While the feeling of guilt deals with what we do, the feeling of shame has to do with what we are, almost an inescapable emotion. Shame installs a language of displacement, a break with the desirable, with rules and standards, thus leaving us weak and disoriented.

Woman on Sidewalk, New York, 2002 by Paul Graham.

Woman on Sidewalk, New York, 2002 by Paul Graham.

Shame is such powerful, painful, and destructive emotion, that it can be used as a manipulation tool, which inevitably constructs its own appearance of validity. Shame can be a terrible weapon, when used as the vanguard for blame. Robert Walker addresses this in his book, The Shame of Poverty. As he notes, when turned into a means for social categorisation and control, shame has can impede development, and damage self-esteem: low-income individuals in developed countries, for instance, are often unfairly humiliated and informally condemned for their situations. In fact, their status is a consequence of the faults and negligence of public institutions and of logics of capital. They carry the burden of being perpetrators, when they are the victims.

Political discourse and media often show the difference between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor, instituting hierarchies of respect and assistance, assigning worth, even defining poverty as a personality trait. In this ideology, poverty is a vice, out of the bounds of respectable normality.

The Poor Artist, London, 1945 by Ivan Shagin.

The Poor Artist, London, 1945 by Ivan Shagin.

I Signed On And They Would Not Give Me Nothing, 1992 by Gillian Wearing.

I Signed On And They Would Not Give Me Nothing, 1992 by Gillian Wearing.

Newspapers and TV programmes often don't underline the social injustice, but stress, with a negative and discouraging choice of words and images, the status of the poor as outsiders. The public´s reading of the situation is thus oriented towards repulsion, rather than compassion.

In some Western countries, people on welfare are often depicted as individuals who choose their poverty, and their greatest fault is to ask for help. Nothing seems to be worse than to ask for institutional assistance. In recent years, welfare states have struggled with growing numbers of people in need of support, and this strain on the public dime often leads political speech to play dependency and un-deservingness into populistic agenda.

In his new touching film, I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach shows the humiliation a man endures, when faced with the absurd mechanisms of bureaucracy, of stagnant systems governed by a strictness to rules, more than by a care for humanity.

Speaking about his film, Loach mentions: "The most vulnerable people are told their poverty is their own fault. If you have no work, it is your fault that you haven’t got a job. It is shocking. It is not an issue just for people in our country, it is throughout Europe and there is a conscious cruelty in the way we are organising our lives now.”

Assigning shame to vulnerable individuals, in financial need, can have tragic consequences: they can fall in a downwards spiral, where, at first, they try to conceal their issues, eventually succumbing to chronic stress or depression. This behaviour leads to isolation and to a sense of failure and impotence, which increases directly proportional to the mistrust society shows them. Individuals stigmatised for their own poverty and shamed for their misery are at risk of fulfilling the prophecies forced upon them, and indeed remain outsiders. A way to avoid this is to reinterpret poverty, to disrupt narratives of shame and guilt, and respect human rights, without restriction.

Words: Veronica Mafolino

Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu