Let’s talk about shame

– July 2015 –

Warning, contains spoilers.

If you have not seen up to the end of Game of Thrones season 5, or not read that far in George RR Martin’s epic series of books, you might not want to read this.

I watched the final episode in the latest season of Game of Thrones as many others did, with a feeling of sick horror in the pit of my stomach as Cersei Lannister is paraded through the streets of King’s Landing, naked, bloody and  accompanied by the ringing of a bell and the repetitive intonation “shame” with the populace gathered to watch and throw things. What was her crime? Well, in this story it is a moot point. Cersei has a complex character and though she has borne children sired by her own brother, and murdered and harmed many others, it is for the (perhaps lesser) crime of fornication with a man other than her husband that this punishment is meted out.

There’s been a lot (a lot) of commentary on this scene – though to discuss it too much here would miss the point. This scene spoke to me because it was, as I have found with much of the particularly unpleasant social aspects of the Game of Thrones series, so very true.

People are shamed in this way all the time in what passes for news media, on twitter and on blogs and websites, and in the comments sections of any of the above. Cersei’s fate is that of all women who act independently and outside of the normal strictures and taboos imposed by the pervading culture. Shame is how women are kept in their place.

Both Amanda Palmer, and Brene Brown have spoken and written a lot about the subject, and there is endless further discussion to be found and dissected I am sure.

But I was interested in how this sat alongside another topical issue – that of food policing, and how shame and public reinforcement thereof are stifling yet another arena of cultural discourse.

This Guardian article about the rise of the celebrity wellness blogger really moved me. And this twitter commentary from food writer Ruby Tandoh was spot on. “A detox isn’t a detox if your mind’s poisoned by self-loathing.”

spiralise

Just recently I’ve been reading Matthew Remski’s marvellous remix of the yoga sutras. – Threads of Yoga. Aside from being powerfully inspiring, it is one of the most beautifully written texts I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time.

Remski has a lot to say on the subject of the ascetism of the ancient yogic tradition that Patanjali was writing within. He asks “Does our adherence to a minimalist ascetic text conceal a hidden wish to console our complex interpersonal suffering through social withdrawal and meditative narcissm?” and goes on to answer his own question thus: “I would suggest we are already accomplishing this consolation through consumerism, including the consumeristic aspects of contemporary yoga culture…”

It is within Remski’s discussion of the Niyamas (the ethical observances of yoga) that I find the common thread – the language of shame and blame in relation to Sauca (purity)

“Within yoga culture specifically, it all too often amplifies the desire for “purification”— which can lead to everything from neurotically repetitive vinyāsa sequences to forms of spiritually- influenced disordered eating. In this sense, we carry a vestigial memory of the old ascetic disgust towards the polluted flesh. The ascetic attitude really offers no way out of impurity, since the very flesh itself is taken as the absolute sign of impurity. An obsession with purification often hinges upon an intractable paradox: one is trying to clean something that is either essentially dirty, or always on the verge of corruption. Purification is often a self-defeating proposition; if the self doing the cleaning has a self-image problem. You can’t clean dirt itself.”

As I watched Cersei’s “walk of atonement” I recalled all the moments we are asked to look at another person, see their failings and call them out. Every time someone posts a picture of their breakfast and hashtags it with wellness-inspired aphorisms I recall too how easily that sense of self-disgust carries over into our interactions with ourselves and others. How easily we can become obsessed with reaching this pure way of life, unimpeachable and unsullied (yeah, have that one for free…) How many of our relationships are infused with this shame? And how much longer are we going to harm ourselves and each other in pursuit of this mystical, unattainable, and possibly utterly imaginary purity?

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