Is Pride Really the Opposite of Shame?

September 17, 2012


Is This Man Saying F-You?

Once a year the streets of downtown Toronto are taken over by the Gay Pride parade. Over a million spectators line the streets to see the flamboyant floats and the outrageous costumes (or lack of). It is meant to be a political statement: a very public rejection of the shame and guilt thrust upon gay men and women. Some participants make a spectacle of their ‘queerness’, a grand F-You to those who beat them up in the school yard, those who shunned them within the family, those who bullied them in the workplace. But does this act of retaliation cancel out the  the original insults? Beneath the bravado, is pride really all that different from shame?

Shame begins as guilt. People condemn or criticize you for a defect, something you did or said (or didn’t do). Guilt is a nagging sense of yearning to rewrite the past. It is so persistent that with enough repetition you start to own that guilt. When that guilt is complete owned, when it invades your identity it is called shame. Shame is a sense of worthlessness, of being defective, less than everyone else.  You feel self-conscious of your difference and cut-off from others. This non-belonging is deeply uncomfortable because it is unnatural. The truth is all of us are part of the one indivisible whole, therefore banishment from the whole is painful. Not so bad if you genuinely erred, if it is behavior you can correct, but devastating if it is “shame” about something you cannot change — perhaps you look different from others, your nose is too big, you are too short, or your skin too dark. You may have many other talents, but this one trait defines your identity, and along with it the pain of being excluded.When I was young I was made to feel guilty, then ashamed of being brown (colonial attitudes  still prevailed in my English school).

Then there is being proud, which at first glance seems harmless, beneficial even. People are routinely proud of being American, of being tall, of being white/black/Asian. But hang on, doesn’t  pride require that you identify so completely with one particular trait over all others? A trait over which you might have no control. Perhaps you were born with a certain, popular look, you cannot change it? Pride is membership into an exclusive club, and it necessarily involves exclusion of others. Pride may feel energetic, rousing when you are with others of the same club, but it too isolates one from our natural oneness with all humanity. In fact pride always requires an audience: it is impossible to be proud all alone. Sometimes pride makes a man feel so special he gives himself license to hate, to oppress, to kill ‘the non-members’. The neo-nazi’s are an example of this. Just read the latest headlines, if there is one thing we learn from the bombings and murders going on in retaliation for an anti-Muslim video, it is that pride is a fragile, highly volatile emotion, it easily gets contaminated with other strong emotions. How pathetic that sometimes we hear of families killing their daughters who “brought shame upon the family”. The irony here is that the killers feel they are restoring family honor, but to the rest of us the murder is the family’s real shame.

This is because both pride and shame depend on your perspective–whether you are in the club or a non-member. Pride and shame operate out of the same isolation mechanism, both involve allowing one trait to dominate over all other abilities and characteristics. In both pride and shame one trait defines who you are. But if you are among a sympathetic audience, you experience the euphoria of pride, if however you are deprived of that sympathetic audience, you feel isolated and vulnerable (shame). I wonder whether the fathers responsible for those ‘honor killings’ still feel proud of themselves when they are alone in prison? Do they feel shame?

So if pride is not the antidote to shame, then what is? Perhaps it is self-acceptance. A sedate, respectful acceptance of yourself in all your totality — your flaws, your quirks, your talents; all that makes you unique but also all that intrinsically links you to all of humanity. Along with that is the recognition of the flaws and contradictions which make up humanity itself. None of which is something that causes anyone to march in the streets. In fact self-acceptance is a deeply private emotion.

How do I feel about being brown today? I recognize now that my ancestors came of a region of the world which was among the first to be civilized. Those ancient cultures not only traded their wares and ideas with each other, but also their DNA. The reality is that our bodies are a melting pot of many cultures and races, and hence all of human history is our history also. When you view your race in the context of history, society, and the wholeness of your being, it becomes absurd to feel either pride or shame about your ethnic origins. Sure, others may still have a problem with my skin tone, but now I am able to dismiss it as their stupidity, their ignorance. Their derision no longer has the power to topple my self-worth. I have reached self-acceptance, a Gestalt context for my skin color and my self-identity. Do I feel the need for ‘brown pride’? Absolutely not. A parade in celebration of brownness? I think not. A murderous hatred for non-browns? Now that would be shameful.

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