Shame and Punishment

We have been discussing the topic of violence and how anger can sometimes lead to aggression. We discussed the findings of James Gilligan, who has worked comprehensively with inmates who are violent. One of the profound premises that Gilligan has identified in his research is how powerful a factor shame is among violent inmates in our penal system.

The conundrum of shame and punishment

James Gilligan's work links shame with punishment.

Gilligan further discusses the idea of how shame and punishment are interrelated. As he surfaces what is going on in the lives of these inmates, he communicates another very important principle that is often misunderstood. He makes reference to how punishment is determined.

So often, we as a society feel that the more severe an act of violence, the more punishment the perpetrator then deserves.  This approach really does very little to prevent further violence because it does not take into account the underlying reasons and ethical justifications for violence. Gilligan notes that once someone has been labeled as “evil” because of an act of violence, there often are no limits to the degree of cruelty and violence others feel justified in imposing on him or her.

Research shows punishment is ineffective in deterring misbehavior

Punishment may create more acting out, not less

In fact, the research indicates the opposite: in the vicious cycle of violence Gilligan sees perpetrated in our prison system, the more violent an inmate is, the more severely he is punished; and the more severely he is punished, the more violent he becomes. The shame is, therefore, activated and perpetrated over and over.

I have great empathy for victims of violence, and I acknowledge there is little that can be done to restore the physical or emotional damage done to that individual as a result of an assault. However, if we as a society are trying to prevent violence, we probably need to look at the true impact of what we are doing in our penal systems.

If ineffective in penal systems, why do we punish students?

Why do some schools and systems use punishment?

What is more insightful is when we apply these principles to some families and schools who use this same principle of punishment. In other words, the more a child misbehaves or acts out, the more he or she is punished.

As a result, the more likely it will be that the child will act out even more as the shame is validated, intensified and deepened. The underlying assumption is that punishment (meaning the deliberate infliction of pain) somehow prevents violence. As popular as this belief is, it appears to be fundamentally inaccurate.

Gilligan states that “…punishment is the most powerful stimulus to violent behavior that we have yet discovered…Punishment does not prevent violence, it causes it, in addition to being a form of it.” (p.18)

Awareness begins the change: start with our families

This research greatly challenges our traditional approaches to punishment of misbehavior and/or dealing with violence. In our past thinking, we have operated with the premise that we should punish to the extent of the offence. However, when we deal with students who have had violent episodes, we often find all kinds of contributing factors that led to the violent situation. Very often, a significant part of the student’s motivating factors were fear or shame.

Student in thought
We often find all kinds of contributing factors that lead to the violent situation

Most students who commit violent acts are operating from a place where their emotions are being activated, in which they are acting on impulse rather than reason. If we continue to enforce the principle that severe punishment is the best way to change behavior or reduce violence, I fear we will see exponentially growing misbehavior and violence.

This shame and punishment dilemma has many ramifications for our systems that deal with children, teenagers, prisoners and other places where people are cared for.

I always believe that the best place to start is in our families. It is so important that parents understand this research and work on methods of effective discipline that will help their children truly become aware of and understand the consequences of their behavior. Discipline that is attuned to the needs of our children, and which uses consequences rather than punishment, can be very effective in helping our kids find ways to not repeat the inappropriate behavior.

I truly believe that we will be far more effective as parents and service professionals within the systems we encounter if we were to reframe our manner of dealing with these types of issues. If Gilligan is right, we have good reason to change how we are thinking about shame and punishment.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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