At 86, psychiatrist and part-time Vineyarder James Gilligan just published his eighth book, “Holding a Mirror Up to Nature: Shame, Guilt, and Violence in Shakespeare.” For more than 50 years, Dr. Gilligan has studied violence, run healing programs in prisons, written countless articles and book chapters, and served as an advisor on the topic of violent crime to a range of world leaders and organizations, including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Kofi Annan, the World Health Organization, and the World Court. He is currently a professor at NYU.
Recently, I had the honor of talking with Dr. Gilligan about violence. Our conversation focused on his thoughts about the connection between shame and violence.
CS: What causes people to become violent?
JG: I have gotten to know thousands of people who committed horrific acts of violence. Most of them had committed violence against individuals, but some had perpetrated war crimes and acts of terrorism, and many had enacted violence toward themselves, often in attempted suicides. Every single one of them had been overwhelmed by feelings of shame and humiliation prior to their acts of violence. Now, all of us have felt shame or felt rejected over the course of our lives. Narcissistic injury throughout life is inevitable. Obviously most people don’t murder, maim, and mutilate others. Shame is a necessary but not essential ingredient to violence. The body has multiple defense mechanisms that respond to infection, and the same is true for how we deal with shame and humiliation. Those who respond to it with acts of violence were taught this particular response, so they commit acts of violence in situations in which most others would not.
We were all taught in medical school that all human behavior is the product of interactions between biological, psychological, and social determinants. People who react to shame and humiliation with violence lack a sense of self-worth and self-respect (the psychological determinant), and have been taught violence in their homes and communities (the social determinant). Pride is the opposite of shame, and a necessary antidote to the production of violence. Education, having a respectable job, feeling respected in the community all make violence much rarer statistically.
CS: Are there particular characteristics of the violent people you have worked with?