PEV: From Event to Era II

Kima comments:

Let me ask you though, does shame play any role in our public life? It strikes me that shame has no place in our public life. Unless of course it is the shame of unzipped trousers at a rally or something along those lines. I bring this up in response to your post since it made me again wonder whether we have any limits that we will not tolerate the degradation and suffering of our neighbours. Such limits would be set by the kind of ability to feel shame that would have led to resignations by senior government officials after January. There was not a single one and there has not been one for decades if my recall is right. Public life in Kenya is shameless while the private life is filled with a passionate desire for dignity and integrity – often in church or inspired by the church. We want to be clean individuals in a filthy pig-sty.

My response.

We have believed, for too long, that Kenyan politics are wedded to shame. We regularly chastise our leaders, “shame on you,” a practice that has deep roots in colonialism and continues to be perpetuated through our schools and churches. To shame, we attach a cluster of meanings: traditional modesty, Christian temperance, middle-class repression, a narrative that suggests our society is based on and responds to the strategy of shaming.

Above all else, we whisper, we would rather not be shamed.

Shaming is a powerful strategy of control. We use it to manipulate gender and sexuality, to define relationships within and between generations, to define an increasingly internationalizing social that seems to evade our grasp. And so we have come to believe that our quotidian uses of shame to discipline each other function as what Foucault terms a “microphysics of power.” Indeed, so powerful is this belief that, in recounting our childhoods, we recall moments of shame with shame.

Even now, blushes stain our cheeks.

Yet, we are wrong to believe that our so-called “political class” operates within the same economy of shame.

Here’s the political ruse: the political class continually use shaming on us and on each other. And because it remains one of their favorite tools for social control, we believe that they are equally disciplined by shame and shaming, that when organizations take out full-page ads that read “shame on you!” the political class are constrained, their movements checked, their actions reconsidered.

In Kenya, we have assumed that shaming is a strategy that elicits a moral and ethical response: we shame politicians and they finally look at us, see us, act for us.

And, so, we have granted the strategy of shaming a political power, unable to see how that power is vitiated and dissipated, exhausted and ineffective by the time it reaches the doorway to the halls of power. Others can explore in greater detail and with more insight what happens when individuals become politicians in Kenya, what is erased, denuded, and numbed; how one survives on the gall of cynicism and despair.

This narrative remains to be written.

Our political class benefits immeasurably when we believe that shaming works on them. This is one of their ruses: to keep us believing that shaming effects change.

What does relying on shaming preclude or foreclose? What forms of collective organizing? What forms of political strategy? What tactics remain unthinkable and unrealizable because we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that shaming works?

To continue believing there is a politics of shaming—that shaming creates change or even the possibility of change—is to be duped by a powerful ruse of power, all the more powerful because of its invisibility. As long as we continue to place our faith in the idea that shaming constitutes a politics, we remain bound to a ruse, a trick, unable to understand that the echoes we hear are not responses, merely sound bouncing off locked doors to the halls of power.