Why’d they do it?
Why did Islamic radicals go on a rampage at Charlie Hebdo?
Why did the North Korean government threaten ‘merciless’ action against the US if SONY released The Interview?
Why have American students brought guns to school and opened fire on their peers?
A quickly-posted on-line account of the Charlie Hebdo shooting stated:
“MOTIVE: Charlie Hebdo had attracted attention for its controversial depictions of Muhammad. Hatred for Charlie Hebdo ’s cartoons, which made jokes about Islamic leaders as well as Muhammad, is considered to be the principal motive for the massacre.”
EspritdeCorps tells us that “the basic plot [of The Interview] centres on two American journalists acquiring access to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and that rare opportunity prompts the CIA to ask the reporters to assassinate him. Not surprisingly, when the North Koreans learned that this film ends with the death of their actual leader and that the movie is considered a comedy, they took offence.” (italics added)
Ralph Larkin [Comprehending Columbine, Temple, 2007] cites a report claiming that “people surrounded [Harris and Klebold] in the commons and squirted ketchup packets all over them, laughing at them, calling them faggots. That happened while teachers watched. They couldn’t fight back. They wore the ketchup all day and went home covered with it.”
Shame is the common denominator between these acts of violence, perpetrated against those held responsible for the degradation, humiliation, and loss of face.
Most analysts would hesitate to lump students who have gone on rampages with these two recent acts of terrorism. School shootings are not politically motivated, nor can their perpetrators be situated in a ‘shame culture.’ By positioning American culture as vastly different from both Islam and the Juche-influenced culture of North Korea, and by accounting for recent aggressions in terms of this difference, any similarity is easily obscured A homicidal privileging of pride and honor seem a stark contrast to Occidential ‘guilt cultures’ steeped in rationality, individualism, free speech and the Christian value of forgiveness.
Unfortunately, this oversimplification denies the legitimacy of shame in American culture, and precludes an ability to fully understand the motivations behind our own ‘home-grown’ acts of violence. Simply put, even though America is not considered a shame-culture, shame may still drive acts of violence within it. In fact, denial may inadvertently promote such acts, because there are no cultural templates that instruct individuals on the processing of acutely distressful states of humiliation. While ‘shame-cultures’ may require individuals to seek revenge / restore honor, guilt cultures remain silent, offering no recipe to ease the degradation that gnaws from the inside, destabilizing a sense of self.
Shame is integral to human nature.
Embodied, it burns into and brands the psyche, even as it inscribes the social flesh.
Shame bears witness to the perversion of the self that I, and others, believe me to possess
As a moral emotion, it is linked to the exposure—and judgment—of who I am.
(That is, transgressions—perhaps merely ‘differences’—are not isolated acts that can be detached from self and remediated).
Viewed this way, the ridicule of one’s deeply held religious or political beliefs, on the world stage, can be as deeply felt as any humiliation in the cafeteria.
Rage against those who belittle and denigrate a foundational “truth” that anchors and sustains a cultural or social identity, and/or an individual’s sense of self, is not unexpected. Shame lives in the body. It has a somatic nature, and rage is an equally visceral response to the distress, agitation, and felt threat to identity; to belonging. It is the body’s resistance to psychic annihilation.
The violence prompted by rage marks an attempt to manage the (social and psychological) devastation prompted by shame. By its very ferocity, this violence demands that respect be restored. It promises to mitigate the agony of humiliation and rejection by (re)asserting both agency and authority, reclaiming dignity. It is bodily begotten social redemption—and socially begotten bodily redemption.
As I argue in Bullying: The Social Destruction of Self, it is precisely the possibility of redemption—or its lack—that drives these acts of desperation. Shame denigrates, but it is the inability to atone, to make amends and have respect restored/be readmitted to the group that looms large, and comes to overwhelm a number of our youth. Trapped in the fishbowl of their schools, unable to reclaim dignity and restore ‘face’ on a social level, and unable to negotiate the twisting, withering sense of inadequacy on a personal level, they seek only to make it stop.
And in order to do that, they may resort to the same extreme behavior that militants of shame-cultures embrace. This similarity of response is likely rooted in the neuro-firing of our brains. Recent research and fMRI imaging has shown that the social pain linked to shame and rejection register in the same pain centers of the brain associated with tissue damage. And, when we are hurt, when we are humiliated, ostracized, and excluded, the pain (the threat to our social bond/personal well-being) may be so primal as to override any ‘rational’ responses.
In other words, not unlike physical pain, social pain interrupts cognitive functioning.
It impairs an individual’s ability to process information and self-regulate.
This neurological response, likely a consequence of the interdependence between emotion and cognition processes, suggests that shame, whether experienced in relation to cultural values or to taunts in cyberspace, can debilitate, even incapacitate, the ability to think and act ‘rationally.’
And, it is the need to alleviate this pain—to restore face and redeem oneself (or one’s culture/religion)—that makes the tragedies in our own backyards not dissimilar to violence occurring on the world stage.