Shame is the Wool IN our Eyes

February 10, 2016

Shame is a silent and serious impediment to good health, to a healthy identity, both individual and culturally collective. However, it is usually so deeply hidden from our consciousness we are unaware of it. Many of us grow up in shame-based upbringings (violence or regular put downs) which leave their mark on our psyches, impacting our adult behavior. If we experience a hint of invalidity we quickly repress it as being too painful to acknowledge, or address.

A number of years after my participation in the US military, I began to experience a sense of deep invalidity, a kind of worthlessness, even as I was functioning pretty well in my public political life. This feeling might be called shame, something very dreaded for sure. I increasingly found myself pushing the feeling aside so as not to become disabled in my work life. But a question continued to nag me – how could I have achieved bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and been halfway through law school, only to then follow orders to Viet Nam when I knew nothing about the history of the Vietnamese and our criminal war against its people? I mean, what had they done to us, or to me? It seemed absurd, but much worse – diabolical and I had been part of it. I followed orders to participate in a mass murder machine. What the fuck?!


In human history, the emergence of vertical authority structures – the rule of kings and nobles – ripped people from historical patterns of living in small tribal groups. Along with forced stratification (primarily class), the separation of people from their intimate connections with the earth produced deep insecurity, fear, and trauma to the psyche. Ecopsychologists suggest that such fragmentation led to an ecological unconscious and a primordial breach[1]. It has left us adrift without a solid grounding to the Earth. This trauma is exacerbated as we accept legitimacy of vertical authority structures that in effect require us to bury unpleasant feelings of unworthiness and invalidity associated with class. Obedience is necessary, we are conditioned to think, to receive desired acceptance, to be “successful”. But these dreaded shame feelings are more than mot lodged so deeply in our psyche that we normally do not recognize it.


A major consequence of civilization, then, is that each of us likely nurses deep psychic trauma in the form of insecurity and shame. These feelings are usually so unbearable that in order to create viable personas we must develop defense mechanisms to mask them. Carl Jung described how we often play a trick on ourselves by projecting our dark inner shadows onto others. Arrogance rather than humility, ignorance rather than awareness, and violence against “others” rather than mutual respect, have become major mechanisms to relieve the anxiety created by these insecurities.[2] Denial serves as a convenient, unconscious defense mechanism that covers over or obscures painful reality.


It is important to understand how and why our US American culture is deeply shame-based itself.

Extraordinarily gruesome Eurocentric values were introduced into the New World with the invasion of Columbus and his men in 1492 and succeeding years. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish priest who arrived in Hispaniola in 1502, became known as the “Apostle of the Indians” as he was shocked to witness unspeakable punishments being inflicted on the peaceful Indigenous inhabitants. He spelled out the Spaniards’ behavior: vicious search for wealth with “dreadful . . . unlimited close-fisted avarice” and their commitment of “such inhumanities and barbarisms . . . as no age can parallel” in “a continuous recreational slaughter . . . cruelty never before seen, nor heard of, nor read of”. He identified routine murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, vandalism, child molestation, acts of cruelty, torture, humiliation, dismemberment, and beheading.[3] The Indigenous, he said, possessed no vocabulary to even describe such bestiality.

From our origins, European settlers of the New World organized irregular armed units to viciously attack and murder unarmed civilians—Indigenous women, children, and elderly—using unlimited violent means, including outright massacres and the burning of towns and food stocks. The first two centuries of British colonization, the 1600s to 1800s, produced several generations of experienced “Indian fighters” (early version of “rangers”). Settlers, mostly farmers by trade, waged battles totally independent of any formal military organization.[4] And, between 1775 and 1902, US Continental and Regular Army units incurred serious casualties (wounded/killed) in 1,240 battles waged against Native Americans across the continent.[5]

This violent example continued until about 1900 as the Eurocentric settlers methodically succeeded to occupy the whole continent, taking advantage of the “empty land”. The only impediment were the inhabitants, considered “savages”[6], to be exterminated at will, or forcefully assimilated into European values such as private, versus collective property. In Humboldt County, California, journalist Bret Harte reported in 1860 on one of countless massacres: “Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed by axes. When the bodies were landed in Union [present day Arcata] a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbed with long grey hair. Infants sparce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly wounds...”.[7] But, between 1850-1864, there were at least 56 massacres of five or more in the Humboldt region of northern California alone, mostly committed by paramilitary bands of settlers[8].

Because our official life as a nation is enabled and built on collective denial of extremely painful realities—the forceful, unspeakable dispossession of others—fantasy politics in the U.S. has become a way of life in our country.[9] The shame of it is too much to bear. Individual psychic defenses reflect the manner in which the civilization itself developed, as successive generations of shame-based upbringing and shame-based ethics have “guided” our culture to self-righteous systemic patterns of violence, a “poisonous pedagogy”[10] and a “pathology of violence.”[11] Ancestral desire for collective mutuality has been turned into collective blood-lust against our “enemies.”[12] Societies based on materialism have hampered the development of deeper human relationships based on mutual respect and caring[13]. The US culture with all its academic teachings, religious sermons, entertainment business, political rhetoric, and manner of parental upbringing, collectively choose to ignore the painful reality of our origins. It is simply out of the question to even acknowledge our unspeakable, beastial foundations, as simply too painful to deal with. Thus our eyes are like wool. No other covering is necessary. Shame is tenaciously shielded with massive denial, like a terminal mental illness.


[1] Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner, eds., Ecopsychology. Ecopsychology concludes that there can be no personal healing without healing the earth, and that rediscovering our sacred relationship with it, i.e., our intimate earthiness, is indispensable for personal and global healing and mutual respect.

[2] Michael A. Milburn and Sheree D. Conrad, The Politics of Denial (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), 1–29.

[3] Bartolomé de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1552, as cited in Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 1-9.

[4] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 58-60.

[5] Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1789-1903, Vol II (Washington, DC: GPO, 1903), 295.

[6] Thomas Jefferson coined in the Declaration of Independence the words, “merciless Indian savages”, which Jefferson accused King George III of organizing the attacking of English settlers who were invading and occupying historic Indigenous lands.

[7] Bret Harte, “Indiscriminate Massacre of Indians, Women and Children Butchered”, Northern Californian (Vol. 2, Issue 9, February 29, 1860, p. 1), describing the February 25, 1860 brutal massacre of 188 Indians at Indian Island in Eureka, CA.

[8] Ray Raphael and Freeman House, Two Peoples, One Place (Eureka, CA: Humboldt County Historical Society and Writing Humboldt History Project, 2007), 172-178.

[9] Milburn, 3.

[10] Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1983), 3–91.

[11] James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 1–85.

[12] Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997).

[13] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, [London, 1902; Boston: Extending Horizon Books, pp. xii – xiv (Kropotkin’s Introduction); 298 – 300.

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