• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Shame on Us?

Some thoughts on the power of shame.

September 28, 2015

You heard this story:

Pharmaceutical company (that doesn’t manufacture any actual pharmaceuticals) acquires rights to 60-plus-year-old drug used to treat a potentially deadly parasitic infection. CEO raises price from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill.

Public freaks out, says they don’t like the idea of people dying because they can’t afford lifesaving remedy that has been available for 60-plus years.

CEO defends his God-given right as an American to make profits.

Public tells him to stuff his profits. Offers to show him where.

CEO backs down from plan to raise price by so much.

Call it a victory for the power of shame.

Maybe only a partial victory, though, because I don’t think the CEO necessarily changed his personal tune. I think he is as deeply in love with his speculative pharmaceutical company CEOing as ever.  He changed course because he saw the hammer of government regulation backed by popular sentiment heading his way and decided to backtrack before his entire business model was smashed.

Nonetheless, a massive outpouring of public scorn managed to reverse what seemed to be an obvious injustice.

I’ve been thinking about shame a lot lately, and I feel like it’s causing me to see it everywhere.

The co-owners of a West Asheville, NC coffee shop were outed as the authors of a blog and proprietors of a podcast that highlighted their exploits as “pick-up artists,” which entailed broadcasting material blatantly offensive to women, including detailed recountings of sexual encounters with women in the coffee shop.

When a protest and boycott of the shop mounted, both men posted apologies that focused on the shame they’d felt regarding their previous lack of “success” in dating, which apparently caused an overcorrection. They claimed the “PUA” personas they adopted were not their true selves.

Both believed that they deserved the shame they were feeling for their actions.

I’m sort of wondering what shame doesn’t touch. It is somehow both the originator and downfall of those now retired pick-up artists.

There is, for sure, a lot of shame surrounding the issue of contingent faculty. Most of it is carried by the contingent themselves, but it doesn’t belong there.

I’ve always been enormously proud of my teaching work. I believe it to be important. Society claims to revere teachers (at all levels) even as it treats them increasingly poorly.

I try hard to teach well, and because of that I’m good at it and keep getting better. The work is sustaining to my spirit.

But for many years, I’ve been ashamed to fully reckon with the pride I feel in the work and the fact that I made more money in my second year as a paralegal at a large law firm in Chicago, a job I left in 1994, than I ever have as a full-time college instructor (2001 – present).

I know that this is not my “fault,” that like many others I am subject to exploitation and distortions in the labor system of higher education, and yet it is near impossible to not feel like I am somehow to blame.

I have little doubt that someone is at least tempted to reply to this very post with a lecture about the “law” of supply and demand. I would ask that person why supply and demand did not hold in the case of the pharmaceutical CEO. I imagine dying people would pay $750 per pill. They would probably pay a lot more.

Clearly there are limits to this particular law.

I know I am not alone in these feelings. Many of us hide the degree of our own exploitation lest it reflect badly on us, our bad judgment, our poor choices.

How strange that a choice to dedicate a life to teaching should seem to be a poor one.

I imagine these feelings are not exclusive to the contingent, that they can also be true of tenured faculty outside of the elite echelons of the profession.

Maybe shame is a weapon we should employ on our own behalf.

I wonder what role shame played in Arizona State’s decision to back off their unilateral decision to increase the workload while decreasing the pay of their writing faculty.

After years of absorbing the shame that should have rested with the department and the university, the instructors had enough and their treatment improved.

Resorting to shame is a desperate act, but it seems like it works.

You hope it doesn’t come to that. You hope the predatory CEO considers what it means to raise the price of a lifesaving drug by 4000% before he does it. You hope that men who make a practice of picking-up women at least have the good sense to keep it private.

You hope that institutions that are supposed to stand for education and opportunity extend those values to all of their employees.

You hope that we remember that this sort of work is done for the common good and therefore needs broad public support.

But when we’re out of hope, shame seems to be the only tool left.



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