Hochschild let them eat war

Hochschild let them eat war.

Hypermasculinity: Goffman unbound



Collective Emotions in Warfare*


Thomas J. Scheff

University of California, Santa Barbara


       I.       Emotions in Current Studies of Warfare

       II.            Family Systems Theory and Sociology of Emotions

    III.            Emotional Sources of Vengeance

     IV.            Emotions as Explanations

        V.            Pride and Shame

   VI.       Unending Emotions

 VII.       Studies of Shame and Aggression

VIII.            Summary




Alienation Separation between individuals and between groups. Solidarity is the opposite of alienation, since it implies trust, understanding, and mutual identification. Alienation implies distrust, lack of understanding or misunderstanding, and misidentification. Alienation comes in two forms: isolation (own person or group overwhelmingly dominant) and engulfment (other person or one’s group overwhelmingly dominant.


Denial and Acknowledgment Emotions are acknowledged when they are named correctly and expressed respectfully. They are denied, in the psychological sense, when they are defended against by projecting them onto others, ignored and avoided. Denial does not dispel emotions; on the contrary, since when they go underground, they lead extended lives independently of conscious individual or collective intent.


Emotions Feelings that have a genetic basis. Commonly named emotions are joy, interest, surprise, love, fear, grief, anger, contempt, and disgust. Although the genetic basis of emotions is universal to the human species, it is acknowledged that the management of emotions, and therefore their manifest appearance, is culturally conditioned. In particular, the patterns of suppression and denial of emotions are culturally learned.


Shame and Humiliation Shame is genetically determined signal of threat to the social bond. It is therefore of premier importance in understanding the make-up of social bonds, and in identifying the state of bonds between individuals and between groups. Humiliation is usually understood to be an intense form of shame, originating in public exposure of self or group. The occurrence of shame is not always obvious, since in Western societies it is usually disguised, denied, or ignored.


EMOTIONS are little favored in current explanations of the causes of war. If they are referred to at all, it is only indirectly and casually. Frequently used concepts such as prestige, honor, and morale are directly linked to emotions, but this link is never investigated. If emotions are mentioned directly, they are not indexed or theorized. For example, the emotion of humiliation is often mentioned in studies of quarrels, feuds, vendettas, and wars. But none of these studies see this emotion as part of the process of causation. Fear of opponents is another emotion that is often mentioned, but again is seldom part of the central argument. Most serious studies of warfare seem to presume that although emotions are present among the combatants, they are not a significant causal force.


Current explanations of the causes of war and peace are dominated by a “realist” ideology. This view assumes that human behavior is motivated by “objective,” that is, nonemotional elements, and that conscious calculation of material benefits and losses figures prominently in the instigation of war. In this article, I will not argue against the importance of objective motives and calculation in human affairs, but I will try to frame the “realist” view within a larger perspective that includes both emotional and non-emotional elements.


Michael Billig (1995) has brilliantly made the point that nationalism, a strong emotional attachment to one’s own nation, is probably the single most significant causal element in wars between nations. That is to say that the leading motive for killing in the modern world is not in the name of one’s self or family, one’s city or state, but one’s nation, an imagined community, rather than the people who one actually knows. Billig’s thesis points toward the necessity of understanding collective emotions: why are so many so desparately and intensely attached to their homeland that they deem it more important than their own lives and those of the “enemy?” Although this question seems shockingly obvious, most current studies do not ask it, much less provide a plausible answer. We may need an analysis of the dynamics of individual and collective emotions in order to answer such a question.


Billig’s book points toward one important reason for the cataclysmic power of nationalist emotions: they are so taken for granted that they are seldom noticed. The most powerful forms of nationalism, he argues, go completely unnoticed. Nationalism is so much a fabric of our everyday life that we are not aware how frequently and how fervantly we reaffirm it. For this reason, he calls this most prevalent form “banal nationalism.” Of the many dramatic examples he offers, I give only one from the life of Samuel Johnson, scholar, poet, novelist, and maker of the first English dictionary, as reported by his biographer, Boswell. In a conversation at the house of a friend (Mrs. Dilly) Johnson stated “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.” At this point, according to Boswell, Johnson’s highly charged nature was bursting “into horrid fire.” This particular episode occurred at the time the American colonists were rebelling against England. To quote Billig: “Johnson was, of course, expressing his own views and emotions. But he was doing more than that; he was repeating commonplace themes of his times: the virtues of loving all mankind and being brimful of patriotism; and the naughtiness of enjoying an explosive hatred of Americans. All these matters stretch beyond Johnson, the individual; they reach into the ideological history of nations and nationalism” (Billig, 1995: 18–19).


Billig’s comment on Johnson’s intense feeling of hatred exactly catches the confluence between individual and collective emotions in moments of crisis, the taken-for-granted character of the emotion, and its insult to logic (universal love and hatred for the enemy are expressed in the same sentence).


The example of Johnson’s outburst against Americans suggests a potentially important link between Billig’s concept of banal nationalism and the emotion analysis to be described here: Johnson was probably unaware of the intensity of his nationalistic emotions, since they were so habitual to him, and fit so perfectly with the emotions of his associates. His emotions, as powerful as they were, went unacknowledged by him and by others. I will return to the issue of unacknowledged emotions in the analysis below. Before doing so, it is necessary to discuss the background for it provided by the avoidance of emotions in most contemporary research on warfare.




Billig makes an important point about research on international relations. He points out that banal nationalism is so taken for granted that even scholars are ensnared in it; their attachment to their nation is so much part of the fabric of their lives that they are oblivious to it. Their obliviousness can be seen in many contemporary studies.


Although there are several broad surveys of studies of warfare, I will single out one by Vasquez (1993), because it seems to be the most precise and comprehensive. It references almost 400 studies, most of which are empirical investigations of actual wars. From these studies, the author generates some hundred propositions about the causes of war. Here is an example:


7. More interstate wars will occur between contiguous states than non-contiguous states (Vasquez, 1993: 310).


All of the propositions cite studies which provide supporting evidence. The list of propositions is broken down into several sections, Territorial Contiguity (from which #7 above was selected), Rivalry, Alliances, Arms Races, Crises, and Domestic Politics. The style of reasoning is atheoretical, that is, inductive and correlational (#7 implies only a correlation between warfare and contiguity of the opponents). But the large number of studies that use one or more of the section headings suggests a view of causation that is part of the habitus of the political scientists and others who study war. That is to say, they believe that territorial contiguity, rivalry, alliances, arms races, crises, and domestic politics are causes of wars.


The massive number of studies actually tells us little about the causation of war because they are low-level generalizations, perilously close to being truisms. They are too abstract to include any of the ambient details in the social and psychological process that leads to war. But it may be these very details that are needed to develop a useful theory. Does one need careful empirical studies to find that wars are more frequent between states that are contiguous, or rivalrous? Or that arms races, crises, and domestic politics figure in the instigation of war? These “findings” can be seen as a variation of the cargo cult science that Feynman complained about.


The only direction not flirting with truism are the 15 propositions about the types of alliances that precede wars, as against the types of alliances that do not precede wars. But even these propositions are stated in vernacular, rather than theoretical terms, and tell us little about causal process: “15b. When the global institutional context limits unilateral acts through the establishment of rules of the game, alliances tend not to be followed by war.” Once again, this proposition is only correlational, and does not furnish any information about the step-by-step process which leads to war.


No studies that provide step-by-step details are included in Vasquez’s study, since he favors generalizing studies over case studies. Kennan’s brillant study (1984) of the political process that led to the formation of what he called “the fateful alliance” between France and Russia prior to the First World War is not referenced. The idea of nationalism, which Kennan and many others have named as a powerful cause of war, is mentioned only once in the proposition section of Vasquez’s book. Nationalism is not actually involved in any of the hundred propositions; it is mentioned in a query following 44c, and then only along with several other factors. It appears that the idea of nationalism as a powerful force for war is not part of the conceptual equipment of the political scientists of warfare, perhaps because, as Billig suggests, they take it for granted.


Even those concepts that imply that nationalism involves emotions are used in a way that glosses over this link. An example of such a gloss is provided by the idea of ethnocentrism. This concept was introduced into social science by Sumner (1911), who apparently borrowed it from Gumplowitz. He defined it as the practice of viewing all matters from the standpoint of one’s own group. This usage is still current in social science, as in the discussions by Levine and Campbell (1971), and Staub (1989).


The concept of ethnocentrism masks several significant dimensions of social process and social structure. First of all, it is static, individualistic, and simplistic. As the term is usually used, it refers to a fixed attitude of individuals, rather than one aspect of a complex social process. Secondly, it subsumes only the perceptual and cognitive aspects, excluding emotions. As did Sumner, current discussions assume that ethocentrism is a viewpoint or a set of beliefs, with no concern for the emotions that may also be present.


Current studies of ethnocentrism gloss emotions in their analysis of the genesis of conflict, particularly the emotions of pride and shame. The distinction made in this article between pride and false pride is particularly important in understanding the causes of conflict. Most current discussions of “national pride,” “race pride,” “group pride,” and so on, confound pride with false pride, that is, authentic, justified pride, with a show of pride that is only a disguise. A person or group in a state of normal pride is usually not hostile or disparaging toward others. False pride, however, a mask for shame, generates hostility toward others.


Finally, classic and current discussions usually do not attempt to assess the intensity of ethnocentrism relative to other forces, and therefore their importance in relationships between groups. This flaw is apparent in the idea widely held in current social science that ethnocentrism is universal. Although this doctrine may well be true, it avoids a crucial issue: what are the conditions in a society that encourage runaway, exploding ethnocentrism? That is, when does ethnocentrism become the leading force in a society, to the extent that other issues, even survival, seem to fade from consciousness? In order to explore this issue, it will be necessary to review some basic ideas from family systems theory and from the sociology of emotions.




I begin with communication tactics and alienation in family systems. Family members are alienated from their own conflicts, to the extent that they are deceptive with each other, and self-deceptive. To the degree that the basis of their own conflicts is invisible to them, they see them as exterior and constraining, as inevitable. This attitude toward conflict provides a strong link with Durkheimian theory: nationalism and warfare are social facts, social institutions that are reaffirmed in the day-to-day organization of our civilization. To the extent that individuals and groups deny conflict and/or their own part in conflict, it will be seen as inevitable, a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Although family systems theory is useful, a necessary component is missing if we are to understand interpersonal and intergroup conflict, the role of emotion sequences. In our theory (Scheff and Retzinger, 1991), we emphasize the way in which the emotion of shame is managed. Pride and shame are crucial elements in social systems. Pride signals and generates solidarity. Shame signals and generates alienation.


The emotion of shame can be directly acknowledged by referring to one’s inner states of insecurity, or feelings of separateness or powerlessness. Often it goes unacknowledged to self and others. Following the important distinction discovered by Lewis (1971), unacknowledged shame takes two different forms; overt shame is signaled by furtiveness, and emotional pain that is misnamed. In bypassed shame, one tries to outface the other, masking one’s shame by hostility toward, or withdrawing from, the other.


Acknowledging shame helps connect parties; admissions of feelings of weakness or vulnerability can build solidarity and trust. Denial of shame builds a wall between parties. If shame signals are disguised and/or ignored, both parties lose touch with each other. Pride and shame cues give instant indications of the “temperature” of the relationship. Pride means the parties are neither engulfed (too close), a “we” relationship, not isolated (too far), an “I” relationship, but are emotionally and cognitively connected in what Elias called interdependence (1972). Overt shame usually signals engulfment, bypassed shame, isolation.


Unacknowledged shame appears to be recursive; it feeds upon itself. To the extent that this is the case, it could be crucial in the causation of interminable conflict. If shame goes unacknowledged, it can loop back upon itself (being ashamed that one is ashamed) or co-occur with other emotions, such as grief (unresolved grief), fear (fear panics), or anger (humiliated fury). Unacknowledged shame seems to foil the biological and cultural mechanisms that allow for the expression and harmless discharge of these elemental emotions. In the absence of shame, or if it is acknowledged, grief may be discharged by weeping, under culturally appropriate conditions of mourning. But if shame is evoked by grief and goes unacknowledged, unending loops of emotions (shame-grief sequences) may occur. The individual will be unable to mourn.


If shame is evoked but is unacknowledged, it may set off a sequence of shame alternating with anger. Shame-shame sequences are probably much more prevalent than shame-anger sequences. Elias’s (1978, 1982) analysis of changes in advice manuals over the last 5 centuries implies that shame-shame sequences are a central core in the development of modern civilization, to the extent that they occur in the socialization of children.


Another direction in the management of shame is to mask it with anger. Shame/anger may be interminable in the form of “helpless anger,” or in the more explosive form, “humiliated fury.” The shame-anger loop may be central to destructive conflict. If one is in a shame state with respect to another, one route of denial is to become angered at the other, whether the other is responsible or not. That is, if one feels rejected by, insulted by, or inferior to another, denial of shame can result in a shame-anger loop of unlimited intensity and duration.


One difficulty in communicating the new theory is that emotions have virtually disappeared as creditable motives in modern scholarship, as already indicated. One would hardly know they existed from reading the analyses of causes of conflict in the social sciences. When references to emotions are made, they are likely to be abstract, casual, indirect, and brief. For example, emotions are sometimes invoked under the rubric of “nonrational motives,” but with little attempt to specify what this category might contain.




The identification of shame-anger sequences in the causation of conflict may help to solve the problem of the causation of revenge. Although there is a very large literature on vengeance, it is almost entirely descriptive in nature. The largest literature is the anthropology of duels, feuds, and vendettas. Another source concerns the revenge genre in world literature, especially in drama. A third, smaller and less defined literature is on conflict in families.


These literatures testify to the way in which the revenge motive leads to interminable conflicts in human affairs, and to the widespread popular appeal of dramatic portrayals of this motive. However, these sources limit themselves to descriptions of the behavior involved. None offer substantive theories of the causation of revenge. A similar paucity of explanations of revenge is also found in theories of human behavior. Surprisingly, there is only one book-length treatment of revenge in the entire human science literature, by Marongiu and Newman (1987). Although these authors attempt an explanatory formulation, it sheds little light on the problem. Rather than ask the critical question, the specific conditions under which revenge occurs and the conditions under which it does not occur, this book offers a general and vague explanation for the existence of revenge in the human species.


Predictably, given their framing of the problem, one explanation they offer is genetic; they propose an evolutionary account of the origins of revenge. They also offer a what they think of as a psychological alternative, drawing upon Freud’s mythic formulation of the primal crime of the sons against the father (Totem and Taboo, 1918). Freud’s formulation is basically another version of the genetic explanation. He thought that the revenge motive might arise out of genetically driven sexual and aggressive instincts. For reasons already given, this approach is useless for explaining specific acts of vengeance. In this article I propose that a viable explanation should deal with emotions. In particular, my formulation suggests that emotional arousal leads to vengeful actions only if that arousal is denied.




There is a strong tradition in modern scholarship in the human sciences of ignoring emotions as causes. Even when words that reference intense emotions are used directly, the author often obscures the specifically emotional component by confounding it with a more rational motive. An example of the kind of confounding that frequently occurs involves humiliation, one of the most direct ways of referring to shame (Jervis, Lebow, and Stein, 1985: 140): “The dangers of humiliation, of conveying the appearance of weakness to real adversaries, were too great to permit acquiescence in the triumph even of apparent ones.” The analysis is referring the American government’s tendency to react a communist nation that is not dangerous (China) in the same way as to one that is dangerous (USSR).


At first glance one might think that the analyst is implying that governments, like individuals, sometimes act in the way that they do because they are attempting to avoid shame. Although a word is used that is clearly in the family of shame terms, invoking an emotional motive, the sentence also invokes the idea of avoiding not just shame, but the appearance of weakness. This is the modern lexicon of military strategy, of credibility and deterence. By invoking this lexicon, the analyst managed to avoid the “nonrational” implications of his statement, that is, the specifically emotional components of motivation. The entire literature on the strategy of deterrence is pervaded by exactly this confound.


In the narratives of these texts, such as the one by Jervis, Lebow, and Stein (1985), there are many references to humiliation, particularly in the discussions of concrete instances of conflict, as in the case of the Falklands War and Israeli-Arab conflicts. But this word does not appear in the introduction, conclusion, or index. It does not have the conceptual status of a real motive. It is too useful to avoid entirely, but too embarrassing to elevate to the status of a concept.


There are a number of psychoanalytically derived approaches to conflict that treat emotions directly. For the most part, however, following Freud, these studies ignore shame. An example is provided by a study of the need to have enemies and allies (Volkan, 1988). This work focuses on the inability to mourn (unresolved grief) in the exacerbation of conflict. Other studies emphasize the other two emotions which Freud recognized, anxiety and anger.


Emotion is widely recognized as a cause of conflict in only one area, conflict and war among traditional peoples. Students of feuds and vendettas are apt to see humiliation and revenge as causal agents among pre-moderns, not “us,” but “them.” In his assessment of the causes of primitive warfare, Turney-High gives revenge pride of place (1949, pp. 149–150, and passim 141–168):


Revenge is so consistently reported as one of the principal causes of war that it requires detailed analysis. Why should the human personality yearn to compensate for its humiliation in the blood of enemies? The tension-release motives plays a part here: Revenge loosens the taut feeling caused by the slaying or despoiling of one’s self, clan, tribe, nation. Even the hope for revenge helps the humiliated human to bear up, enables him to continue to function in a socially unfavorable environment. Fray Camposano wrote of the Mojos of southwestern Amazonia to Phillip II of Spain that, “The most valiant were the most respected and their patience under injuries was only dissimulation for subsequent vengeance.” Revenge, or the hope for revenge, restores the deflated ego, and is a conflict motive with which mankind must reckon with universally.


Even in this realm, explicit analysis of emotions as motives is an endangered species. Turney-High’s explicitness occurs in a volume published 42 years ago. In the next generation of analysis, reference to avoidance of shame is considerably blunted.


In 1966, Peristiany edited a volume on feuds in Mediterranean society. It contained the word shame in its title, and mentions in the chapters, but most of the authors carefully refrain from considering emotions to be motives. The exception is Pitt-River’s chapter on honor and social status. In his analysis of honor and shame (verguenza) among the peasants of Andalusia, he is direct to the point of bluntness about emotion words and their cognates (1966: 42): “As the basis of repute, honor and shame are synonymous, since shamelessness is dishonorable; a person of good repute is taken to have both, one of evil repute is credited with neither.”


For most current scholars, the way in which Pitt-Rivers identified honor and shame as interchangeable parts of a larger cultural system of motivation and action would be utterly unacceptable. Pitt-Rivers must have been an entire generation older than the other contributors, putting him in the same cohort as the equally blunt Turney-High. In recent treatments of primitive warfare, references to emotions have all but disappeared. Even more indirect references, for example, to actions such as revenge, which are closely related to emotional motives, are less frequent and more dispersed. This is not to say that the analysts completely avoid the consideration of emotional motives. What has happened is that such motives are treated, but distantly and briefly, in terms that are more diffuse: prestige, face-saving, and status-competition. The vagueness of these terms facilitates the kind of confounding already mentioned above: emotions lead only a shadow life these days. Shame, particularly, has dropped out of the discussion, along with other emotions and personal motives. Lust for possessions or power is seen as real, for honor, unreal.


It is difficult to locate the exact time in which shame and humiliation dropped out of the lexicon of respectable motives. Strong decrements seemed to occur in the two eras just preceding and during the two World Wars. In the 19th century, it was still possible to name “national honor” as a reason for going to war, as in the origins of the Spanish-American War. But by the beginning of World War I, this kind of motive no longer had full legitimacy. Even in pre-WWI France, where there was still much public talk of the honor, glory, and triumph associated with war, revenge was seen as too coarse a motive to countenance openly.


This timing might correspond to the lowering trajectory of shame thresholds that has been traced by Elias (1978, 1982), which he proposes to be one of the key characteristics of modernity. Increasingly, as shame thresholds and open acknowledgement of shame both decrease, social scientists, like most others in our civilization, are too ashamed of emotions to give them serious attention as causal elements.


This one change may have wrought havoc with our understanding of human motives in general, and specifically with analyses of the causes of conflict. Governments and their analysts seem forbidden to talk or even think about emotional motives. Instead, duplicity, indirection, and silence reign. If we cannot talk openly about the emotional causes of conflict, we may embarrass ourselves to death.


In one of the press conferences during the Iran hostage crisis (Nov. 28, 1979), a reporter bluntly asked President Carter about an emotional motive: “How can you satisfy the public demand to end such an embarrassment?” Most of Carter’s response sounded as if he had not heard the question, since he talked in the main about abstract legal and ethical issues, in an extremely detached manner.


Only toward the end of his statement, and obliquely, did he respond to the emotional content of the question, saying that “… acts of terrorism may cause discomfiture to a people or a government.” Discomfiture is one of many codewords for shame (Gottschalk and Gleser, 1969), but its use and the indirection of the sentence (not “us,” but a hypothetical people or government) essentially denies the existence of shame. This stance is expressive of the isolated form of alienation, and the bypassing of shame.


Where Carter favored denial and silence, not just in this instance but in all of his press conferences, Reagan was more duplicitous. One example will give the flavor. In his statement of September 5, 1983, regarding the downing of a Korean jetliner by a Russian fighter, he said: “With our horror and our sorrow, there is a righteous and terrible anger. It would be easy to think in terms of vengeance, but that is not a proper answer.”


Reagan’s statement has it both ways; it acknowledges anger and vengeance but also denies it. Especially in the Iran hostage crisis, he used this maneuver to great advantage. This stance is expressive of the engulfed style of alienation, and the overt, undifferentiated style of shame (Lewis, 1971, and Gottschalk and Gleser, 1969; both list self-righteous anger as one of the many cues for hidden shame.)


Elsewhere, Retzinger and I (1991) have suggested an emotional basis for charisma; it may be the ability of a leader to express the dominant emotions of his or her public, and anti-charisma, a leader’s penchant for denying or even condemning these emotions. The contrast drawn above between Reagan’s and Carter’s style illustrates this proposition, as does my analysis of the emotional basis of Hitler’s appeal to the German people (Scheff 1994).


The stance of the analysts of the actions of governments is virtually always that of the isolated, bypassed style: emotional motives are mentioned only casually and distantly (e.g., prestige) or not at all. None of the many governmental and scholarly discussions of the strategy of deterrence even acknowledge the possibility that there might be an emotional, “nonrational” component in this strategy. Emotions have disappeared not only from the statement and actions of governments, but from the writings of most scholars. Humiliated fury is not a creditable, respectable motive like power, territory, or other objectified motives. As Emerson said, “Things are in the saddle; they ride humankind.” Objectification sets the stage for, and reflects alienation between persons and between nations.




The psychoanalytic idea of repression may be helpful in understanding defenses against inadequate bonding. If the ideology of the self-sufficient individual is a defense against the pain of threatened bonds, what is being repressed is the idea of the social bond. Freud, however, argued that repression concerns not only ideas, but also the feelings that accompany them. He thought that repression could be lifted only if both idea and emotion were expressed. If modern societies repress the idea of the social bond, what are the associated feelings that are also repressed?


I follow the lead of Cooley (1922), who implied that pride and shame are the primary social emotions. These two emotions have a signal function with respect to the social bond. In this framework, pride and shame serve as intense and automatic signs of the state of a system otherwise difficult to observe. Secure social bonds were unknown to Hitler, and also seem to have been in short supply in the society in which he grew up. To understand how this situation might have led to implacable vengefulness, it will first be necessary to once more review how emotions can cause continuous conflict.




I propose that unacknowledged alienation leads to interminable conflict. Like Watzlawick and colleagues (1967), I argue that some conflicts are unending, any particular quarrel being only a link in a continuing chain. What causes interminable conflict?


There are two forms of interminable conflict, the quarrel and impasse. Both forms grow out of unacknowledged shame. Shame is pervasive in conflictful interaction, but invisible to interactants (and to researchers), unless Lewis’s [or Gottschalk and Gleser’s (1969)] approach is used. I connect the two forms of conflict with the two forms of unacknowledged shame; quarrels with the bypassed form, impasses with the overt, undifferentiated form. The two forms of shame are polar opposites in terms of thought and feeling. Overt shame involves painful feeling with little ideation, bypassed shame, the opposite pattern: rapid thought, speech, or behavior, but little feeling. The two forms correspond to a distinction in Adler’s (1956) theory of personality: children lacking a secure bond at critical junctions respond in two different ways, either with an “inferiority complex” (chronic overt shame), or the drive to power (behavior masking bypassed shame). Lewis’s analysis parallels Adler’s, but also represents an immense advance over it. Unlike Adler, she described observable markers for the theoretical constructs, and specified the causal sequence, the unending spiraling of emotion in “feeling traps.”


Overt shame is marked by furtiveness, confusion, and bodily reactions: blushing, sweating, and/or rapid heartbeat. One may be at a loss for words, with fluster or disorganization of thought or behavior, as in states of embarrassment. Many of the common terms for painful feelings appear to refer to this type of shame, or combinations with anger: feeling peculiar, shy, bashful, awkward, funny, bothered, or miserable; in adolescent vernacular, being freaked, bummed, or weirded out. The phrases “I felt like a fool,” or “a perfect idiot” are prototypic.


Bypassed shame is manifested as a brief painful feeling, usually less than a second, followed by obsessive and rapid thought or speech. A common example: one feels insulted or criticized. At that moment (or later in recalling it), one might experience a jab of painful feeling (producing a groan or wince), followed immediately by imaginary but compulsive, repetitive replays of the offending scene. The replays are variations on a theme: how one might have behaved differently, avoiding the incident, or responding with better effect. One is obsessed.


Lewis (1971) referred to internal shame-rage process as a feeling trap, as “anger bound by shame,” or “humiliated fury.” Kohut’s (1971) concept, “narcissistic rage,” appears to be the same affect, since he viewed it as a compound of shame and rage. Angry that one is ashamed, or ashamed that one is angry, then one might be ashamed to be so upset over something so “trivial.” Such anger and shame are rarely acknowledged, difficult to detect and to dispel. Shame-rage spirals may be brief, a matter of minutes, but can also last for hours, days, or a lifetime, as bitter hatred or resentment.


Brief sequences of shame/rage may be quite common. Escalation is avoided through withdrawal, conciliation, or some other tactic. Wars are generated by a less common process. Watzlawick and colleagues (1967:107–108) call it “symmetrical escalation.” Since such conflicts have no limits, they may have lethal outcomes. In this theory, unacknowledged shame is the cause of revenge-based cycles of conflict [this formulation was anticipated in the work of Geen (1968) and Feshback (1971)]. Shame-rage may escalate continually to the point that a person or a group can be in a permanent fit of shame/rage, a kind of madness.




The theory outlined here is supported by several exploratory studies. Katz (1988) analyzed descriptions of several hundred criminal acts: vandalism, theft, robbery, and murder. In many of the cases, Katz found that the perpetrator felt humiliated, committing the crime as an act of revenge. In some of the cases the sense of humiliation was based on actual insults:


[A] … typical technique [leading to a spouse being murdered] is for the victim to attack the spouse’s deviations from the culturally approved sex role…. For example, a wife may accuse her husband of being a poor breadwinner or an incompetent lover … or the husband may accuse his wife of being “bitchy,” “frigid,” or promiscuous (Ch. 2, p. 8).


In other cases it was difficult to assess the degree to which the humiliations were real and/or imagined. Whatever the realities, Katz’s findings support the model of the shame/rage feeling trap. In his analysis of the murder of intimates, he says: “The would-be-killer must undergo a particular emotional process. He must transform what he initially senses as an eternally humiliating situation into a blinding rage” (p. 11). Rather than acknowledging his or her shame, the killer masks it with anger, which is the first step into the abyss of the shame/rage feeling trap, which ends in murder. Katz reports similar, though less dramatic findings with respect to the other kinds of crimes he investigated.


One issue that Katz’s study does not address is the conditions under which humiliation is transformed into blind rage. Since not all humiliations lead to blind rage, there must be some ingredient that is not indicated in Katz’s cases. Studies of family violence by Lansky suggest this extra ingredient. In order to lead to blind rage, the shame component in the emotions that are aroused must be unacknowledged.


Lansky has published three papers on family violence. The first paper (1984) describes six cases, the second (1987), four. The third (Lansky, 1989) analyzes one session with a married couple. In most of the cases, he reports similar emotional dynamics: violence resulted from the insulting manner that both husbands and wives took toward each other. Although some insults were overt, in the form of cursing, open contempt, and disgust, most were covert, in the form of innuendo or double messages.


Underhanded disrespect gives rise to unacknowledged shame, which leads in turn to anger and violence, in the way predicted by Lewis. It is difficult for the participants to respond to innuendo and to double messages; these forms of communication confuse them, Instead of admitting their upset and puzzlement, they answer in kind. The cycle involves disrespect, humiliation, revenge, counter-revenge, and so on, ending in violence.


The way in which both spouses seem to be unaware of the intense shame that their behavior generates can be illustrated in one of the cases (Lansky, 1984, 34–35, emphasis added):


A thirty-two year old man and his forty-six-year-old wife were seen in emergency conjoint consultation after he struck her. Both spouses were horrified, and the husband agreed that hospitalization might be the best way to start the lengthy treatment that he wanted. As he attempted to explain his view of his difficult marriage, his wife disorganized him with repeated humiliating comments about his inability to hold a job. These comments came at a time when he was talking about matters other than the job. When he did talk about work, she interrupted to say how immature he was compared to her previous husbands, then how strong and manly he was. The combination of building up and undercutting his sense of manliness was brought into focus. As the therapist commented on the process, the husband became more and more calm. … After the fourth session, he left his marriage and the hospital for another state and phoned the therapist for an appropriate referral for individual therapy. On follow-up some months later, he had followed through with treatment.


The disguising of the wife’s humiliation of the husband in this case is not through innuendo, since her disparagement is overt. Her shaming tactics are disguised by her technique of alternately praising her husband, by stating how “strong and manly” he was, then cutting him down. Perhaps she confused herself with this tactic as much as she did her husband.


Lack of awareness of shaming and shame can be seen in Lansky’s report of a conjoint session with a violent man and his wife (1989). In this session, Lansky indicates that the wife was dressed in a sexually provocative way, and that her bearing and manner was overtly seductive toward the interviewer. Yet neither spouse acknowledged her activity, even when the interviewer asked them whether the wife was ever seductive toward other men. Although both answered affirmatively, their answers concerned only past events. The lack of comment on what was occurring at that very moment in the interview is astounding. It would seem that blind rage requires not only shaming and shame, but blindness toward these two elements.


The relationship between collective violence and unacknowledged shame is suggested by an analysis of the Attica riots (Scheff, Retzinger, and Ryan, 1989). The violence of the guards toward the inmates began with a series of events that the guards perceived as humiliating: without consulting the guards, a new warden intent on reform increased the rights of the prisoners, which resulted in a series of incidents with prisoners that the guards experienced as humiliating. Since the guards did not acknowledge their humiliation, their assault on the prisoners follows the sequence predicted by the Lewis theory: insult, unacknowledged shame, rage, and aggression.


This formulation does not discount the importance of the topic of conflict, be it scarce resources, cultural differences, or any other issue. But it argues that in the absence of unacknowledged shame, human beings are resourceful enough to be able to find a compromise to any dispute, one that is most beneficial to both parties, or least harmful. If shame is evoked in one or both parties, however, and not acknowledged, than the content of the dispute becomes less important than the hidden emotions, which take over. Unacknowledged shame is the basis of what Goffman (1967) called “character contests,” conflicts in which the topic of dispute becomes subordinate to the issue of “face,” which is a disguised way of referring to matters of pride and shame, honor and disgrace.




The theory outlined here may provide a solution to the problem of interminable and destructive conflict. It can be summarized in terms of three propositions:


1. Bimodal alienation (engulfment within, and isolation between groups) inhibits cooperation both within and between groups. Understanding, trust, and cooperation become increasingly difficult to the extent that social bonds are insecure (Persons on one or both sides of a relationship feel threatened with rejection).


2. Bimodal alienation leads to interminable conflict if, and only if, alienation and its accompanying emotions are denied. This proposition may be true independently of the gravity of the differences in interests between the two groups. That is, the most beneficial or the last harmful compromise on differences of interests can be found if alienation is acknowledged.


3. The denial of alienation generates an emotional process which leads to escalation of conflict, a triple spiral of shame-rage between and within parties to a conflict. Acknowledgement of alienation and shame de-escalates conflict, independently of the differences of interests between the parties.


This formulation has a number of advantages over existing ones. Rather than being based on the assumption that groups are made up of isolated individuals, it assumes a structure/process composed of social relationships. It is not static, since it proposes that the degree of conflict at any moment is based on the state of social bonds in and between the contending parties at that moment. The formulation is exceedingly complex, since it suggests an analysis of solidarity and alienation in terms of actual social relationships between and within the parties to a conflict. Unlike many theories of conflict, this one offers a description of the causal chain that links social and psychological conditions to the generation of conflict. Communication practices that serve to deny alienation and emotion generate spirals in which emotions escalate to the point of intolerable tension, explaining the origin of “war fever” and other highly irrational behaviors by individuals and groups.


Finally, this theory is potentially testable, since it provides detailed descriptions of its elemental components, alienation and emotion. For this reason, it might be seen as a “grounded theory” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). In our study of videotapes of game shows, Retzinger and I (1991) have shown that markers of solidarity and alienation can be rated systematically, and that alienation interferes with the ability of contestants to cooperate, and therefore, to win. In her work on marital quarrels, Retzinger (1991) has shown that shame and anger can be systematically rated in videotape recordings. Her findings in each of four quarrels suggest that unacknowledged shame always precedes rather than follows the disrespectful anger which leads to escalation. At an interpersonal level, her work supports Simmel’s (1955) conjecture that separation leads to conflict, rather than the other way around.


I do not argue that the material bases of conflict are unimportant, or that alienation and shame alone explain all interminable quarrels. Rather I propose that these two interrelated components are always present in destructive quarrels, feuds, vendettas and wars, but have been neglected. Alienation and emotion are intergral to the kind of internation conflict that is a central feature of our current world, and need to be studied directly, along with the other components that cause conflict.


Also See the Following Articles





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Glaser, B., and Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago: Aldine.


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Goffman, E. (1972). Relations in public. New York: Harper


Gottschalk, L., and Gleser, G. (1969). Manual for using the Gottschalk-Gleser content analysis scales. Berkeley: U. of California Press


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Lansky, M. (1987). Shame and domestic violence. In D. Nathanson (Ed.), The many faces of shame. New York: Guilford


Lansky, M. (1989). Murder of a spouse: A family systems viewpoint. International Journal of Family Psychiatry, 10, 159–178.


Levine R. T., and Campbell, D. T. (1971). Ethnocentrism: Theories of conflict. New York: Wiley


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Scheff, T., and Retzinger, S. (1991). Emotions and violence: Shame and rage in destructive conflicts. Lexington: Lexington Books


Scheff, T., Retzinger, S., and Ryan, M. (1989). Crime, violence and self-esteem: Review and proposals. In A. Mecca, N. Smelser, and J. Vasconcellos (Eds.), The social importance of self-esteem. Berkeley: U. of California Press.


Simmel, G. (1955). Conflict and the web of group-affiliations. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.


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Watzlawick, P., Beavin J. H., and Jackson, D. (1967). The pragmatics of human communication. New York: Norton.


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