Tell your friends you’re looking for a book about shame and you’ll hear the saddest stories. It’s been my life for a few years. I’ve heard of it in all shades and flavors: zit shaming, sex shaming, math shaming – dark memories found in high school locker rooms, humiliations from camp counselors , doctors, star quarterbacks. They flow together in my mind, in a huge common underground pool of terror and pain, much of it brutal. It’s hard to watch and even harder to understand.
But one evening, when the subject of shame came up, a friend of mine who is an art history professor came up with something entirely new. “Have you heard of the Pueblo Clown Society?” she asked. I did not have. And so she told me about a shameful ritual in the Pueblo nations in New Mexico and Arizona. In one case she described, the clowns’ bodies are painted with black and white stripes made from clay. Their hair, parted in the center, is tied in two tufts, which stand on either side of the head and are also wrapped in clay. The caps are lined with corn husks.
These rituals have many layers of meaning, she explained. They are related to religion, and it is such a sensitive subject that participants are discouraged from discussing it with strangers.
I followed with Peter Whiteley. He is curator of North American ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and much of his anthropological research has focused on Hopi traditions. This tribe lived in northeastern Arizona for a millennium in fixed settlements, which is why the Spaniards, when they arrived in the 16th century, included the Hopi as one of the peoples they called Pueblo, the Spanish word for city.
The function of shame clowns, says Whiteley, is to reinforce the ethical norms and standards of the community. During the seasonal ceremonies, which span two days, clowns dressed in clay-striped costumes perform in a plaza surrounded by community members. The premise is that they are children of the sun who come to the ceremony without any knowledge of society or human morality. In some of their early sketches, they appear depraved, breaking the rules of decency and decorum. They eat dirt from the floor, steal from each other, fake sex. Since they don’t know the rules, anything goes. But over the next day and a half, their understanding grows and they seem to acquire the basics of ethical behavior. In short, they are taught to be more Hopi.
In the process, they teach people what is acceptable and what is not. “They are the great commentators of the world,” says Whiteley. “They will call out transgressive behavior.” And for that they use shame.
At a ceremony Whiteley recalls in the 1990s, the clowns acted like comedic drunks, staggering and throwing bottles while ridiculing a bootlegger, a man known as Cricket, who sold alcohol at the within the community, which violated an established rule. The alcohol it provided was a poison developed by outsiders, and it endangered the health of the tribe. The shame Cricket received was intense, says Whiteley. “He must have had quite thick skin.” It sent a strong message not only to him but to the whole band. Someone thinking about smuggling would now think twice.
The way Pueblo clowns taunt their targets tells us a lot about the role of shame in society. It can be healthy, even nice (once past its sharp edges).
The shame of clowns towards members of the community does not stop at laughter and teasing. Later in the ceremony, the clowns and their shamed targets can receive a formal pardon. With this, the shameful return to the tribe in good standing, though still aware that the others will be keeping an eye on them.
A day or two of ridicule and then of redemption. It was rather mundane compared to the dark and painful stories I had heard. And next to my own lifelong battle with big shame, it felt like cajoling rather than bullying. The Hopi ceremony, as Whiteley described it, does not tell transgressors that they are bad people, or losers, only that they should make a course correction.
The way Pueblo clowns taunt their targets tells us a lot about the role of shame in society. It can be healthy, even nice (once you get past its sharp edges). To understand what’s so healthy about it, let’s look at an entirely different strain.
Have you ever heard of bingo wings? The term comes from Britain, where bingo is an after-dinner staple in nursing homes. When a woman wins, she screams BINGO! Raising her winning card high, she usually waves it impatiently – and that’s where the scrutiny begins. His movements draw attention to his arm, especially the upper part of it, where in many cases a quivering pocket of loose oily skin rocks back and forth. It’s a bingo wing in action. For the critical mind, it represents ugliness, which generates shame. It is also associated with another powerful source of shame, old age, and linked to women, who suffer much more from body shame and age than men. A lot of class shame also oozes to the surface. Wealthy people, after all, rarely play bingo, an activity popular with the middle and lower classes – people so thrilled to win a prize that they wave their arms madly, flaunting their bingo wings.
Cosmetic enhancement industries thrive on body shaming. In their posts, they make it very clear that bingo wings, also known as “bat wings”, are disgusting, something people should hide with long sleeves until they can surgically excise them. . This view, which fuels their business, resonates throughout society, from morning TV shows and infomercials to grooming websites. It is so widespread that many of us consider it gospel. “Unless you’re flying at night catching bugs,” says blue hare, a lifestyle magazine for older women, “No one needs or wants bat wings. So what causes them and what can you do about them, so realistic?” The answer is to remove those unsightly appendages. The cost of the surgery, known as an arm lift or brachioplasty, averages about $5,000 per arm.
In my view, the Hopi ceremony and the bingo wings illustrate two opposite faces of shame. Hopi shame clowns send signals to members of their community, using gentle ribbing to enforce cultural norms. In the case of Cricket, the alleged smuggler, they say, “Don’t poison us. Stay true to the enduring values of our tribe.
The people they make fun of remain members of the community. The others know them and care about them. They check their progress and steer them away from their transgressions. Their shame is about what people do, not who they are.
Hopi shame targets what people do, not who they are.
Shame is a police tool, and it has been since the first clans of humans roamed the savannahs of Africa. According to evolutionary psychologists, shame, like pain, its first cousin, protects us from harm. Pain protects our body, teaching us to watch out for fires and sharp blades, and to flee from angry hornets. Shame represents another dimension of pain. It is administered by a collective whose rules and taboos are engraved in our psyches. Its goal is not the survival of the individual but of society. In this sense, shame arises from the conflict between an individual’s desires and the expectations of the group.
Shame, by definition, is something we carry inside. It is a feeling, derived from a norm, be it of body, health, habits or morals. And when we feel like we don’t live up to those standards, or when classmates or co-workers or Super Bowl commercials make those departures all too clear, shame washes over us. Sometimes it hurts. But the damage can run much deeper, shattering our sense of self, robbing us of our dignity as human beings, and filling us with a sense of worthlessness. Shame packs a vicious punch.
Stigma, another close cousin of shame, is a mark we carry on the outside. It is a signal to the rest of society that this person is misbehaving or is inherently abominable. Sometimes a stigma is worn as a physical indicator, like a dunce cap. Other times, a single word will suffice, calling someone a drug addict or a criminal.
Shame and stigma reinforce taboos. And some of their work, from an evolutionary perspective, makes sense. The shame of incest, for example, drives humans to extend and enrich the genetic heritage. In most societies, shame discourages antisocial behavior, such as hoarding food. Making sense of these signals is a survival skill. Shame denotes one’s fragile place within the tribe or community. In a Darwinian sense, it issues a warning, which is received as a presentiment. This alert goes back to our beginnings, when the shameful could be avoided, even killed. The fear of abandonment is so powerful that it can make us nauseous or suicidal.*
Drunk driving is a newcomer to the pantheon of shame. Even more recent is the shaming of those who ignore social distancing or cough in crowds during a pandemic. We shame people who don’t pay attention to the group. It is the fear of shame, in many minds, that causes people to value their membership in this group over their ego and desires. When it works, it discourages our species from following some of our worst instincts.
Extract of The Shame Machine: Who Benefits from the New Age of Humiliation? by Cathy O’Neill. Copyright © 2022 by Cathy O’Neil. Excerpted with permission from Crown Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.