Let shame say what it will

Call me overly sensitive, but I don’t like to be shamed. There, I’ve said it. I suspect it is because shaming causes me to think less of myself: to feel humiliated, demeaned. And yet, there is another side to humiliation that seems to hide in the shadows: the feeling of humility – ‘This amounts not to thinking less of yourself but to thinking of yourself less. The person so ‘humiliated’ becomes less self-centred: her ethical concerns bear witness to a kind of revolution through which her own private and peculiar desires lose credence and authority, a diminution that finally allows her to take notice of what is positively owed to others.’- so writes Louise Chapman, a PhD candidate at the time in Philosophy at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge in an essay on shaming in Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/on-immanuel-kants-hydraulic-model-of-moral-education

‘Has the behaviour of another person ever made you feel ashamed? Not because they set out to shame you but because they acted so virtuously that it made you feel inadequate by comparison.  If so, then it is likely that, at least for a brief moment in time, you felt motivated to improve as a person.’

Perhaps, in the embarrassing circumstances of the moment of humiliation, I never stopped to think about it very deeply, but operating behind the scenes was a type of hydraulic system whereby ‘the elevation of one desire in a closed system causes a proportional diminution in another… the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant presents it as a useful metaphor for capturing the seesawing nature of real psychological forces. In his view, the subordination of self-interest removes, or at least diminishes, hindrances to willing the good. For Kant, the denigration of one’s pathological interests is thus tantamount to removing barriers to acting well. This pivotal mechanism of moral education could be classed as a form of sublimation or diversion, whereby inappropriate desires are channelled into higher pursuits.’

In more recent times, it was Sigmund Freud ‘who claimed that psychic energy can be redirected from lower aims to higher ones, at least when the patient herself recognises that the desiderative drive imperils her.’

This is where exemplary individuals come into the picture. ‘These are people who have the ability to cause profound shifts in the motivational landscapes of their spectators.’ But the exemplars should not serve as a model but only as proof that it really is possible to act in a better way.

Social Media nowadays provides an instructive example. It is tempting to rid ourselves –unfollow– those who continually post their successes, and yet ‘while they can stir up the pains of comparative humiliation, in so doing they strike down our tendency towards intellectual and physical torpor, thereby inspiring us to action.’ This could be termed a form of ‘appraisal respect’. We don’t have to engage with them, only to bear witness -and appreciate that we are not being manipulated if we see some merit in their success as an example for ourselves. In theory, at least, ‘Once the spectator has been shamed by the exemplar’s behaviour, external examples of morality are no longer necessary for continuing moral progress.’ Moral hydraulics.

Comparisons with others merely remind us of what we ourselves are capable of, and with continuing practice, can find ourselves achieving. But we do need reminders from time to time.

Take the old man I saw leaning against a lamppost on a main street in downtown Vancouver. It was a typically cool, wet, and windy day in autumn and I was snuggling into my umbrella trying to make the best of it. I almost bumped into him, but when a gust of rain suddenly tore at the umbrella, I jumped to the side in time. Dressed in a dirty brown baseball cap, a torn cloth jacket, and -judging by the cuffs that were rolled up many times- jeans that were obviously too large for him, he still managed a smile at the near collision.

It’s sometimes hard to judge the age of people who frequent the streets, but he looked old, and frail -someone who would have been sitting in a warm room somewhere, had Life not been so harsh on him. He did not have the look of a dissipated life -just an unfortunate one that had dealt him all the wrong cards.

“Spare some change…?” he rasped with an old man’s voice, then coughed as if the effort involved in speaking was too much for him. He sent his eyes to inspect my face, and they hovered over my cheeks like hopeful sparrows looking for a roost, then flittered away when they saw my expression.

I suppose his words caught me off-guard -embarrassed me, perhaps- and I merely pretended to listen, shook my head, and fought another gust of wind as I walked away. My first impression was distrust of the neighbourhood, and yet when I turned, warily -and, in truth, with guilt- to check behind me a few moments later, he was still there, the smile clinging to his face: a default expression – hoping, like its owner, for a reason to survive.

He looked so delicate, and elderly that I stopped, uncertain what to do. I was ashamed I had brushed him off so quickly, to tell the truth. His smile, I think, was what had disarmed me -that and the fleeting hope I’d seen written on his face at our chance encounter: an unexpected gift on a cold and blustery day on the street.

Something -perhaps his eyes, still heavy on my shoulders- made me turn to face him. His smile grew and his face crinkled happily at my change of heart. And when I reached him, his hand did not extend as if he expected a reward- just his eyes: two souls searching for my own to touch; two minds joining, if only for a moment in greeting.

I struggled for words, and all I could manage was an apology for being so insensitive. “I’m so ashamed,” I mumbled, reaching into my pocket. “It can’t be easy on the street…” I felt myself blushing as I pulled out the only bill I had -a crumpled ten- and handing it to him. I didn’t want him to think I was just expiating my guilt.

“Don’t be ashamed,” he said, evidently also embarrassed. “You came back… Most people don’t.” And he reached out and shook my hand like a long lost friend.

Looking back, I think he was what we all fear we might become some day. He was my face, in another’s mirror.

An Achilles Heel?


I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the average person, even if they’re only vaguely aware of Homer’s poems The Iliad, or The Odyssey, even if they are mildly conversant with the story of the siege of Troy and the Trojan horse, even if they have sort of heard of the Grecian heroes Odysseus and Achilles or perhaps the Trojan hero Aeneas, and even if they could pretend they remember that the author -not to mention the stories and characters- may or may not have been reality based… even if this were the case, the colours of their skin and hair probably do not rank particularly high in the recollection. Frankly, I -certainly not a card-carrying member of any historical society- had not given it much thought. Well, none, actually -some things are just not that important, I guess.

And when I think of the way Homer was taught in my freshman class in university, I suppose I merely assumed that detailed descriptions were unnecessary -obviously, they would each look similar to how we have portrayed Christ in all the medieval religious art: vaguely Caucasian. And in my student days, the zeitgeist of academia as well as the rest of western society, seemed to be swimming in what we might now call white privilege. Of course the ancient Greeks were white -I mean, just look at the white marble statues they have bequeathed to us. The fact that they were originally brightly painted was not known -or at least not communicated to most of us in my day.

So, although the article in an edition of Aeon that questioned the skin colour of Achilles, did not shock me, it did make me think about the long held western conceit that the ancient Greeks, on whom we have modelled so many of our democratic ideas, were fair-skinned. Even as I put this assumption into words, I realize that, however unintended, it seems terribly racist. And yet, some things do need to be probed, clarified: https://aeon.co/essays/when-homer-envisioned-achilles-did-he-see-a-black-man

The essay, written by Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge, attempts to make sense of what little historical evidence exists from those almost pre-historical times. ‘The poems are rooted in ancient stories transmitted orally, but the decisive moment in stabilising them in their current form was the period from the 8th to the 7th centuries BCE. The siege of Troy, the central event in the mythical cycle to which the Homeric poems belong, might or might not be based on a real event that took place in the earlier Bronze Age, in the 13th or 12th century BCE. Historically speaking, the poems are an amalgam of different temporal layers: some elements are drawn from the contemporary world of the 8th century BCE, some are genuine memories of Bronze Age times… Achilles was not a historical personage; or, rather, the figure in the poem might or might not be distantly connected to a real figure, but that isn’t the point. Achilles, as we have him and as the Greeks had him, is a mythical figure and a poetic creation. So the question is not ‘What did Achilles look like?’ but ‘How does Homer portray him?’

Fragments of evidence exist, but many are fraught with translational discrepancies and contemporaneous social conventions that confuse the issue. For example, at the time, ‘females are praised for being ‘white-armed’, but men never are. This differentiation finds its way into the conventions of Greek (and indeed Egyptian) art too, where we find women often depicted as much lighter of skin than men. To call a Greek man ‘white’ was to call him ‘effeminate’.’

Also, ‘Achilles is said in the Iliad to have xanthos hair. This word is often translated as ‘blond’… [But] the Greek colour vocabulary simply doesn’t map directly onto that of modern English. Xanthos could be used for things that we would call ‘brown’, ‘ruddy’, ‘yellow’ or ‘golden’.’ And, ‘Weirdly, some early Greek terms for colour seem also to indicate intense movement… xanthos is etymologically connected to another word, xouthos, which indicates a rapid, vibrating movement. So, while xanthos certainly suggests hair in the ‘brown-to-fair’ range, the adjective also captures Achilles’ famous swift-footedness, and indeed his emotional volatility.’

‘So to ask whether Achilles and Odysseus are white or black is at one level to misread Homer. His colour terms aren’t designed to put people into racial categories, but to contribute to the characterisation of the individuals, using subtle poetic associations… Greeks simply didn’t think of the world as starkly divided along racial lines into black and white: that’s a strange aberration of the modern, Western world, a product of many different historical forces, but in particular the transatlantic slave trade and the cruder aspects of 19th-century racial theory. No one in Greece or Rome ever speaks of a white or a black genos (‘descent group’). Greeks certainly noticed different shades of pigmentation (of course), and they differentiated themselves from the darker peoples of Africa and India… but they also differentiated themselves from the paler peoples of the North.’ In other words, concludes, Whitmarsh, ‘Greeks did not, by and large, think of themselves as ‘white’.’

This information would be filed in the ho-hum section of our need-to-know list for most of us, I think, and yet, Whitmarsh, in his introduction points out that ‘in an article published in Forbes, the Classics scholar Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa caused a storm by pointing out that many of the Greek statues that seem white to us now were in antiquity painted in colour. This is an uncontroversial position, and demonstrably correct, but Bond received a shower of online abuse for daring to suggest that the reason why some like to think of their Greek statues as marble-white might just have something to do with their politics.’

That there are people out there who seem threatened by knowledge which doesn’t accord with their own confirmation biases is, to me, more deeply troubling than mere disagreement. After all, we can disagree with something without being threatened by it. Disagreement allows for discussion, and possible attempts at rebuttal, using other evidence. Or countering with other interpretations of the same facts. In the end, isn’t it all just a game? An academic exercise which, after the initial flurry of excitement and barrage of words, should end, like all closely fought games, with a glass of wine?