Shame and the Reflex of Non-Recognition

In the process of doing some research on George Herbert, I stumbled across a passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear that I think is relevant to the themes I’ve been pursuing at here at SF. Discussing the character of the Earl of Gloucester, Cavell writes that

if the failure to recognize others is a failure to let others recognize you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of his withholding of recognition [of his bastard son Edmund]…. For shame is the specific discomfort produced by the sense of being looked at, the avoidance of the sight of others is the reflex it produces. Guilt is different; there is the reflex to avoid discovery. As long as no one knows what you have done, you are safe; or your conscience will press you to confess it and accept punishment. Under shame, what must be covered up is not your deed, but yourself. It is a more primitive emotion than guilt, as inescapable as the possession of a body, the first object of shame.

There’s much to ponder here, not least in relation to Lear itself, but I’m especially interested in the generic insight that the result of shame is an inability truly to see others, to offer others recognition. As Cavell puts it later, “recognizing a person depends upon allowing oneself to be recognized.”

This is one of the main reasons that I encourage gay Christians, when they ask me for advice, to come out. It’s not just that the enormous effort it takes to hide your sexuality involves an unhealthy self-focus, a constant policing of speech and actions, which can be profoundly crippling to your spiritual life (if my experience is any indication). It’s also that staying in the closet can cause you to refuse to recognize your gay or lesbian neighbors, all in an effort to stay hidden yourself.

Eve Tushnet made this point very well several years ago:

The closet also offers a lot of temptations to sin; I’d say for many people it just is a near occasion of sin. There’s the obvious temptation to lie. There’s the temptation to throw other people under the bus to make yourself look more hetero, or butcher or whatever. There’s the temptation to deny or speak uncharitably to openly gay friends (or, for that matter, enemies). There’s the temptation to cut yourself off from other people so they don’t get too close—to avoid friendship, and avoid help. Being in the closet makes it harder to act rightly. To the extent that being out involves humiliation and lost opportunities (although it is also extraordinarily freeing and opens a lot of doors you may not have realized existed) I would say that sometimes you have to journey through what Spenser called “the Gracious Valley of Humiliation.”

That seems exactly right to me, not least because of Cavell’s point: Shame leads not just to self-loathing but also to rejection of others. Shame isn’t just an individual problem; it’s a social one. And that’s partly why, in spite of the costs, I do think it’s best for Christians who experience same-sex attraction to open up and talk about it if at all possible.

5 thoughts on “Shame and the Reflex of Non-Recognition

  1. I own the truth that shame, no matter where it is embedded, keeps all of us from recognizing others as we stay imprisoned by whatever the source of our shame is. It’s not just a same-sex attraction thing. It’s the core sense that I’m not OK. I don’t want others to know that about me. It’s satan’s lie to all of us. It’s the parts of me that are still waiting for full healing.

  2. I’m not entirely sure about ‘coming out’ as it is usually perceived. I have no need to volunteer such information unless a purpose is served. Most people in most circumstances simply do not need to know about my sexuality. “Coming out” is, or is all too often perceived as, and extremely in-your-face kind of thing, and can be seen (sometimes really is) as very offensive indeed. .That said, however, being ‘in the closet’ in the first place is a very problematic stance. The things said above about shame, about the necessity of lying, and about the spiritual damage thus done are certainly relevant.

    Most of those who know me know little if anything about my sexuality, and have not identified me as gay. It hasn’t come up, and I have no reason to tell them. Some may be wondering, but in most cases I have no reason to answer their unspoken questions. It isn’t any of their business, However, I hide nothing. If questions are raised or if there is legitimate reason to bring up the subject, then it is indeed time to speak openly and honestly.

  3. Ed pacht,

    When I counsel young gay persons to “come out” what I often tell them is that coming out is not so much a proclamation as a conversation. I agree that there is a tendency to over-emphasize, advertise, and publicize where it isn’t warranted. That extreme, in my opinion, is less harmful than staying in the closet. Largely because it often is just a phase. An overcompensation for years of masking, feeling misunderstood etc… Being closeted on the other hand becomes a way of life. Concurrent with this is often the temptation to bury any and all natural desires, interests, pursuits, mannerism, or what have you that are inherently good as a way of ensuring that one is never suspected of being gay. I believe the result of that is far more damaging to one’s psyche then exaggerating them once one is no longer afraid of being “found out.” The best is for someone who is “coming out” to have a series of conversations with people with whom they are convinced it will significantly impact.

  4. Aaron,
    Thanks for your response. That’s pretty much the way I feel, except that I am unable to say that one harmful behavior is worse than another. Being ‘in the closet’ is certainly harmful in every way you list, and more, but ‘coming out’ noisily, as is so often done, is also destructive, both to oneself and to relationships. Both extremes have the same unfortunate effect, in that they tend to convince one that his sexuality is the very center of his being and that little else really matters. “Coming out” should perhaps be seen rather as a cessation of hiding, a letting go of the over-importance of ones gayness. Conversations (as you say) are at the heart of a rational approach, discrete conversation with those who truly have a reason to know, and honest conversations with those who bring up the subject.

  5. Pingback: This Week’s Good Reads – Pastor Dave Online

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