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Explaining the puzzle of national shame

26 February 2018

In the aftermath of the EU Referendum, I encountered many people who said to me, “I am ashamed to be British”, or, when confronted with the fallout of the referendum such as the lack of diplomacy exhibited by David Davis, May’s use of EU citizen rights as bargaining chips, or the failure to keep human rights or animal sentience as amendments to the withdrawal bill, said “this makes me ashamed to be British”. Here is a social media profile picture of one of my friends, a British citizen.

Similarly, one of my American friends, following the election of Trump as 45th president of the US said, “I never thought I’d say this, but with Trump as our president, I am ashamed to be American.” Of course, these are not universal emotions, and many Leave voters now feel proud of their country and they feel proud to be British (or, in many cases, English), just like some Trump voters believe their president will make America great again. Also, there are people who refuse to take part in any sort of collective ownership or responsibility, wearing T-shirts that say “Don’t blame me, I voted Remain”, or “Not my president” (in the case of Trump). But here I am focusing on people who feel shame because of their national identity.

Protest March against Trump showing a “not my president” board. November 10, 2016. Source: Wikimedia.

On the face of it, collective shame makes no sense. People who feel ashamed of their nationality due to Brexit or Trump did not personally vote for either. In many cases, they have actively campaigned against them, and they still do. Moreover, being a citizen of a given country is rarely under one’s control (and never under one’s complete control as it is a right to be granted), but a mere accident of where one is born, or who one’s parents are. In that respect, taking pride, or shame, in having a citizenship seems unwarranted.
For westerners who live in mostly individualized cultures (including the UK and the US), morality is considered to be a purely a matter of individual responsibility, not something that is shared with others. Blame, shame, and other negative emotions are purely experienced by individuals, not shared in groups. However, the downside of this is that unshared negative emotions such as shame can become so crushing that they threaten one’s core sense of identity, lead to depression (more so than guilt, which is more focused than shame). Shame can even have adverse immunological effects.
In collectivist cultures, by contrast, shame and pride are emotions shared by a group, not by an individual alone. Thus it is possible to bring shame to your family as a result of a crime you committed, or conversely, to make your family proud for instance, by studying well. As a publicly shared and exchanged emotion, it is also possible to feel shame for the actions of others.
Pride, the inverse of shame, is still a collective emotion in individualist cultures. Parents are proud of their children’s accomplishments, even if they have not personally contributed them. Teachers are proud of their students, even if they don’t take the credit. Pride movements such as black, LGBTQ+ and disability pride are meant to engender a collective sense of pride of the accomplishments of black, LGBTQ+ and disabled people, as a way to combat stereotypes associated with these groups.

Disability pride march, Chicago. Source: Wikimedia

Richerson, Henrich, and colleagues argued that emotions such as pride and shame are social emotions that help us to live harmoniously together in groups. Such emotions help us to follow norms and dissuade us from violating them. This social function of emotions explains why you can feel shame on behalf of what others in your group are doing. Shame not only helps you to alter your own behavior but also encourages you to try to change the behavior of others.
In Confucian philosophy (Chinese philosophy following Confucius, Kongzi), shame is seen as a key regulative emotion that helps us to navigate our moral landscape and interact with others. It helps one to critically appraise oneself and others, and is a crucial element in moral development, reparation, and in transforming oneself and the group. Shame is a crucial part of cultivating virtue, as Bongrae Seok has argued.
The Confucian philosopher Mengzi (372–289 BC) thought that indeed whole countries could experience shame. As he writes

Presently, small states take great states as their teachers and are ashamed to take orders from them. This is like disciples being ashamed to take orders from their teachers. If they are ashamed of it, there is nothing better than taking King Wen as their teacher. If they took King Wen as their teacher, a great state in five years, or a small state in seven years, would govern the world (Mengzi Book 4A7.4, translation by Bryan van Norden).

A lot is packed into this concise formulation. King Wen is a legendary Chinese king who thanks to his virtue amassed many followers and support, and he is frequently presented as the exemplar leader. The idea is that a state that is ashamed of its smallness but takes this as a cue to cultivate virtue, would go on to achieve great things.
To Mengzi, paradoxically, we ought not to be ashamed to be ashamed. Shame for Mengzi is being aware of yourself in a web of social relations, and evaluating yourself (including your broader social self, as member of a family, or citizen of a country) in the light of certain ideals you have.
People who are against Brexit or Trump have certain conceptions of their country and what it is like to be a citizen of that country. For example, committed Remain voters saw their country as an inclusive, tolerant, open country, and the vote to leave violated these ideals. This explains why some of them feel collective shame. They look at the UK and they find it does not hold up to their ideals. This mismatch creates a feeling of shame, of being out of sync. My hypothesis is borne out by a quick poll I did among a large Hard Remain FB group, where I asked what people meant when they said they felt ashamed to be British. Here are some representative responses (quoted with permission)

The fact that as a nation we seem to have become intolerant, xenophobic and jingoistic. I thought we had left all that behind but the referendum result appears to have reversed 40 years of progress and what is worse is that our politicians seem to be complicit. What do we have to be proud of?
As a British born second generation Italian, I still hold with that other Britishness. The Britishness of the majority. I remain proud of that. I am heartbroken to find it eclipsed, temporarily I hope, by the dark side and I will do everything I can to defend and restore it.

Despite being proud of aspects of British culture, heritage and history, I felt deeply ashamed to be a citizen of country that had allowed educational standards and the quality of the national debate to fall so low that the totally fantastical Brexit project could actually win a national referendum without even a coherent proposal of what their project entailed. I was literally dumbfounded. My office is Bethnal Green and I looked out on the balcony over the city of London and thought how have we been capable of creating such amazingly complex institutions and technologies and yet still be able, as a nation, to do something as idiotic as Brexit. It froze my brain with a mixture or rage and disbelief for the next six months.

I am ashamed that we are not the country I thought we were becoming. I am ashamed that I missed such a divide in the country. I am ashamed that we did not do more to unite the country in the face of such feelings. I am ashamed of our political class who played politics with peoples dreams and lives. … I an ashamed lies were not challenged in our press for years. I am ashamed that Boris is not just a laughing stock. I could go on but I am ashamed that I am still so angry with myself about this.

In practical terms, it means when I travel outside the UK right now I am expecting people to treat me with contempt because they believe I share certain Leaver behaviours: intolerance of foreigners, refusal to speak any language other than English and a desire to leave the European family enunciated in the form of crowing, sneering comments about British superiority. So I am deeply ashamed to admit the fact that I am British when I travel on the Continent. Which I do quite a lot.

Interesting in these responses is that pride, the inverse of shame, is frequently mentioned, and that my respondents took on collective responsibility. What would Mengzi and other Confucian philosophers say about this? First, there is no shame in shame. Shame is a useful social emotion that can help us both to transform our own behavior, and to exhort others to change theirs. Shame allows us to continue to aspire to the lofty ideals we set ourselves, rather than to fall into apathy or acceptance. People who say they’re ashamed to be British are also not being unpatriotic. Indeed, they are the opposite—for it is love of their country, and self-identification with it, that generates the feeling of shame in the first place.
Second, in the light of Confucian philosophy, shame is a better emotion to have than disavowal (e.g., “Don’t blame me, I voted remain”, or “Not my president”). Shame is a critical self-reflective attitude, which, according to Mengzi and Kongzi, is able to transform the self and to change one’s attitudes. In this respect, it is interesting to see how some respondents to my question questioned their own attitudes:

I am also personally ashamed that I did not challenge racism in my home town more, that I let it go in the name of a quiet life, because I could go back to the big city and leave it behind. How wrong (and guilty) I was!

When our societal values emphasize positive feelings and attitudes, shame is an unfashionable and unpleasant emotion we want to deny or seek to minimize. But collective shame can be transformative and may ultimately shape our collective decisions and actions.



  1. TYRA

    But here I am focusing on people who feel shame because of their national identity.

  2. Matt

    Never really seen Chinese philosophy deployed (rather than applied) to illuminate problems like this. Really enjoyed it.

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