Social Constructs and The Politics of Shame

Social conduct is driven by a multitude of virtues that are held important in a society. One that has been fashionably put under scrutiny is shame. And perhaps the emotional impulse to do so is reasonable. Shame is distinguishably uncomfortable and brings us to the miserable realization of our own weakness. The harsh reality is that shame, though unpleasant, is a vehicle for order that seeks to maintain certain morals, some of which are deemed unimportant in the modern world. However strong the push is to dismantle the need for inhibition, shame rarely evaporates. The escape people have found is to broadcast their embarrassments and preen themselves while doing so. The hope is that, the more vulgarity diffused, the less taxing shame will be for all. The collective swims in their open cesspool of unfettered satisfactions in perfect mutual distraction.

A criticism of what is called “purity culture” has led to the growing acceptance of promiscuity. In the language of post-modernists, “chastity” dwindles down to an unnecessarily burdensome “social construct.” The constant discursive revisitation of the social construct as a means of removing value and utility from societal norms is ironic. The politics of shame that keep us from flaunting multiple sexual partners is the same that keeps us from profusely swearing in front of small children, and yet people only reserve serious contentions for maintaining the former. Social constructs come about as an organic manifestation of ideas, which have grown more sophisticated with time, but are nonetheless derived from what is primordial and real. Shame, as it pertains to both protecting the privacy of our bodies and moral responsibility of past malfeasance, in particular, is linked to the beginning of creation. When Adam (AS) and Hawa disobeyed Allah, their private parts were exposed. They henceforth quickly fastened the leaves of Paradise over their bodies. This event is incredibly telling in how intrinsically corporeal dignity is. It is only natural for humans to then organize around this principle of self-preservation, especially as it ties to moral servitude, and this across all Abrahamic traditions. 

Though there is the possibility that constructs may disturb us, in that they interrupt what the nafs beckons, or are simply not as fitting given our context, they are not all founded upon insignificant fables or orchestrated by yesteryear’s virtue-signaling aristocracy. Stating as much is to paradoxically simplify the force that social constructs have and, subsequently, the purpose they visibly serve. It ignores the role nature, ever-so controversial, plays in what we qualify as appropriate – which never exists in a cultural vacuum. The other aspect to consider is that, when people speak of removing shame from the public space, they do not mean removing shame holistically, which is quite impossible. Rather, they refer to shame of specific taboos. We ought to then be privy of what people are asking to toss out and let in.

Those who support this selective opposition to shame employ the following logic: What exists as clear violation to others merits both inner humiliation and outer ostracization; in contrast, what primarily concerns individual behavior (for instance, how an adult chooses to dress) merits neither. The problem is, in the realm of sexual image, it is becoming increasingly unclear what our personal responsibility is to public decency, and what constitutes the bounds for violating others in that ambiguity.

Contrary to other worldviews, the Islamic perspective treats shame as the glue to achieving communal goodness; after all, we have the opportunity to be forgiven for sins so long as we work to conceal them. This promotes a culture of respectable prudence and a cohesive standard of modesty, and concurrently removes some of the weight of agonizing guilt. We can relieve ourselves of crippling shame if we keep in mind that we should not reveal our blunders to others. This coupled with tawba provides healthy rehabilitation and invites humility. The wisdom behind this divine mercy is that we do not have to heedlessly wrestle with why we must feel so ignoble after making mistakes however grave they may be. We instead focus on our own duty to keep our struggles with temptation private. Because this is not an option for the secular-minded, they begin to ask for forgiveness not from God but from the public, and this – in the form of desperate calls – turns unbearable shame into unhinged pride.

Photo via Melanie Wasser

About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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