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Shame, Blame and Guilt

July 10th, 2015 by dk

We don’t know if it was a gaggle of pre-teen boys who started the fire that brought down Eugene’s Civic Stadium. The investigation into the tragedy is continuing. The court system will take the issue from there and these things take time. We rely on defined procedures to provide the answers we so urgently desire.

What we do know right now is that each of us did things when we were that age that can still curl our hair when we remember them. Many of us have memories from those days that we’re hesitant to share with anyone. I know I do. No statute of limitations can protect our inner selves from the memory of our adolescent mistakes.

My son and his neighbor friend played with matches when they were 12. The dry California summer could have brought consequences much worse than they received. I hit puberty during the brief streaking craze of the 1970s and that’s all I’m going to say about that. None of us reach adulthood unscathed by scandal.

We call them “youthful indiscretions,” but I think that whitewashing shows that we’ve over-learned the lesson. The polite veneer we give those bad choices would be less necessary if we all admitted our wrongdoings, that we wish we could undo them, and that we regret the consequences they brought on others.

It feels less like a club when we learn that everyone is a member.

And so, right now, we can discuss amongst our adult selves the regrettable past that lurks in each of us. We can parse for our own good the difference between blame, shame and guilt.

We gather the three together during times of trauma, believing certainty will give us a comfort that comes with finality. Anyone with an inner life eventually learns it doesn’t work that way. Call it grief, or post-traumatic stress, or a ghost, if you like — our memories shape our identity and our identity shapes our actions. We’re always coping with the past and the present at once.

The best we can do is take a breath, slow down our reaction, tease the factors apart, and keep a watchful eye.

Guilt in this instance will be determined by our purposely ponderous system. If there was a ringleader, that will come clear. If others helped, or if some tried to resist, we’ll learn those details in time. Special accommodations will be considered if youth is a factor. Consequences will be meted out according to the rules we’ve designed for ourselves.

Shame, on the other hand, is not so prescribed. Shame is a social construct — it’s left to us to determine who will be shunned and who will be helped. After a 50-year-long hiatus, shame is making a comeback on the public policy stage. Scolding the people who make bad choices is regaining popularity, despite everything we’ve learned about how we’re co-evolving one another’s identities.

Societal shame and shunning must be reserved for only the most extreme circumstances. Tearing the fabric of human connectedness is the harshest penalty — capital punishment for the social self.

Guilt must always be determined. Shame should almost never be used. And between those bumpers lies responsibility. Here we all have a role to play.

A healthy society spreads responsibility widely. If we look out for one another, we’re less likely to look down on anyone. Any of us can choose to share the burden of blame. The fence could have been taller. Our debate could have been shorter.

The stadium fire was not the first consequence. A criminal trial won’t be the last. Fortunately in this case, no human harm must be weighed against the choices that were made.

Children don’t naturally anticipate the consequences of all their actions. Parents, teachers, neighbors and friends all help fill in those blanks. If there were children involved in this public tragedy, they’ll continue to grow and learn about themselves and the world.

Children are working out how they’ll fit into the world we already inhabit. Every one of them needs our help. We can’t let that structure be burned down too.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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