Politics Saving Face

Overstepping the Mark

(c) Policy Exchange

A previous post, the location of shame, made the case against those who view the relational world as either a sub-set of social class or irrelevant to understanding class as a mechanism of social reproduction. Rather than arguing that emotions such as shame are the effect of class positioning, it was argued that the capacity for shame exists outside these dimensions. This is an important point, as to conflate shame with social class is to wilfully dismiss the power of shame as a regulatory mechanism in its own right. Shame may in some cases be a (not so) ‘hidden injury’ of class, but it also has the power to injure in its own right.

A similar point was made in today’s Guardian newspaper by Gaby Hinsliff (The best medicine for cosy elites? a dose of shame). Alongside discussion of the power of ‘clusters’ and ‘bubbles’ in the lives of rich and poor alike, she examined the way in which the recent UK parliamentary scandal played itself out in the public sphere. A political disaster of near epic proportions, the manner in which a string of MPs (such as Michael Gove) were made to swallow their shame medicine became a source of grim fascination for many who either enjoyed the spectacle on its own terms, or savoured the sight of a clunky but still functioning democratic will kicking into gear. Hinsliff’s take on the role of shame in this fiasco rings true:

It was only when painfully exposed to public outrage that many [MPs] began to feel ashamed of charging new kitchens to the taxpayer, and to wonder how they could have so lost touch. Shame flowed from a mix of transparency and the forcible reminder of social norms, as MPs found themselves publicly harangued in constituency surgeries or on the school run.      

MPs may live in ‘bubbles’, but their position as public servants ensures that the bubble must be breached at some point. And their accountability to the tax payer in this instance (mercifully) ensured that they had to face the music – in this case, being painfully made aware of something that brings shame to their name: overstepping the mark. They went too far, losing sight of the limits of public tolerance and suffering as a result. When reputations and social status are on the line, those who crave these sources of recognition know all too well the lasting damage shame can do to their position in social circles they spent so long cultivating.

Shame, as Hinsliff rightly states, is a ‘profoundly social thing, triggered not so much by breaching an innate fixed code as by doing something that we think risks ostracism from our peers’. Whether you’re an MP or struggling on benefits, what other people think of you matters, deeply. And inevitably, sooner or later (at least for most of us), the bubble bursts, as Gove et al, realised to their cost.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.