Contempt and Shame in Fiction

When I started studying up on contempt and shame as ways to portray characters’ interactions, I realized that their enactment encompasses a continuum of behaviors that I had never thought of as specifically contemptuous or shaming. The enactment of both contempt and shame requires both an actor and a receiver. Both run the gamut from a static level of behavior, through a deliberate action, to a deliberately aggressive form of conduct. If you had ever asked me if I treated individuals with contempt, I would have said “No, of course not.” However, I must admit to being guilty of the lowest level of my own continuum. I’ve been told that writers come to know themselves better through writing. I am finding that sometimes my writing holds up a mirror in which I see my own face reflected with a shocked expression.

What Is Contempt?

My own definition of what I am calling “indeterminant or static contempt” involves contempt that one feels for another silently without acting on that contempt. In other words, the other person may not be aware of the contemptuous person’s stance because it is more about mannerisms than about acting it out. This low level static contempt might be unobservable, though it involves a feeling of disapproval or discontentment. I have certainly felt disapproval of others. I have been discontented with a variety of individuals throughout my lifetime. However, when disapproval is not voiced or not directed at the receiver, it may go unnoticed.

Even stronger indeterminant contempt might be disdain, condescension, aloofness, haughtiness, snobbery, pomposity, or supercilious arrogance—all mannerisms visible to the observant. However, the receiver may just assume that the condescending person enacting contempt is simply an arrogant snob and not interpret the snootiness as a reaction to his or her own behavior.

An extreme level of static contempt on the other hand would create discomfort between two people. The receiver would notice that the deliverer seems to be repulsed by his or her presence. The receiver might sense the dislike the deliverer of contempt is expressing. The receiver might sense the realty that the deliverer of contempt would prefer not to be engaged.

The intermediate type of contempt—what I am calling “active contempt”—involves deliberate movement, word choice, and expression of contempt regarding another person. Perpetrators might directly ridicule, sneer at, or mock a person. They may choose to diss or belittle someone in person. They may put someone down. They may physically spurn or rebuff someone. With a parent, they may be insolent or impertinent. I have never thought of teenage behavior as contemptuous, but according to my definition here, it is. Active contempt might also be indirect. In this case, the perpetrator, may ridicule, belittle, or scorn one individual when talking to someone else. Gossip is an example of indirect active contempt.

Aggressive contempt is the most extreme enactment of contempt because it has such a negative effect on both the perpetrator and the receiver. The aggressive continuum begins with feelings of aversion, loathing, disapproval, displeasure, hatred, or disgust. It moves toward nonverbal expressions of repugnance, antipathy, animosity, disrespect, or revulsion. In its most deadly form, aggressive contempt involves real-time actions against another person, such as refusing to interact with them or turning them down for a position or a request. It could also involve censuring them verbally, as well as publicly.

Unfortunately, in the USA in the last four years, aggressive contempt has become more visible, particularly regarding issues of language, gender, and race. A particular racist version of contemporary aggressive contempt is a perpetrator feeling antipathy for a stranger who is just going about minding their own business. Perpetrators, sometimes now called “Karens,” might stick their nose into some else’s business. Such individuals might report an innocent person of color to the authorities for exhibiting normal daily actions—such as shopping for groceries with their child.

What is Shame? 

While contempt tends to be inappropriately directed at others, shame has a personal, internal aspect as well as a hostile public manifestation. Shame is a difficult concept to understand because it can be experienced personally at the emotional and physical level where it has a visible physical manifestation—blushing. This personal aspect of shame can be viewed as a sign of simple awkwardness, as a manifestation of extreme modesty or bashfulness, as embarrassment, or even as a sense of mortification in the presence of others. Most people blush, that is, their faces turn red when they are experiencing shame in this personal way. Because their discomfort is obvious to others, they experience their own shame as a loss of face.

My second category for shame involves one or more persons shaming one or more persons with the goal of tarnishing someone’s reputation. A low level of shaming may involve idle thoughtless talk about another person. A middle level might include serious chin wagging or gossip. A more serious type of shaming might consist of spreading tales about someone or rumormongering.  

My third category for shame involves the effect one suffers from being shamed by another person or group. When a person experiences this kind of shaming, the impact might be personal. If individuals suffer the low level of shaming, they might be simply uncomfortable, but it might also destroy their confidence in themselves or in others. If they are the subject of gossip or rumormongering, they may be confounded by the experience, offended, or mortified. At the worst level of shaming, they are likely to fear that their reputation has been destroyed. If they fear a negative impact on their family or community, they might feel dishonored by the public disgrace. If the shaming is a severe case of slander, which probably creates a scandal, victims might be forced to protect their reputations and defend their honor publicly or in the court system.

Contempt and Shame in Current Fiction

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor in The Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston, has studied the effect of shame in individuals’ lives. She states that, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” Secrecy, silence, and judgment work well to create tension in a novel. These aspects are visible in Cho Nam-Joo’s novel, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.

In fact, in Cho’s novel, contempt and shame are both subthemes to the main theme of feminism in a Korean setting. I had never considered sexism as a synonym for contempt until I started reading Cho’s novel while I was working on this blog. In one heart-wrenching scene in the novel, a mother chooses to abort a female fetus because only male children are valued. If only male children are valued, females are the objects of societal and even parental contempt. Likewise in the novel, shaming is used as a weapon to control young women. At school, in public, and even at home, teenage girls are shamed if their skirts are too short or if a strange man approaches them on the street. Jiyoung, the protagonist, struggles mightily with the mixed messages she receives from parents and teachers because some are silent while others are judgmental. Later as a young mother, she is shamed for having a daughter instead of a son. She is also shamed by family and strangers for working outside the home when she has a child.

Contempt and Shame in My Novels

In my first novel, the antagonist operates in a contemptuous manner. Shaming is used to try to control the protagonist. In my second novel, the antagonist shows her contempt for others’ relationships. She also shames the protagonist. In my third novel, an oil company demonstrates its contempt for its employees.

My Writing Goals for 2021

Revise and complete a final edit of my first novel, sending it out for review by December 7, 2021: 

This month, I have studied more about my topic but I have not written or edited anything.

Complete a revised draft of my second novel by December 7, 2021:

This month, I have worked on descriptions of place for this novel.

Add 25,000 words to my third novel by December 7, 2021:

This month, I have not worked on this novel.

Publish the Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences:

I did no work on the workbook this month.

Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

Boulder Writers Alliance: This month I met with the officers. I also met with the BWA Newsletter team. I chose not to attend BWA’s in-person socials at local restaurants.

Denver Women’s Press Club: DWPC had an in-person book sale this month, but I did not attend.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers: I listened to a podcast in which Mark Stevens interviewed John DeDakis. They discussed John’s work as a journalist and his success as a novelist. I also read several excellent RMFW blog posts on writing.

Women Writing the West. This month I decided to join an organization that is made up of members who write a variety of types of novels about the western United States. This is of interest to me because my novels take place in Colorado. I am already acquainted with two of the members. The WWW conference will be virtual this fall, so I will be able to attend online. Hopefully, I will learn how to better integrate salient aspects of the West into my stories, while connecting with some kindred spirits.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2021:

Today is August 7, 2021, I am posting my eighth blog of 2021. This month I have been cataloguing stacks of my book collection with the goal of donating the books.

The month of July has been a stressful month around the world. Belgian friends of mine managed to survive the flooding in Europe although they will be housing friends of theirs for months to come. In Colorado, we are suffering from the smoke from forest fires in the mountains and the West Coast, while dealing with mudslides that have closed Interstate 70.

Fortunately, Colorado has a high COVID-19 vaccine rate. In line with today’s theme, I have been doing my best not to feel contempt for those who do not “believe” in vaccines and not to shame the ones I know personally. I do choose to stay away from them. On a daily basis, I am reminded that life itself is filled with drama and tension, yet punctuated with flashes of hope and compassion.

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