Let's talk about shame

Perhaps we can, and we should, for as we cope and heal, a sense of shame and self-criticism can persuade us to dream of a better tomorrow. 
Multiple funeral pyres of those who died of COVID-19 burn at a ground that has been converted into a crematorium for the mass cremation of coronavirus victims, in New Delhi. (Photo | AP)
Multiple funeral pyres of those who died of COVID-19 burn at a ground that has been converted into a crematorium for the mass cremation of coronavirus victims, in New Delhi. (Photo | AP)

Can we talk about shame while being engulfed by utter darkness? Darkness punctuated by the funeral fires of mass cremations, thickened by the shadows of planetary crises, darkness bedecked with our desire for limitless consumption.

Perhaps we can, and we should, for as we cope and heal, a sense of shame and self-criticism can persuade us to dream of a better tomorrow. 

The nightmares of the pandemic in particular and planetary crises in general are manifestations of our fouled-up relationship with Nature, amplified by a failure of leadership in getting our house in order. In all of this is a lack of concern for fragile ecosystems, an indifference towards planetary boundaries, a discounting of the less privileged and a blatant disregard of the entanglements that connect us to different species - from the virus to the blue whale. It is this attitude of indifference, which allows us to continue shamelessly on the path of overconsumption.   

But worse than this disregard, is the flaunting of high-consumption lifestyles married to the cult of success. A large portion of Instagram and other social media feeds is crowded by a culture of self-adulation a celebration of our acquisitions, a perennial broadcasting of material conquests.

Perhaps we could be a little shameful about all this?   

What is the harm in a little self-indulgence, you ask. Nothing really unless this display of conspicuous consumption and the single-minded pursuit of the good life had been fuelling a system that is wrecking the planet, poisoning the oceans and heating up the earth.

The connections hardly need to be restated. From air travel to deforestation, from unboxing videos of hi-tech gadgets to our indulgent selfies with gas-guzzling SUVs, the price of consumer vanity can be counted in the currency of carbon, if not in the cancer of rare earth miners and the outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.

Sadly the idea of being ashamed or even saying sorry has been driven to the fringes of our consciousness thanks to the opium of advertising coupled with the magic spell of aspirations. But this was always not so.

Confucius emphasised the importance of shame as a moral force with corrective and transformative potential. In a quote often attributed to him, the great Chinese thinker says, 'In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of'. 

Let us look at the last part of this Confucian suggestion. Can we impart an education which teaches from a young age to be ashamed of wealth, ostentation and more specifically unsustainable consumption?

Instead of chest-thumping about and Instagramming our latest material possession, can we see ourselves saying, ‘I feel a bit ashamed about it but I couldn’t stop splurging on this SUV,’ or imagine a social-media influencer declaring, 'I am ashamed about my growing carbon footprint and that of my followers, I promise to cut it down and promote an alternative lifestyle'?   

A well-entrenched worldview that normalises greed and overconsumption and is blasé about the gathering planetary emergencies can only be challenged by an equally robust counter-culture, which broadcasts the moral power of shame in making over-consumption unfashionable.

Utopian or not, this is already happening. In Sweden 'flygskam' or 'flight shame' have had noticeable impact with more and more people flying less to reduce their carbon footprints.

France recently passed laws to ban short-duration flights where trains are available, and who can forget the symbolic force of Greta Thunberg's sailboat crossing of the Atlantic? There are many struggles ahead, many other knots to be unravelled before we emerge from this pit of darkness.

So there is the need to focus more on clean production and waste minimisation, just as there is the quest to find responsible leaders in every nation who believe in and employ the power of democracy while addressing existential threats like COVID-19 or climate change. Shame as a cultural force to counter consumer indifference could be one useful tool on this arduous road from darkness to light.

(The writer is a climate activist and can be contacted at rajat@rajatchaudhuri.net)

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