Monicagate, Shame, and Affect Theory

Like all of us, I’ve been drawn into the storms raging about the President. Involved here, of course, are what Tomkins calls differing Ideological Scripts as seen in the responses of various political groups, as well as whatever personal scripts are involved in the behavior of the President. Yet it is to another aspect of the national drama that I wish to call attention and to ask my colleagues for reaction.

You don’t need a forum such as this to note that the affect responsible for most of the action here is shame-humiliation, and that the varying reactions to both the actions of the President and the Congress reflect our attitudes toward shame. Those who lean toward the normative pole enjoy the discomfiture of another, while those who favor the humanist pole become extremely uncomfortable when forced to witness the ongoing humiliation of any fellow human. (For those of you who aren’t conversant with this approach to political ideology, I suggest you glance at the article by Stone and Schaffner in the Tomkins Institute section of Behavior OnLine.) My own personal view is that the normatives who dominate the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and who by their strident behavior echo the normative admonitions of our youth thus bringing large fractions of the nation into unquestioning and uncomfortable submission, have misjudged the tolerance of the general public for ongoing public humiliation. Nearly all of those who have written on shame have remarked that the shame of another is a powerful trigger for shame in the observer—this is called “shame about shame” and usually results in the wish to provide the humiliated individual with reasonable cover from further scrutiny.

There are, of course, many attitudes toward humiliation, but I believe that mature shame emotion (a developmental fusion of the affects shame-humiliation, dissmell, and disgust) is so toxic an experience that the move toward impeachment procedings (however proper they may seem on a legal basis) is causing a large fraction of the nation to displace dissmell and disgust onto those it feels responsible for this pollution of the national psyche. Clinton is viewed as a sinner, but one whose sexual transgressions are so common as to be considered unremarkable parts of our culture no matter how distasteful they may be. It seems reasonable to the overwhelming majority of the nation that he experience some shame. Yet more and more I come to suspect that the nation cannot stomach (disgust affect) this ongoing campaign to maintain the President in the state of chronic shame.

In my own office practice of adult psychotherapy, every single woman who has brought up the situation of the President has said something like the following: “It is the responsibility of any man who has an affair to protect the identity and reputation of the woman with whom he was involved. He is expected to lie both to disguise his own actions and to protect her.” The President is viewed as flawed, although the nature of those flaws appears different to those who react from the standpoint of developmental psychology (early childhood trauma stemming from maternal abandonment and paternal absence) or from his failure to live up to our own wish for a mature and emotionally healthy father as head of our national family. I believe that the fraction of the nation which favors punishment is split between the smaller number who are so disgusted by the President’s behavior that they cannot stomach him as their leader, and the larger number who will not cast that first stone because of their own history of sin.

Pundits and pollsters make frequent pronouncements about the likelihood that the nation will react against the political operatives who seek to trigger and maintain national mutualization of disgust at the behavior of the President. I suggest that the current “political” drama is more easily studied and perhaps understood in terms of its roots in affect psychology.

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