The rhetoric of shame in the lachrymose country

Paul Corcoran, University of Adelaide

Martha C. Nussbaum Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2004 (432 pp). ISBN 0-69109-526-4 (paperback) RRP $53.95.

In 1983, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s lips trembled and his voice faltered as he conceded his government’s electoral defeat. In 2004, Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s lips trembled and his voice faltered at a press conference he called to protest media gossip mongering. Neither politician shed a single tear. Following each nationally televised event, journalists revelled in Fraser’s ‘crying’ and ‘weeping’ and Latham’s ‘blubbering’ and ‘breaking down’. Newspaper cartoonists depicted showers of tears gushing from their eyes.

Martha Nussbaum’s new book would interpret these reports, as well as the politicians’ behaviour, as expressions of primitive shame and infantile narcissism in Australian political and media culture. Why do journalists and cartoonists need to revel in the shame and humiliation of public figures? Why is this need so powerful as to distort, fictionalise, and impose the re-created image? Few political observers of a certain age will even believe that Fraser did not weep in that concession speech, despite the unmistakable video evidence. The fiction, obviously, is much more delightful.


Nussbaum draws her definitions of the negative emotions of shame, disgust, humiliation, and narcissism from an assemblage of Freudian, neo-Freudian, and object-relation psychoanalytic theory. Within this framework, shame emerges in early infancy as an emotional response to frustrations and limitations that challenge an infant’s sense of narcissistic omnipotence in a world seemingly devoted to its feeding, comfort, and well-being. Shame develops as ‘a full-fledged emotion’ with the dawning of ‘an incipient sense of the distinctness of the helpless being that one is from the sources of comfort and nourishment’ (p. 184). Thus shame registers limitations, privations, and falling short of impossible ideals. Individual consciousness is constituted negatively by what we are not able to be and do. We become aware of our world through its failures to satisfy our aspirations. In this uncomfortably hot cauldron of emotions is brewed the psyche of a tiny infant.

For Nussbaum shame is natural and universal.

For Nussbaum shame is natural and universal. It is ‘an awareness of inadequacy that precedes any particular learning of social norms’. Only later in life can it ‘become inflected with social learning’ (p. 185). The body and sexuality are powerfully related to shame because ‘our sexual nature is a sign of mortality and neediness. … [O]ur sexual organs are symbols of our animality and mortality, states that we are striving to transcend, always vainly’ (p. 186).

Disgust comes later and we learn that socially. But it is brewed in the same psychic cauldron—one could say it is precipitated as the dregs of that brew. Nussbaum’s description of disgust is unsparing:

[Disgust] shapes our intimacies and provides much of the structure of our daily routine, as we wash our bodies, seek privacy for urination and defecation, cleanse ourselves of offending odors with toothbrush and mouthwash, sniff our armpits when nobody is looking, check in the mirror to make sure that no conspicuous snot is caught in our nose-hairs. In many ways our social relations, too, are structured by the disgusting and our multifarious attempts to ward it off. Ways of dealing with repulsive animal substances such as feces, corpses, and rotten meat are pervasive sources of social custom. And most societies teach the avoidance of certain groups of people as physically disgusting, bearers of a contamination that the healthy element of society must keep at bay (p. 72).

Disgust develops to ward off and protect our bodies from objects and sensations of animality and mortality, even our own. As Julia Kristeva evocatively describes, we impose bodily borders and erect and police boundaries to save ourselves from touching objects of repulsion, and we suffer abjection when we fail. Objects of disgust repel our senses and may be dangerous, especially when ‘a problematic substance may be incorporated into the self. For many items and many people, the mouth is an especially charged border’ (1982, p. 88). Nussbaum quotes William Miller (1997, xiv) to put the matter succinctly: ‘Ultimately the basis for all disgust is us – that we live and die and that the process is a messy one emitting substances and odors that make us doubt ourselves and fear our neighbours’ (p. 90).


Nussbaum is less interested in defining and theorising these emotional states than she is in the legal uses of shame, disgust, and humiliation, as well as fear, anger, and rage. Far from an archaic vestige of the ancient laws of revenge and retribution, ‘emotional content’ continues to be incorporated into legal reasoning, legislation, trial advocacy, and judicial decisions. The psychological, forensic, and moral relevance of the emotional experiences of both perpetrators and victims are identified in criminal statutes; canvassed by the prosecution in selecting indictable offences, at times with a view to increase the gravity of an offence deemed to have been perpetrated in a particularly disgusting or humiliating manner; advanced in trial defences to reduce offence levels and mitigate penalties; or imposed as a shaming penalty on convicted offenders.

Disgust develops to ward off and protect our bodies from objects and sensations of animality and mortality.

Nussbaum considers the role of shame and disgust in a wide range of actual court cases, criminal statutes, and legal reform proposals. She shows how the anger, shame, humiliation, or sympathy experienced by perpetrators, police attending a crime scene, judges and juries, as well as the perceptions of an ‘average’ member of society, are often crucial in judicial proceedings.

In a murder case, for example, the defendant was a wife who had been physically and mentally abused by her husband. He had even forced her to engage in prostitution. She took their baby to her mother’s house, returned with a pistol, and shot him in his sleep. Given that she planned it carefully, freely left the home and freely returned, and the victim was not menacing her as he slept, the trial judge instruction to the jury did not permit a plea of self-defence. On appeal in 1989 the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed, finding that the sleeping husband could not have induced ‘a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm’. Nussbaum, however, notes the dissenting opinion’s claim that the jury should have been able to decide whether the ‘abysmal state … of her tragic life’ justified her deed (p. 20).

In an earlier (1976) case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled North Carolina’s death penalty statute unconstitutional because it prohibited defendants from providing the jury with testimony to their ‘life history’, thus precluding ‘the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind’ (p. 21). In a California case on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the judge instructed a jury that they ‘must not be swayed by mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion or public feeling’. Again Nussbaum is sympathetic to the dissenting opinion, but the Court upheld the conviction on the narrow ground that the distinction of ‘mere’ emotions would have been comprehensible to the jury, and would be unconstitutional only if it had required jurors ‘to disregard all compassionate emotion’ (p. 21). In these cases, the emotional responses of the jury are at issue. For example, should a charge of first-degree murder be mitigated to manslaughter due to diminished capacity because an altercation left the perpetrator so intensely angry with the victim that he shot him in the head? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1879 heard the appeal, but sustained the murder charge (p. 20).

Disgust as ‘reasonable provocation’ was advanced in 1990 as a reason to mitigate a murder charge to manslaughter when a man out hiking comes across two lesbians engaged in sexual acts which incited him to shoot them both, killing one and grievously injuring the other (p. 130). Counsel sought to admit psychiatric evidence relating to the defendant’s childhood formation of an extreme ‘disgust-reaction’, but the Pennsylvania courts ruled against its submission and the mitigation of the charge. However, Nussbaum canvases a number of cases in which disgust, either of a perpetrator or ‘an average member of society’, has been accepted as relevant in legislating against obscenity or in successful mitigation of homicide to a lesser offence—for example a 1991 case (pp. 132–33) in which a violent response to homosexual advance was deemed ‘sufficient provocation’ to mitigate murder to manslaughter.

Nussbaum is interested in the legal uses of shame, disgust, humiliation, fear, and rage.

There are cases, as Nussbaum notes, in which ‘a jury is asked to consult reactions to disgust in order to determine whether a homicide, in Oklahoma, is “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel”’, thus justifying the death penalty. A Georgia statute permits a death sentence for offences that are ‘outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible and inhumane’, effectively instructing jurors to ‘consult their disgust-reactions’ (p. 164). Nussbaum is reluctant to make a distinction on grounds of vileness, while the U.S. Supreme Court has imposed a constitutional test of ‘limiting construction’ that distinguishes murders incidental to the commission of a felony from murder with torture.

The emotional responses of judges, too, can shape the outcome of certain cases. In a 1984 decision relating to allegedly pornographic material in Hustler magazine, the judge described an article about feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin and her mother as ‘disgusting and distasteful abuse’ (pp. 143–4). In the context of the judge’s opinion, it was clear that her own sense of disgust was relevant to the finding.

Nussbaum opposes perceived disgust as an offence. Instead she favours ‘limited guidance in a narrow set of laws concerned with physical distaste and danger’, as in zoning ordinance restricting pollution or powerfully offensive industrial or agricultural odours. In particular, she argues that disgust should never be used as a ‘constructive criterion of legally regulable conduct, and especially when it conduces to the political subordination and marginalisation of vulnerable groups and people’ (p. 171). There is always the danger, she believes, that the emotion of disgust may lead to legally sanctioned discrimination against racial or ethnic groups, the grossly deformed or mentally handicapped, or those who espouse a minority religion or practice, such as nudism. Or disgust may be used to advance ideological causes of doubtful merit. The chairman of a presidential commission, for example, advised George Bush to be guided by ‘the wisdom of repugnance’ (pp. 72–73) to regulate or prohibit stem-cell research and cloning.

For Nussbaum shame, however, ‘is in many respects a more productive and potentially creative emotion’ (p. 206). This creativity has been expressed in recent years in communitarian proposals for public shaming penalties that Nussbaum finds ‘exquisitely Dantesque’ (p. 238). Examples include requiring drunken drivers to display a DUI registration plate; identifying the residence of child molesters; requiring offenders of the Hoboken, New Jersey ordinance against public urination to clean up their deed with a toothbrush; and sentencing slumlords to live for a stated period in their own rat-infested apartments. But shame has its drawbacks, especially in its tendency to stigmatise ourselves (by unhealthy and restrictive stereotypes) and others (who may be unjustly shunned because of differences and disabilities). Since humiliation focuses on traits rather than acts (where guilt is the relevant emotion), Nussbaum argues that its role in the law should be limited. She criticises public shaming as an ‘alternative sanction’ on the grounds that the weight of public authority should be directed to amelioration and rehabilitation rather than humiliation. Mindful of the degrading ancient history of shame penalties (such as facial tattoos and branding), she argues that shame and humiliation have the effect of breaking the spirit rather than rehabilitating the offender and upholding standards of humane dignity and respect.

Disgust may lead to legally sanctioned discrimination against racial or ethnic groups.

While Nussbaum admits shame and humiliation as inevitable but potentially harmful factors in the humane workings of law and criminal justice, she believes that the legal use of disgust is likely to be deleterious. If something is so disgusting as to be genuinely harmful, it is a properly actionable offence; otherwise, the desired response is toleration and the protection of liberty and cultural diversity. She warns, by way of conclusion, against the ‘dangers we face if we give disgust and shame a prominent role in the foundations of the law. For both emotions, when used as the basis for legal regulation … threaten mutual respect’ (p. 321).

Nussbaum casts herself in the role of a judge, a task she clearly enjoys. She approves one piece of legislation while rejecting another, confidently describing how it ought to have been written. Reviewing judicial decisions, she either approves them or ‘overturns’ them, finding in favour of a dissenting opinion or offering one of her own. Her endnote references reveal that she corresponds as a friend and familiar with several leading American jurists. If it were not for the fact that she obviously thrives as a celebrity academic, one might see this book as a job application for appointment to an appellate court bench. No doubt she would be an activist judge, and a good one.

Nussbaum has greatly broadened her earliest intellectual focus from ancient Hellenist philosophy. She now produces books about … everything: literature and poetry, psychology, international feminism, and multiculturalism inter alia. Hiding from Humanity, which began as a series of lectures, has a tendency to ramble and wander, revisiting problems again and again that might have been dealt with once and for all. The hasty treatment of many arguments is boldly self-referential. Indeed, its hundreds (no exaggeration) of peremptory references to her own work make Hiding from Humanity seem like a collection of hyperlinks to her other books.


Nussbaum’s analysis of the legal uses of negative emotions provides an opportunity to examine their rhetorical uses in Australian political culture. The negative emotions of embarrassment, shame, disgust, and even hate have been exhibited in the public arena with a remarkable ferocity during John Howard’s tenure as prime minister. Political commentators, opinion editorial columnists, letters to the editor, and academics seem to have competed to express intensities of these emotions. Elsewhere I have argued that confessions of humiliation, passionate castigation, and revulsion may engage complex positive emotions such as pride and patriotic feeling (Corcoran 2001; 2003). Negative emotions can reinforce personal esteem, social cohesion, and national identity. Such a paradox is reflected in public fascination with emotional, and especially tearful, displays by Australian public figures. Tears of shame, rage, and joy are facets of a single, intense media focus on emotional display in a culture otherwise proud of being ironic, taciturn, and laid back.

Invocations of embarrassment, shame, disgust, and humiliation are a familiar ritual of public and parliamentary discourse. Politicians vie with each other to assign shame and register disgust. Journalists and letter writers proclaim, with righteous pride, their shame and embarrassment. Australian readers may be able to recall their own public or private contributions in response to the ‘stolen generation’ reconciliation movement, Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975, the Pauline Hanson fiascos, the republic referendum, the design of the Australian flag, the ‘children overboard’, the Tampa boatpeople saga, and the Iraq war.

Politicians vie with each other to assign shame and register disgust.

Some examples must suffice to illustrate the genre. James Murray, religious affairs editor and op-ed columnist for The Australian (29 August 2001) wrote on the Tampa asylum-seeker stand-off: ‘Today I am ashamed to be an Australian’. Noting that ‘Australians collectively wear the disgrace’, he went on to remind his readers of the shame and clamorous revulsion occasioned by Pauline Hanson. In the same edition, letter-writer and Sydney academic Dr Katharine Gelber concludes: ‘I am horrified. I am ashamed.’ Not to be outdone, the next day’s op-ed page (30 August 2001) allowed Kep Enderby, former federal attorney general and retired justice of the NSW Supreme Court, to hold up his end of the religious spectrum: ‘James Murray said he is ashamed to be an Australian. As an atheist, I agree with him.’ Across the page a letter writer from Western Australia begins: ‘As one who is not a radio talkback caller, I want my opinion to be registered. I am outraged and ashamed.’ On page one of the same edition, the headline writer for Paul Kelly’s column expressed, with a little more optimism, the same emotion: ‘Red-faced backdown on cards.’ A letter in the Adelaide Advertiser (1 September 2001) agreed: ‘I feel ashamed to be an Australian and am embarrassed by the world’s view of Australia.’ Months later, Greg Sheridan, foreign editor for The Australian, maintained the rage: ‘I am ashamed of our Government, of its vile treatment of boat people…’ (27 December 2001).

Other bodies, from cricketing to the Olympics Organising Committee, provide seasonal opportunities for shame, as do government ministers by turn. But clearly John Howard is the focus of shame and disgust expressed in the mass media, not simply in response to what he does but to what he is. In Nussbaum’s terminology, he is a ‘disgust object’. Anal imagery, ‘dirt’ and ‘filth’ are regular tropes in political rhetoric and especially in cartoons depicting the prime minister. Mark Latham attributed his almost-tearful emotions to the Howard ‘dirt units’, an image that enabled cartoonists to revisit their imaginative uses of faecal metaphors. Nussbaum’s discussion of ‘primitive disgust’ also sheds light on political cartoons frequently depicting amputation, mutilation, and even cannibalism.


The incidence of negative emotional language in Australian political discourse, in both its intensity and frequency, is a counter-harmony to the periodic debates about Australian national identity. The republic debate, the tragi-comic efforts to write an aspirational preamble to the constitution, and the angst-ridden ‘history wars’ were all emotional in tone, with positions often defined in terms of what was ‘shameful’.

We seem to find little to love unless it be flawed (self-inflicted: the larrikin), arisen from great adversity, or badly injured (the victim of others’ misdeeds). By contrast, a vast range of things inspires guilt, shame, disgust, and loathing. These tend to be centred on national or personal identities. For example a typical response of social commentators to ‘the way we were’—the convict origins, a subservient British colony, a racist ‘white Australia’, a boring 1950s suburbia—is to place a taboo on it, to feel shameful, and to cast it out as a disgusting excrescence. Apart from the insightful comic creations of Barry Humphries (where embarrassment and disgust are the coin of the realm for Dame Edna and Sir Les), this response is most overt in efforts to expurgate and purify our contaminated history (the convict colonies, the displacement and destruction of indigenous peoples) and to expel the British monarchy with all of its ‘shameful’ detritus. (The Westminster system and Royal Commissions are interesting omissions.)

Since Federation, Australia has prided itself on being a ‘young country’.

Since Federation, Australia has prided itself on being a ‘young country’. ‘Growing up’, establishing boundaries, and achieving an independent identity remain youthful, sometimes anxious and awkward, aspirations. Australia’s fascination with tears, mythological or real, is one interesting cultural expression, through infantile narcissism and primitive shame, at once reactive and protective, of coming to terms with a disappointing and threatening world.

In addition to the lachrymose media miracles on behalf of Fraser and Latham, readers may be reminded of regular photo memorials of Bob Hawke’s tearful secretions; weekly close-ups of weepy sporting heroes; journalistic perplexity at the counter-intuitive phenomenon of John Howard being capable of tears when offering condolences to families of those murdered in the Bali bombing in 2002. Nussbaum’s analysis of disgust in response to bodily secretions reports one exception that stimulates reflection about the Australian obsession.

Feces, snot, semen, and other animal bodily secretions…are found contaminating: we do not want to ingest them, and we view as contaminated those who have regular contact with them. [T]ears are the one human bodily secretion that is not found disgusting, presumably because they are thought to be uniquely human (p. 89).

Nussbaum does not pursue this further, preferring to emphasise how our ‘animal secretions’ fill us with dread by reminding us of our animality and mortality. However, if we pursue the matter from an Australian perspective, we find observations that Nussbaum might have reached, given her interest in myth, religious imagery, and literary themes. Tears are powerfully associated with emotions that are not just reactive and negative, but rather affiliative, cleansing, and joyful. Symbolic of confession, sorrow, and redemption, tears solicit renewal and forgiveness. Tears draw people together in an arc of intimate feeling. While rage and disgust shun and divide, the surrender to tears invites a generosity of feeling.

Before giving way to sentiment, we might be reminded that crying is fundamentally infantile behaviour. It is the first act each of us performs. Crying forces on us consciousness of narcissistic despair at our limitations—recognition of our world falling apart around us, woefully falling short of our ideals and our natural sense of indomitable right and power. This recalls to my mind a journalist’s insightful comment that Bob Hawke’s tears expressed sorrow, not at his failures but at the spectacle of his own misfortune.

The media’s fascination with tears seems to be complemented by an obsession with the symbolic importance of exposing embarrassment—even if it, too, has to be invented—as a means of reporting and interpreting events. Politicians seek to embarrass in the fake combat of parliament, armed only with vain hopes of inflicting shame, presumably for the ridicule and disgust enjoyed by observers.

Embarrassment as a critical touchstone is as common as it is palpably absurd.

Embarrassment as a critical touchstone is as common as it is palpably absurd. A moment’s reflection suggests how fictional, indeed psychologically surreal, it is to invite politicians, parties, CEOs, corporations, and entire governments to acknowledge their ‘embarrassment’. Yet news frames regularly describe individuals and groups as ‘embarrassed’, with stories reporting this as simple fact. Television reporters often premise interviews on an assertion of the interviewee’s embarrassment; the interviewee typically ignores the suggestion altogether or dismisses it as absurd, and the journalist blithely ignores this dismissal in subsequent reports. I try to understand this as a kind of game or perfunctory ritual—either that or a sign that the journalist is lazily indifferent to the story and the person in question. Indeed, journalists are much closer to the mark when they describe a politician as ‘shameless’. After all, the interviewees are usually life-long politicians who have risen to the top of their profession. They tend to be robustly confident in their responsibilities and proud of their accomplishments, with an ego that is firmly intact. When journalists routinely ask such people to announce their embarrassment, or simply declare it as an obvious fact, they cannot really expect confirmation, and so must have some other purpose.

The palpably absurd reports of ‘embarrassment’, no less than the meticulous reports and photos of tearful faces, answer to a need in the political culture. It is as if the journalist must say it, fully confident that the audience needs to hear it. The event being reported is not that a politician has made a mistake or a bad decision, or that unpredictable events have, indeed, turned out unpredictably. The event actually being reported is emotion, tout pûr. What is significant, what is worthy and needs to be reported to elicit public interest, is shame: the emotional condition in which the politician is being invited to confess to that primitive experience of a fallible world. It is a world beyond our control; it ignores, mocks, falls short, and fails us. Yet we cling to that infantile narcissism which demands our indomitable control, our every comfort, and unique centrality.


Corcoran, P. 2003, Good, healthy hate: frontier of the negative emotions, paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Tasmania, Hobart, 30 September [Online], Available: [2004, Nov 5].

Corcoran, P. 2001, ‘Isn’t it embarrassing?’ The affective basis of Australian political language and identity, paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, Griffith University, Brisbane, 24 September [Online], Available: [2004, Nov 5].

Kristeva, J. 1982, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. L. S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York.

Miller, W. I. 1997, The Anatomy of Disgust, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Paul Corcoran is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Adelaide. He lectures in political philosophy, from its origins in ancient Greece to modern and contemporary political theory. His interests include political language and rhetoric, French political thought, democratic theory, symbolic representation, Australian political iconography and the role of emotions in political behaviour and social identity.

View other articles by Paul Corcoran: