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In Defense of Shame

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This speech is adapted from a speech given at the Yale Political Union's annual Gardner-White Prize debate. This year's resolution was "Resolved: Bring Back the Stocks" and most speeches focused on the interaction between shame and justice. I delivered the speech below against the resolution and took first place.

You can read the other prize winning speeches by Ms. Tristyn Bloom of Eschatological Psychosis and Mr. Adam Stempel here.

Tonight, we've heard the speakers negating this resolution slander shame. One speaker described shame as intrinsically debasing to its target, another told us that shame feeds our own moral complacency, and yet another claimed that shame was always an assault. Since I believe shame can be a powerful, ennobling force for good, it's almost enough to tilt my sympathies to the affirmative of this resolution.

The trouble is, when shame is yoked to the state and to the justice system, it becomes exactly the scourge that the side negating this resolution has described it as tonight.

Put simply, shame is a kind of grief. Both shame and grief are the result when the love we bear someone is destroyed or damaged. Shame can feel uniquely tragic, because the wound of grief is caused by human choice, rather than blind chance or natural death, but shame is also uniquely hopeful because the betrayal can be repaired through human action.

If we want a chance to heal these wounds, we need to give shame the same kind of respect and awe that grief commands. We have to recognize that shame is the natural outgrowth of loving relationships between people, not something that can be administered by the state as part of the justice system.

As the right of the Union likes to tell us, the State does not and cannot love us. The social contract is not going to show up at my door and tearfully ask me why I broke it. Without the force of love, there is no power to shame.

Shame has no place in our justice system. Justice is intended to serve the people generally, by disincentivizing crime, and the needs of the victim, by forcing the criminal to make restitution. The justice system can work for rehabilition, but its primary focus will never be the task of healing the criminal.

That work has to be left to individuals. Between two people, shame is a gift. A way out of grief. When someone shames us, we are aware both of the hurt that we have dealt them and the love that compels them to show us the depth of the sorrow we have given them and they ask for our help in mending it. Showing our wounds makes us vulnerable, but that pain is a gift - a reminder of the love we bear since without love the betrayal would never have hurt so deeply.

As an atheist, I don't have the luxury of trusting in any kind of healing after death. I can only act in this world, and any redemption for me comes at the mercy of my friends who work to keep me on the straight and narrow. My friends, who I trust to love me enough to tell me when I've hurt them, when I'm hurting myself, and who aren't afraid to show me the wounds I've made so that I may have a chance to heal them.

Without love, without vulnerability, shame is the debasing contempt that speakers on my side have railed against. Offered in a spirit of healing, shame is a path out of wrongdoing. It is love seen through the lens of pain.

I urge all the members of this body to strive to offer and accept shame as a gift, to fight against the portrait of shame that the speakers against the resolution have offered. That fight will last us the rest of our lives, but it begins tonight in rejecting this resolution's call to bring back the stocks. It begins in recognizing shame as a relation between persons, not between the state and its citizens. It begins in recognizing shame as something designed for the wrongdoer, not an instrument of justice.

I urge the body to join me in voting against the resolution before us tonight.

Mr. Speaker, I yield to questions.

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