Contempt, Shame, Guilt, and Forgiveness

According to the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, contempt is one of the seven basic emotions that cause human beings to produce a characteristic facial expression. Even when people try to hide their emotions, these expressions may flicker across the face in a fraction of a second. Those fleeting expressions are called microexpressions. The expression of contempt is easy to spot. It is the only one that is one-sided:

The expression associated with contempt can sometimes be described as a smirk or a sneer. In fact, I stumbled across the work of Paul Ekman while I was trying to figure out why a particular political figure was always smirking. This politician’s habitual smirk had given even his resting facial expression a lopsided appearance. Sometimes, he looked almost as if he had nerve damage in his face, but I suspected that the problem was in his brain or perhaps in his character. I had learned through experience to avoid people who continually smirk and sneer. Such persons generally feel that they can do no wrong. They seem to be immune to shame. They also seem to be prone to throwing tantrums like two-year-olds. In short, they are narcissists and prone to bouts of narcissistic rage (see the discussion of anger).

From reading Ekman’s work, I found that the contempt smirk is produced automatically by the nervous system in response to feelings of contempt. The lopsided smirk produced by contempt reminds me of the raised lip that a dominant dog shows to a lower-ranking dog that oversteps its boundaries.

Ekman has also explained that shame is the opposite of contempt. Contempt is the emotion that springs from feeling superior to somebody else. Shame springs from feeling inferior. Contempt is the emotion that corresponds to being in a socially superior position. You may feel yourself making the contempt expression when you find that someone fails to meet your expectations for intelligence or civilized behavior. In contrast, shame is the emotion that corresponds to being in a socially inferior position. You may feel shame when you have disappointed other people. Ekman’s theory about contempt and shame explains why arrogant people seem to be completely shameless. People would not feel shame unless they were being criticized by someone whom they regard as superior to themselves in some way.

Ekman draws careful distinctions between shame and guilt. Guilt is a feeling that springs from having done (or having failed to do) some action. Guilt is a result of self-judgment. In contrast, shame is about social judgment. Ekman explained,

Shame is closely related to guilt, but there is a key qualitative difference. No audience is needed for feelings of guilt, no one else need know, for the guilty person is his own judge. Not so for shame. The humiliation of shame requires disapproval or ridicule by others. If no one ever learns of a misdeed there will be no shame, but there still might be guilt. Of course, there may be both. The distinction between shame and guilt is very important, since these two emotions may tear a person in opposite directions. The wish to relieve guilt may motivate a confession, but the wish to avoid the humiliation of shame may prevent it.

Ekman is a psychologist and thus has been trained to focus on personal thoughts and feelings and interpersonal relationships. However, we must also think of how individual’s feelings shape society as a whole. We must address the political context in which these feelings of superiority and inferiority arise.

Contempt, shame, and guilt are emotions that help to regulate social relationships. Contempt and shame are involved in regulating social hierarchy and social standing. The feeling of guilt is a self-inflicted punishment for people who break rules. In a more or less equal society, these emotions can have a beneficial effect on an individual’s behavior. Individuals may alter their behavior to avoid becoming objects of contempt and to avoid being shamed. Feelings of guilt may motivate one to make amends to someone whom one has harmed. Unfortunately, these same emotions may also strengthen an unjust social hierarchy:

  • High-ranking people feel contempt for their social inferiors. In a feudal society, the nobility felt contempt for the common people. In a patriarchal society, men tend to feel contempt for women. In a capitalist society, the owners and middle managers feel contempt for the workers.
  • High-ranking people can be completely shameless. Shame is the emotion that corresponds to being in a low social position. Thus, high-ranking people may feel no shame, even if their behavior toward lower-ranking people is appalling.
  • Low-ranking people are often punished if they don’t show signs of shame. Low-ranking people who stand up for themselves are regarded as “uppity” and are often punished with shocking brutality. The punishments, such as gang-rapes and lynchings, are often ordered by authority figures and carried out in public, often taking on the appearance of some sort of religious rite.
  • Low-ranking people may feel shame even if they have done nothing wrong. Shame is the emotion that corresponds to being in a low social position. That’s why rape victims often feel shame, even though they have done nothing wrong. Likewise, a dog may cringe in submission if it is reprimanded, even if it has done nothing wrong.
  • Forgiveness is a way for a victim to establish moral superiority to the offender. Forgiveness is a process in which one who has been wronged gives up feelings such as resentment or vengefulness toward the offender. In fact, forgiveness can be the nicest possible way to express contempt. Forgiveness does not mean that the forgiver condones the offense. Nor does it mean that the forgiver thinks that the offender should not face some sort of punishment. However, the forgiver does not inflict the punishment and may try to persuade the authorities to be less cruel.
  • Remorse (a feeling of guilt) is a form of self-punishment. Remorse is anger at oneself. By showing remorse, an offender expresses agreement that his or her behavior was offensive. By showing remorse, the offender expresses acceptance of the rules that he or she has broken, which suggests that the person might be less likely to reoffend. That is why judges and juries and parole boards may be far more lenient if a guilty person expresses remorse. Often, the best way to respond to an offense is to allow the offender to make amends to the people who were harmed. However, wrongly convicted people are often given severe sentences and refused parole because they refuse to show remorse for something that they did not do.
  • An offender may be asked to make amends or restitution. Restitution means that the offender has replaced what he or she has stolen or broken. Amends are other attempts by the offender to repair or compensate for the damage that he or she has caused.
  • Reconciliation means a return to friendly relations after a breach. Even if you have forgiven someone, you may not want to be friends with that person in the future. Instead, you may wish to shun them, which means to avoid someone habitually and deliberately. If you have offended someone, they may choose not to reconcile with you.

If we want to live in a just and peaceful society, we need something beyond personal emotions to regulate our social behavior. In an unjust society, the rules are based on the principle of might makes right. In a peaceful and just society, the rules are based on a principle of reciprocity. This principle has been expressed in various ways in religious and ethical systems all over the world. Christians express it as follows: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The ancient Greeks created gods and goddesses to represent abstract concepts such as justice. In Greek mythology, Themis was the goddess of divine justice. Her Roman counterpart was called Justitia. Modern iconography of “Lady Justice” often shows her as blindfolded, to emphasize that the law should be applied equally to everyone, regardless of their political connections or social rank. Justice often is depicted as holding scales, for weighing the truth of competing claims. The Romans showed her carrying a double-edged sword, which could be wielded for or against any party. In contrast, the Greeks often depicted Themis without a sword because she ruled by common consent, not by coercion. People who refused to follow the rulings of Themis had to deal with Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution.

  • In an unjust society, the rules are unfair or are enforced unfairly. Offenses by high-ranking people against low-ranking people go unpunished. Meanwhile, low-ranking people are severely punished for minor offenses or for no offense at all. To achieve a just and peaceful society, you must have laws that are fair and enforced fairly.
  • Bad laws breed contempt for the law, and bad policing provokes riots. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) reported that the riots that had broken out in major cities in the United States the previous year were the predictable result of social injustice and police brutality. Bad police practices were at the top of the list of grievances that led to the uprisings.
  • No one should be above the law. As a graduate of Duke University’s law school and a member of the bar, Richard Milhouse Nixon should have known that the civil and criminal laws apply to everyone in the United States, even to the President. Those laws include laws against burglary, wiretapping, and so on. Outrage over such offenses committed or condoned by Nixon’s staffers and supporters led to widespread calls to impeach Nixon. To avoid impeachment, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. Yet in a famous 1977 interview with David Frost, Nixon argued that the President should be above the law: “When the President does it, it is not illegal.”

In principle, the ordinary civil and criminal laws should apply to everyone equally. However, there are some kinds of offenses that are particularly offensive when committed by high-ranking people, such as public officials. These offenses are called high crimes and misdemeanors. Article Two of the United States Constitution states:

The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

High crimes and misdemeanors include such offenses as perjury of oath, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, failure to supervise, dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming, and refusal to obey a lawful order. In other words, public officials can be removed from public office for failing to serve the public. In the United States, federal officials can be impeached by the House of Representatives and tried in the Senate. State governments also have procedures for impeachment of state officials.

Who decides whether an offense is “impeachable”? For federal officials in the United States, that decision is made by the House of Representatives. As Gerald R. Ford put it in 1970, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” At the time, Ford was a Congressman from Michigan and House Minority Leader. He became Vice President in 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to criminal charges of tax evasion and money laundering. Ford then became President when Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.

Note that a public official can be impeached, tried, and punished for offenses that are not illegal in themselves. In contrast, private citizens cannot be punished for a crime unless they can be shown to have broken a particular law. This legal principle is called nulla poena sine lege.

Public officials may also be accused of ordinary crimes. Note that the standards of proof ought to be laxer and the punishment stricter for public officials than for nonofficials. Public officials have taken an oath of office. Thus, they have greater responsibilities than private citizens have.

Human beings are social animals and thus always organize themselves into social hierarchies. The important question is how those hierarchies are established, and how the higher-ranking individuals are allowed to behave toward the lower-ranking people. It is not a bad thing for individuals to be able to gain social standing for good behavior or other good qualities. We should hold people of good character in high esteem: honest people, intelligent people, scholarly people, etc. Positions of public trust should be reserved for people who have earned the public’s trust. Unfortunately, if a society systematically grants high status and special privileges for the wrong reasons, then people will suffer.