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Tim and Rick resume the discussion with Gregg Ten Elshof (Ph.D.) on the topic of shame. In part 2, they pick up on the ways communities influence personal feelings of shame. They discuss the errors we make when addressing acts of “shaming” and the difficulties of knowing how to respond in love when “shaming” takes place. This is part 2 of a 3-part discussion with Gregg Ten Elshof on the topic of shame.


Gregg Ten Elshof: When we communicate to people that the shame that they're feeling is toxic and unhealthy, we suggest to them that the problem is with them, that if only they would break free of this unhealthy emotion, all would be well or something. And I want to say, no, all would not be well. All is not well if our community is downgrading people for these reasons.

Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome back to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff, I'm a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and also the co-director of what we call the Winsome Conviction Project. And it's a blast to be able to do this with my friend and colleague, Dr. Rick Langer.

Rick Langer: Thanks Tim. And as Tim mentioned, I'm Rick Langer and I'm the co-director with Tim and also professor of Biblical Studies in Theology here at Biola University and the director of the Office of Faith and Learning. And we have here with us, a friend and colleague, Gregg Ten Elshof, one of our philosophy professors in the undergrad philosophy program. And he's written a fascinating book called For Shame. And he's spend a lot of time thinking deeply about the issue of shame, partly because of experience that he had just as a philosopher digging into Confucian philosophy and thought in a context of an honor shame culture, where shame was not a thing that you questioned the social value of. And we seem to live in a moment where we do. So it's a great book. We recommended it highly. And we're just picking up on some themes that we've already begin to touch base with on in the previous edition of this podcast.

Tim Muehlhoff: And let me just say, it's a blast to be able to do this. One of the great things about Biola University is the people we get to work with and people we highly esteem, we couldn't get any of them today. But we hope that in the future. All right, let me stop.

Rick Langer: Stop Tim. [Laughter].

Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winston Conviction podcast. No, listen. Seriously, all my students, I'm a Com professor, all my students read a wonderful book Greg wrote called I Told Me So about self deception. Huge topic. It snagged a Christianity Today, Book of The Year Award. I'm a big person on perspective taking. So they also read Confucius for Christians, which is Greg's awesome attempt to do perspective, taking with the teachings of Confucius and learn from them as a Christian, it's masterful. So Greg welcome.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Thank you.

Tim Muehlhoff: I'm so sorry. [Laughs].

Rick Langer: So you need to kind of work on your technique. I'm giving compliments Tim. That was great. A great recovery, so well done.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Really happy to be here. This is great so far.

Rick Langer: So Gregg, one of the things we a little bit about last time was social media. As a context is what we talked about, honor shame isn't a thing we intended to do in the west, but that's really kind of come back to the forefront of our kind of, cultural environment again, somehow in the last 10 or 12 years, it seems like. So relative to this issue, I just made the observation when I was thinking about this, that it seems to me like for teenagers at this point, the social media context is working very effectively for shaming. It's very easy, the amount of, anxiety, depression and things like that associated with, with kids who spend a lot of time on social media is well demonstrated.

But unfortunately it seems to be very bad at granting honor or when it does grant honor, it's the equivalent, the psychological equivalent of junk food. It's junk food honor. It's really trivial. So we end up in this awkward situation where it seems like we have full blown shaming, but if you think about this is, where's the deposit that you make into your account for these withdrawals? The answer is there really isn't a parallel source of honor. So could you unpack that for us a little bit? Or what are you are thoughts about this context at the, this one? You have kids who kind of live in this realm, right? I mean, this is...

Gregg Ten Elshof: My kids don't use social media. No, I'm kidding. [Laughter].

Yeah. I think it's a nice observation. This much seems right. I mean, social media is a platform conducive to thorough going shaming and the lives of teenagers are sometimes undone by [crosstalk] the shame that they experience in social media. And I think maybe it was Tim who said earlier that going viral is a fearful term, but it's also a sort of aspirational...

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Gregg Ten Elshof: ...description. So if you're, if you're whatever dance video goes viral, right. That's a kind of honor, there's a honor associated with going viral. Is it junk honor? Is it, there I just don't know. I think, I think we'd have to be in the mind of our teens to know just how much social credit do you acquire when your dance video goes viral. One possibility is though you acquire a lot of social credit for a moment, everybody recognizes it to be fleeting and not something to be all that thoroughly celebrated. And if so, then it really is a kind of shallow and fleeting honor that's available to you, but a kind of lasting and destructive shame that's available to you through social media.

Rick Langer: Yeah. That's one of the things I was going to say is that it seems clear that the glory is fleeting.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah.

Rick Langer: In a profoundly fleeting sense, not just all glory is fleeting, but this in particular. But it seems like a shame is the gift that keeps on giving. And so people can so readily search your Facebook feed from when you were 14 years old and you make a comment that is, either sounds racist or just plain is racist and it comes back to haunt you on your Harvard application and suddenly you're going to community college next year.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. And the dance video that gave you such glory, doesn't it doesn't continue to give glory.

Rick Langer: Doesn't really continue to bless you in a parallel fashion.

Gregg Ten Elshof: That's right. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: And you, it's funny even know we're doing it. And now there's a tactic on social media, which is I put out what I know is a totally inappropriate tweet or post, but I immediately delete it. So it gets consumption. I get it out there, [crosstalk] but I immediately delete it now that has really come back to hurt people because if people capture that, they can retweet it.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: But there is now even a tactic of saying, I know what I'm saying is inappropriate and shaming, but I'm going to do it anyway and I'm going to try to cover my tracks and get that thing off as fast as possible but, the damage has already been done.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: We've got to find ways of reclaiming this idea that life and death is in the power of the tongue, but I have to care that I'm imparting death to another person. So one question I had reading your book and this fits really well with the Winston Conviction Project. What if you're in a certain political camp and you know you're shaming the other side, but you're actually getting rewarded for it, within the group that you care about? You're not losing status, you're gaining status almost like good for you, for finally telling those people exactly what we think of them and they ought to be ashamed of themselves. And you're in the process of shaming. So what, Greg, what do we do when you have camps that are rewarding tactics of shaming? How, what do we do? Where do we appeal to? How do we reel it in?

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. For me, that takes us to this observation, that shame is shame as an objective condition it's always relative to some community. So there's no such thing as shame, plain and simple. So one and the same behavior can cause you to be an object of shame in one community and honor in another. If I'm kind to a person of color, then I'll acquire shame in the Aryan Brotherhood, right? That I'll be a person of lesser consequence in that community and I'll be a person of greater consequence at Biola, say. And whether I feel shame, what I, whether I feel shame or feel honor, will depend on which of those two communities matter to me, right? If I don't really care what the Aryan Brotherhood thinks of me, then I won't feel any shame there even though I am an object of shame in that community now, where it gets complicated is that sometimes our communities overlap.

And I think we're experiencing some of this in, on the contemporary scene, in response to the pandemic. If I wear a mask in a certain environment, I might suffer shame in some communities for being a fearful person or whatever. And I might be honored in other communities for listening to the science or however you put it and I might care about both of those communities, right? And so I'll have this complicated mix of felt honor and felt shame all at the same time. So when we're honored in communities that matter to us for shaming other people, that's the case you have in view. I think the thing to say is, I care about these people. And so it feels good to be elevated in this community. I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't, honor feels good in communities that you care about. But at the same time, I don't endorse their reasons for honoring me.

Tim Muehlhoff: Mm.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Sometimes you can feel honor without endorsing the reasons that you're being honored. Just like you can feel shame without endorsing the reasons that you're feeling shame. If you're a person with a visible impairment, right, you will be, you will undergo shame in many communities. You'll be thought of a person you'll be thought of as a person of lesser consequence, because of the way you look in communities that matter most to you. And if your emotions are tracking reality, you'll feel that, you'll feel that shame. But that doesn't mean you endorse it, right? That doesn't mean you endorse this as a cause for being shamed.

Tim Muehlhoff: Quick observation and then a question. I like what you said about overlapping communities. What we're seeing today in the argument culture is we're having a lessening of that.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: We really are moving towards tribalism where our communities don't overlap much anymore. And now you get rooted in this, being rewarded for shaming the other, because I don't have to interact with the other really. And so it's much easier for me to shame.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. If that's the case, then you, there's a quote. I thought that was brilliant on page 77, "Since all people possess an estimable dignity, the judgment that no, or little worth value or significance ie low self-esteem is always an everywhere false." So if we're doing the social construction of shame, my community rewards me for certain things and I lose status for certain things. Is there any hope of an overarching principle that all of us can point to? And I know in our religious tradition, obviously we have that. We have the scriptures, but is there something rank and file Americans can appeal to for everybody, not just my community?

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. I can only express a hope. I don't know how optimistic to be about, but my hope would be that it would be something like love. So you need and be a Christian or devoted to the scriptures to feel the attraction, to love as a guiding principle for making these kinds of decisions. So when I'm being honored for shaming people in the other camp, can I gloss that as an expression of love? And if I can't, then I ought not endorse it. I think that's about the best we can do.

Tim Muehlhoff: Hmm.

Rick Langer: Yeah. So we were just talking about the community, the different communities that kind of fund our ability to shame, so to speak. In other words, it is a community property that does the shaming. Then we may be the perpetrators, so to speak by calling it out or whatever, it seems to me like one of the reciprocal values or one, a reciprocal obligation we should have as we acknowledge merits of shame is to therefore, as a member of any community, feel like part of your responsibility is to tend your community shaming mechanisms. To own them in some sense on your own.

So, for example, if I'm sitting in a evangelical church that is really making hay out of shaming, President Biden or shaming, former President Trump, or whatever the community, and you see them doing things that you've pointed out by almost any definition simply could not be well counted as loving, you are not doing this for this other person's best interest. There's a danger, it would seem to me in my letting the shaming go even if someone else is doing it a person in my Bible study, I have to feel an obligation and ownership of the shaming mechanism, because it's community rooted. It isn't assigned by some, cosmic force out there. It's my mechanism.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. And that's why we should be so suspicious of shaming, not just when it's happening in other communities, but when it's happening in our own communities and we should call it out as it's very rarely in the service of love.

And it's not just shaming, it's when shame, even when there's nobody doing the shaming to go back to the person with visible impairments, right? A person with impairments is an object of shame in our, in most of our communities, they're a person of lesser consequence and they feel it. They feel the sting of that. When you talk to them, they feel the pain of being a person of lesser consequence because of the way they look, because of their impairments. And often the response is to try to heal them of the feeling, to try to tell them that feeling of shame is toxic. Let me try to get rid of it for you and help you to be a person who doesn't feel that shame anymore. And I think that's to let the community off the hook, the problem in that situation, isn't the person's felt shame. The felt shame is just tracking the realities on the ground. The problem is our communities, shame on us in so far as we, [crosstalk].

Rick Langer: For having that a community.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. And for feeling comfortable in that community.

Rick Langer: Oh yeah.

Gregg Ten Elshof: If I feel comfortable moving in a community that downgrades people, because they have physical impairments, well, shame on me.

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Gregg Ten Elshof: For feeling as comfortable as I do in that community without calling it out.

Rick Langer: And I, and I suppose that would be a great check and balance to put in place every time you retweet something or, like it on social media. So it shows up on your Facebook page, you need to stop and think, am I fostering a toxic shaming environment by doing this? Even if I get a 100 likes?

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yep.

Rick Langer: And that's the trait that's back to the pseudo honor.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah.

Rick Langer: That you're rewarded by doing a thing that is exactly a thing that you should probably properly feel ashamed of.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's a really nice sort of check question to have in front of you before you retweet or...

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Gregg Ten Elshof: whatever you do.

Tim Muehlhoff: Feminist theorists, call this assuming a trait or an identity, which means, what they meant was you're a man and you have feminist convictions, but you're in a, you're playing pickup basketball and somebody tells an overt sexist joke, and you're just standing there oh man, now what? Am I going to be the goodie two shoes to say, Hey guys, I just didn't think that was funny?

Like, I was at a conference speaking about the needs of the transgender community and a pastor came up to me during the break and he goes, Hey, I've got a solution to the bathroom issue. Let's just have three bathrooms. He, she, it, and I just looked at him and again, it was one of those really uncomfortable moments, okay, what am I? I said, okay, can I just say, I don't think that's funny. And he goes, oh, come on. I was joking. I said, well, I think that makes it worse. But that pit in your stomach's an interesting pit in your stomach that we're just going to have to do for the sake of our community, that we no longer can keep these type of practices and that's going to be hard.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. And that's where the real problems need to be addressed, that pit in your stomach. And when we communicate to people that the shame that they're feeling is toxic and unhealthy, we suggest to them that the problem is with them, that if only they would break free, this unhealthy emotion, all would be well or something. And I want to say, no, all would not be well, all is not well, if our community is downgrading people for these reasons.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. That's why we talk about it at the Winsome Conviction Project. Every one conversation is really three conversations. There's the conversation you have with yourself, as you head in. What's my feelings about this person, am I angry, is there tension? Because that emotional contagion is going to bleed into the middle conversation with them. The post one is almost what we're talking about. When you go back and talk to your in group with what charity do you describe the other group, the other person from that group. And that's where I think we could really get into shaming tactics of, well, what do you expect from a liberal, what do you expect from a conservative? You know, that kind of thing. So, this is on us. I love how you, this is kind of on us. And we need to start to clean up our own house before we're looking at other people's houses.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah.

Rick Langer: And I would, just for our listeners to think about this, it's an interesting thing. What Tim just described where you had the pit in your stomach, do I speak up? Do I not? That's let me call it legitimately difficult. The feeling of saying, do I speak up or not? I'm look, I'm sympathetic to the fact that isn't the easiest thing to do. I would like to argue that perhaps a good, if you're thinking about this as a spiritual discipline is to say, let me start cultivating certain qualities in my character on the easier end of this, for example, by refusing to retweet needlessly, shaming tweets. Despite the fact I'd be rewarded for it in this somewhat perverse reward system we you have on the internet and that doesn't cost you anything, so to speak.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah.

Rick Langer: It just, no one knows no one, you just it's super easy. And it also helps you cultivate a mindset of thinking, wait a minute, is this helpful information, warning people of a danger or something? Or am I simply reinforcing something that everybody already knows? We know Nancy Pelosi's on the liberal side. Okay. We know Donald Trump is on the conservative side. We don't have to help someone out by pointing that out. So I think, I wonder if it would be an easy thing, a helpful thing to think of developing almost like a spiritual discipline begin with some of things that are more easy in realizing there's going to be bigger things to do.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. I think it's nice that the decision not to retweet certain things has a simplicity about it and so it's practicable. The decision whether or not to call someone out for their inappropriate joke. It's not only more difficult because you risk sort of honor shame dynamics. It's sometimes, it's hard to know what, what really is in the service of love to the person who told the inappropriate joke. In my classrooms, I'll sometimes have students who say things that I know shouldn't be said in a classroom. And it's a complicated decision what to do about that as a teacher in the classroom, because if I call them out for it, I'm, that's going to be a kind of shaming. I'll be taking them down a notch in the community of their peers. I have to think about, who is this person? Can they afford to be taken down a notch? Can I control how far they're taking down, taken down or is [crosstalk] it's really out of control? I mean, these questions are really, really difficult in the kinds of circumstances you described.

Tim Muehlhoff: And one huge takeaway. And if listeners haven't done it, listen to the previous podcast, because we talked about a person who had faked a hate crime and had been found guilty. And you made a great point of saying shame has already happened. He was an actor. He's now lost all of his endorsements. I doubt he'll be cast in the near future. And he's been discredited. Why pile on? And it's the glee we have in the piling on.

But let me ask you a question, because at the Winsome Conviction Project, we're very much about, how do you have fruitful, engaging conversations. So you mentioned the shameless person. And let me give you my take on it, you tell me if this is correct. So I was dating a girl in college who had never been in a Catholic church and we were going to see some Catholic churches that had been around for a long time, beautiful artwork. So we walk in and there's holy water, but she did not know it was holy water. So joking around, she put her fingers in it and flicked me in the face, in front of everybody.

There was an audible gasp from the Catholic guide, and she honestly had the look on her face like what, what? Now I think you did a great job in your book of saying, okay, that person did not know the rules of the church and the significance of what that water represented. That's not the shameless person, the shameless person, if I understand this correctly is, oh, I fully know now that that's holy water and I don't care. Now I stick my fingers in it. I'm still flicking everybody. That's the shameless person. Correct?

Rick Langer: And they might do that actually to make the point that they disagree with Catholic [crosstalk] regarding holy water. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. My own view is that she wouldn't even have to know that the rule that she had violated in order to be a shameless person, what she'd have to, if she could tell that she was, that her social standing was in free fall for whatever reason. Right? And she, she felt there was no painful feeling associated with that. Then she's shameless.

Tim Muehlhoff: So what...

Rick Langer: She doesn't care.

Gregg Ten Elshof: She doesn't care.

Tim Muehlhoff: She doesn't care. Okay. So, that perfect. That's why, and I broke up with her on the spot. I just felt like I need to make a statement.

Rick Langer: You got to draw the line somewhere.

Gregg Ten Elshof: So shamelessness, you can think of shamelessness as just when that remember there's the objective and subjective side of shame. When the subjective side comes apart in certain ways from the objective side. So you know that you're in social free fall, but you experience no painful emotion that, then you're shameless.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. So let me ask you this, your advice on this. And we're literally going to write down everything you say Gregg.

Rick Langer: Tim, you're already married. You don't need to go back to this girl. I'm just telling you.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, not back to the girl, but let's say you have a person that you really feel like is shameless. Like you are shaming people within another community in ways that you just feel distressed about and you want to talk to that person. What would that sound like talking to a person who's like, I know I'm violating these sacred artifacts or I'm violating these sacred rules. I don't care. I think they should be violated. What kind of commun-, what's the starting point of having a fruitful conversation with a person who's purposefully, gleefully shameless?

Gregg Ten Elshof: Yeah. I mean the real answer is I'm not sure, but here's an analog. Imagine you've got somebody who's, think about the person who is guilty and they know what they've done, but they feel no guilt for what they've done. Right? So there's an analog and what do we do with a person who's done something, they know what they've done, but they feel no guilt for what they've done. And we want to help them into the feeling of guilt for the guilt that they actually embody. The conversation looks like you try to tell them, you try to talk about the value of the standard that they've violated. Can't you see that having done this, you're going to have this effect and that effect? And hopefully by foregrounding some of the consequences of what they've done, you might get them to feel some of the guilt that's appropriate for what they've done.

Maybe the same thing is true of shame, when someone is in social free fall and they just don't care a conversation about the real value of community, about the value of belonging in a community. Can't you see here are all the goods that come from deep belonging in a community. And can't you see that when you, when you do these kinds of things and you isolate yourself from community and you suffer communal free fall of the sort, you're feeling, you're isolating yourself from all of these deep goods, something like that. I mean, maybe that's...

Tim Muehlhoff: I think that's good.

Gregg Ten Elshof: I would approach it.

Rick Langer: Well, this is, this has been for fascinating, Gregg, and I'm grateful that you're willing to stay around for one more segment on this, because I have a couple of burning questions I'd love to ask and get answered.

Tim Muehlhoff: And this is verified air. I do not think correct me Rick Langer, I don't think we've ever had a person on for a third segment.

Rick Langer: We're honoring Gregg.

Tim Muehlhoff: We are honoring Gregg.

Gregg Ten Elshof: Or Gregg's very long winded.

Rick Langer: [Laughter]. Whatever.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, we love it. So, Hey, thank you so much for jumping in with the Winsome Conviction podcast. We really appreciate it. We appreciate all your support. You can check us out anywhere you find your podcast. Please tell us to your friends. We'd love to expand our audience, but we're so appreciative of the audience that we do have.

Rick Langer: And you can also find resources that we've made available on the website. So check us out there as well and continue to listen as we will be following up on this with a further conversation with our good friend, Gregg Ten Elshof.