The link between shame and recognition, teenage drunkenness and difference

The increasing social issue of teenagers that get blind drunk on our streets as a entertainment pursuit is alarming but is there a message in the behaviour that we as adults just aren’t getting.  The behaviour is a form of recognition and belonging, and I think a form of protest against contemporary society and its values, many of which indicate a double standard.  You would think that a young girl passed out on the ground with her skirt up around her waist would be shameful, but its not in this new social accepted-ness that sees our youth drunk and disorderly.  Part of the badge of honour is to have your photo taken by someone else to prove that you have managed to ‘enjoy’ yourself so much and have drunk so much alcohol that you have now passed out on the street, exposing yourself to all sorts of danger in the name of fun.  Somehow this act has turned to recognition and maybe even a protest of difference.  They are challenging our idea of shame and turning it into a badge of honour that gives them membership to a group of ‘strangers’ to society.  The group of those protesting and wanting to be recognised for their own difference and identity.

From my reading of Gaita (2002) and his distinction between guilt and shame, I think that it is shame that is most powerful.  I found the most interesting was the discussion about the Holocaust where unbelievable pain and suffering experienced by so many.  It’s almost like we can easily keep functioning as humans with just guilt, but when we add shame to the mix, a realisation of what we have done and how it has affected others comes apparent and I think that this is ‘shame’.  As Nora Levin ‘put it’, some of the prose was written with ‘bleeding eyes’ (pg 277), an extreme outpouring of pain as a result of trauma.  Sure, the perpetrators may have felt guilty – and been found guilty of crimes but it is only when they understand “this kind of truth and reality” with an ‘informed heart’, do they understand and feel shame.

I certainly think that Gaita is onto something by linking together shame and recognition.  It seems that the pathway to the acknowledgement of ‘shame’ is through a process of an ‘informed heart’, more than an acceptance of culpability or guilt.  It goes to the core of a person and enlists deep and powerful feelings that must awaken‘recognition’ of the issue whether that is damage to someone or something else, or damage to oneself by actions.


Honneth, Axel (1995), ‘Personal Identity and Disrespect: The Violation of the Body, the Denial of Rights, and the Denigration of Ways of Life’ in Axel Honneth and Charles Taylor,The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflict, Polity Press.

Gaita, Raimond (2002), ‘Guilt, Shame and Collective Responsibility’ in Michelle Gratten (ed) Reconciliation, Melbourne, Black Inc.


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