Words Mean Things: Shame, Oppression, and Power

When I was in high school, one of my favorite bands, The Newsboys, published a book about Christian life and culture. One of the themes in the book that stuck out to me was the concept of the “upside down kingdom.” This idea comes from a verse in Paul about how what looks like foolishness to the world is wisdom to the Christian.

The idea is often to wear the label of “Freak” or “Fool” proudly, as The World deeming you such means you’re doing something right. The application of this principle is, as you can probably imagine, quite vast. Mark Driscoll uses it to excuse offense behavior, deeming the gospel itself offensive (thus excusing his behavior). The practice of this idea also creates a paradigm in which we try to turn the negative labels The World tries to pin on us back onto them. “No, the world is foolish,” we say. “You must tolerate our intolerance,” we argue. “Stop shaming us!” we say.

This last has gained a lot of prevalence in recent times, most recently in response to my friend Lola’s anti-purity culture organization, No Shame Movement. Conservative Christians respond to the critique of modesty and purity standards by, surprise, trying to turn the concept of shame back onto the critic. “You’re shaming me!” is the common outcry, in response to almost any kind of criticism.

The problem with this kind of response to criticism is complex, but the crux of it lies in my constant refrain: words mean things. Shame has a very specific context and connotation, and to refer to any kind of critique as “shaming” it to entirely undermine the meaning of the word.

The other day, I described shame as a feeling that “sits in the gut.” In my head, this was a pop culture reference to an episode of Doctor Who. For those who don’t know, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, The Doctor, and his companions as they travel the universe, getting in mix-ups and adventures. In the universe of the show, The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords – his planet was destroyed in a great battle.

In this particular episode, The Doctor is speaking to a lizard person that they are holding hostage. In an attempt to invoke fear and loathing in her captor, the lizard lady says that she is the last of her kind. The Doctor’s response is chilling: “No, no you’re really not. Because I am the last of my species and I know how it sits in a heart.”

Shame is the same way. It takes experience to know and understand and define what shaming feels and looks like. It is a feeling that sits in your gut, deep inside, because it diminishes and devalues who you are as a person. It makes you question your identity, makes you feel small, and inspires feelings of worthlessness.

The crux of it is that shame makes you feel this way over things that are perfectly normal for your time and place. A woman wearing a low cut shirt, a choice to have sex in a certain way or at a different time, a cisgender hetero man experiencing a biological reaction in response to something he finds attractive (boners, I’m talking about boners).

There’s a wide gap between the discomfort that criticism often invokes, and the deep-seated feelings of worthlessness that shame instills. Calling discomfort “shame” only serves to confuse the issue, to distract from the problem at hand, and to claim a sense of victimhood in response to criticism. It is, in a sense, an attempt at turning The World’s foolishness back onto itself.

Only, when we refer to mere discomfort as “shame,” we undermine very real shame. It’s like when we compare things that are not the Holocaust to the Holocaust – each time we do this, we erode the intensity, the meaningfulness, and the tragedy of the events. We take away the ability to describe truly shameful things if even the slightest criticism is viewed as “shaming.”

And this, I propose, is the intended (albeit likely unconscious) effect of responding to a critic by saying that they are shaming you. By undermining the meaning of a very powerful term, the person wielding such an argument robs their critic of the very real power of words that they have at their disposal. If everything is shaming – if the powerful may be “shamed” by critiques from those who are oppressed – then shame itself loses all meaning.

One of the ways in which oppression functions and is insidious is through robbing the oppressed of their ability to express and understand their own oppression. I didn’t have the words to characterize why modesty doctrines made me uncomfortable until a professor in college asked me why it was the woman’s responsibility to make sure a man doesn’t lust. Having the words and the vocabulary to describe and own one’s feelings and position in life is a vital tool in dismantling the oppressive state.

Which is why the state insists on using those same words to describe itself, therefore robbing the oppressed of their tools. It’s like the charge of reverse racism – by claiming that the bad feelings a white person gets when a black person doesn’t trust them are the same as systemic, daily racist attacks, those in power make charges of racism toothless. It is the king of all false equivalences.

This is the true insidious nature of the patriarchal, white supremacist society – it systematically robs the marginalized of any and all tools they may have to describe their own experiences, therefore stalling the long practice of owning one’s humanity and agency. If you keep people from recognizing that they are human by constantly turning their progress against them, you keep the focus away from the very real oppressions that are happening. And you keep your power. And this preservation of power is all the patriarchy knows how to do.


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