Let’s Talk About Shame, Baby

The death of Cecil the lion by an American dentist, Walter Palmer, has been in worldwide news in the last few weeks. The outpouring of grief and rage has been overwhelming with calls now to extradite him to Zimbabwe to face charges. Yelp had to frantically scrub its website of angry comments. Yelp even had to defend this process to angry commenters. The general belief is this shouldn’t have happened. That is obvious if you don’t support hunting, but even hunters don’t support what appeared to be an unfair hunt.


Involved in all of this was a desire to see justice, and most people seem to think this involves shaming Dr. Palmer and hopefully at least closing his practice. According to Dr. Brene Brown shame is lethal. She describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging”. Leland Beaumont describes shame as a sense of our own incompetence or powerlessness.


But we aren’t going to see justice with shame, at least not restorative justice. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg describes restorative justice as “restoring a state in which people care about one another’s well being”. What this takes is an understanding of the consequences of our behavior. Dr. Palmer needs to understand the pain people are facing because of his actions.


It’s hard to find examples of people having redeemed themselves in the public eye, and that’s because restorative justice isn’t easy. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg worked with prisoners who had raped women with this concept of restorative justice. The prisoners wanted to apologize, but Dr. Rosenberg would tell them that wouldn’t work, it’s too easy. They had to listen to how their actions had affected the woman’s life, and then repeat that back. They were unable to do that. So Dr. Rosenberg played their part for the woman, and repeated back all of the pain he heard, and how her life would never be the same. He had to repeat this several times for the prisoners to be able to really hear what had happened to their victims. This is healing for the victim; she is getting empathy.


This is what needs to happen to with Dr. Palmer. He needs to be able to show that he understands the pain his actions have caused. This is also going to take some self-reflection on his part. Why did he do what he did to begin with? Our lives are driven by our beliefs. Most of these beliefs lie under the surface and are just taken for granted as truths. One belief is that there isn’t enough of everything in this world. Linked to this is the belief in competition; that we have to get our needs met at the expense of another. That it is heroic and joyful to win, to defeat someone else. I believe this is a part of the culture of hunting, particularly for sport. There is a sense of satisfaction in winning, in killing the prey.


Shame doesn’t work because it involves self-pity; we believe there is something wrong with us. With that we require empathy, and in this instance most people are going to have a hard time giving Dr. Palmer empathy. And guilt isn’t going to be helpful either. With guilt we believe we have done something bad. Again, what we require is empathy. When we are feeling shame and guilt, it’s very difficult if not impossible to give empathy to others. We are too consumed with our own needs.


What is more helpful is to understand that everything we do in every moment is our best effort to meet our needs. We couldn’t do any better in that moment, and not only that, anybody else in those same shoes would do the exact same thing. When we have that understanding, we can instead feel regret that we didn’t have the ability to come up with a strategy that was more effective at meeting our needs, and wasn’t as costly. But we won’t feel the embarrassment that comes with shame and guilt. And we will be more likely to give empathy to those our actions have affected.


We also want to trust that the regret people show is genuine. One way to do this is to do work to try and correct what you regret doing. For Dr. Palmer that might be establishing or working with organizations that promote the protection of endangered species. But these actions can come too soon. If we don’t believe there is real understanding and regret, we won’t see the actions as authentic. In the wake of the death of Cecil the lion, Kirk Douglas came out and described a memory of big game hunting in Africa when he was younger and his true regret about this. This sounds genuine. Mr. Douglas had nothing to gain and everything to loose by sharing this memory.


So let’s talk about shame, baby. Shaming people isn’t going to get us what we really want. Let’s talk about understanding, about restorative justice, about caring for the well being of all living things. How can we get that to happen?

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