. However, insofar as it is also attended by (albeit painful) self-awareness and self-consciousness, it may become the source of self-knowledge and self-development. Beyond this, the experience of shame involves a very primal and basic awareness of norms, rules and restraints, pointing towards sociability and the capacity to navigate complex systems such as morality and law. In this respect, shame becomes a soul-creating emotion.

Which brings me to the 45th President of the US. Indeed, he has garnered a lot of criticism for abandoning standards of common decency and displaying shameless behavior while shaming others. However, this does not warrant the inference that shamelessness as exemplified by Trump has become the new rule. If anyone is driven by an inflated sense of pride, matched by a deep fear of losing and being shamed, it is the Orange Emperor. All of his bluster and defiance of social and political conventionalities are just a cover for that fear: a wall that reveals as it conceals, much like a Facebook Wall riddled with snapshots, entries, likes and reactions can conceal deep anxiety and loneliness. Herodotus already knew that shamelessness can be a very efficient cover for shame. However, he was not the first to come up with the idea. At the beginning of Homer’s Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles is deeply offended by Agamemnon, the arrogant, greedy and inept leader of the Greek forces. In response, Achilles, whose pride, anger and shame will determine the narrative arc of the epic, lashes out at Agamemnon:

“O you, clothed in shamelessness (epieimenos anaideièn), with your mind forever on profit!” (Iliad, 1.149)

Should we feel tempted to lash out in a similar manner at the Orange Emperor, it is advisable to remember that his clothes are much older than we think, and that they are tailor-made for all of us.

David Janssens