James Gilligan on Shame, Guilt and Violence

Shame, Guilt, and Violence / James Gilligan
During the past 35 years I have used prisons and prison mental hospitals as "laboratories" in which to investigate the causes and prevention of the various forms of violence and the relationships between these forms and to what I will call (with a nod to William James) "the varieties of moral experience." In the course of that work, I have been struck by the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners, or mental patients, why they assaulted or even killed someone. Time after time, they would reply "because he disrespected me" or "he disrespected my visitor [or wife, mother, sister, girl-friend, daughter, etc.]." In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it into the slang phrase, "He dis'ed me."

Whenever people use a word so often that they abbreviate it, it is clearly central to their moral and emotional vocabulary. But even when they did not abbreviate it, references to the desire for respect as the motive for violence kept recurring. For example, I used to think that people committed armed robberies in order to get money; and indeed, that is the superficial explanation that they would often prefer to give, to themselves and to us. But when I actually sat down and spoke at length with men who had repeatedly committed such crimes, I would start to hear comments like "I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I pointed a gun at some dude's face."

On one occasion, the officers in a prison had become involved in a running battle with a prisoner in which he would assault them and they would punish him. The more they punished him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they punished him. They placed him in solitary confinement, deprived him of even the last few privileges and possessions a prison inmate has; there was no further punishment to which they could subject him without becoming subject to punishment themselves, and yet he continued to assault them whenever they opened his door. At that point they gave up and asked me to see if I could help them understand what was going on so they could extricate themselves from a situation that was only harming both parties to the conflict. (Incidentally, one can observe this same mutually self-defeating vicious cycle on a national and international scale and throughout history, both in this country and elsewhere, as in Chechnya, Israel-Palestine, and Iraq; and historically, as in the punitive peace settlement following the First World War that strengthened the revanchist political movements that culminated in the Second World War to choose just a few among many possible examples).

When I saw this prisoner I asked him, "What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?" It seemed to me that this was exactly what he was doing. In response, this man, who was usually so inarticulate that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, astonished me by standing up tall, looking me in the eye, and replying with perfect clarity and a kind of simple eloquence: "Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem." And then, speaking more in his usual manner, he added "And I'll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it." He went on to describe how the officers were, he felt, attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and Self-esteem by disrespecting him, and said, "I still have my pride and I won't let them take that away from me. If you ain't got pride, you got nothin'." He made it clear to me that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their demands.. Read more:

Also see: 
James Gilligan Interview: Working with Violent Offenders in Prison Settings
'...I had been taught up to that point that the kinds of people who wind up in prison are totally untreatable—they have no motivation to examine themselves, no motivation for introspection. They wouldn't tell you the truth. They would try to manipulate you by lying to you so that you could help them get an early release date, and on and on.

I was taught all of this and believed it. Then I went into the prisons and discovered that almost everything I had been taught was wrong. And I discovered that it was the most moving experience I had ever had in psychiatry, because I was face to face with the deepest human tragedies on a daily basis. And I mean not just the tragedies these criminals had inflicted on their victims, but also the tragedies they themselves had been victims of in the course of their lives.

What I found was that the most violent among them, and many of those who weren't even at the highest level of violence, had been subjected to a level of child abuse that was beyond the scale of anything I had even thought of applying that term to. As I said earlier, the most violent people were really the survivors of lethal violence, either of their own attempted murders at the hands of one of their parents, or the actual murders of close family members who were often killed by other family members right in front of their eyes' 


James Gilligan is the author of Violence: Reflections on Our Deadliest Epidemic http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/178/2/185.2
This book is a tour de force. The author - a respected forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist - proposes that we approach violence and its prevention in a naturalistic, non-moralistic way, “as a problem of public health and preventative medicine, thinking of violence as a symptom of life-threatening (and often lethal) pathology, which like all forms of illness, has an aetiology or cause, a pathogen”. Elsewhere, Gilligan (2000) has written,
“A consensus on the causes and prevention of violence has been emerging over the past few decades among investigators of this subject from virtually every branch of the behavioural sciences. All specialities, independent of each other, have identified a pathogen that seems to be a necessary but not sufficient cause of violent behaviour, just as specifically as exposure to the tubercle bacillus is necessary but not sufficient for the development of tuberculosis. The difference is that in the case of violence the pathogen is an emotion, not a microbe - namely, the experience of overwhelming shame and humiliation. And just as people's vulnerability to tuberculosis is influenced by the state of their body's defence mechanisms, so their vulnerability to violence is influenced by the state of their psychological defence mechanisms”.
Disarmingly, but convincingly, Gilligan argues that it is really quite clear thatwe can prevent violence and clear, too, how we can do so, if we are sufficiently motivated. He cites compellingly the accepted data of the enormous differences in individual and collective violence in different societies around the world. His especial target is his own country, the USA, which is massively more violent than any other democracy and every other economically developed nation (its prison population is over 2 million - nearly 1% of the population), and just happens to be by far the singular dominant nation of the world in economic and material terms. He quotes Currie (1985): “we have the level of criminal violence we do because we have arranged our social and economic life (as we have)...the brutality and violence of American life are a signal that there are profound social costs to maintain these arrangements”. We have decided that we prefer this to a far less violent alternative.
Central to Gilligan's radical thesis is that violence springs from psychopathological roots of hidden shame and that our societal systems of response are iterative in causing further shame and shaming - thus creating a circle of causation. This is an important, and I believe, considerable claim, which is especially significant at a time of moralism and righteousness. There are huge clinical and pragmatic consequences. Experience of shame is antithetical to thought and breeds crude defensive reactions, such as ‘ macho’ attitudes and even violence, it is related phenomenologically to paranoia. ‘Guilt’, on the other hand, is often the secret that demands to be spoken (hence, confession and psychotherapy)...

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