Pushcart 2021 XLV: Karen Bender, “The Shame Exchange” from Yale Review Online January 2019

YRO art: Nicolae Tonitza, Bread Line, 1920
No one knew who originally proposed it; the government would mandate an exchange of shame. Citizens who held too much shame, which interfered with their lives and productivity, would come to an official site where their shame would be handed to a government official who had none. Many people, in both the federal and technology sectors, were involved in organizing this exchange, and it had not been easy to agree on the terms. The government was, for years, not sufficiently responsive to the needs of its citizens and this was what a panel finally decided to do.

When I read this first paragraph of the story, I yelled out, “YES!” Fortunately I was alone in my living room at the time. I was thrilled that someone had put into words, into a scenario, what I’ve been feeling – what many of us have been feeling – over the past few years. That a deficiency of shame has been the most destructive force in dismantling fairness and justice. Not just a deficiency of shame: a negative transfer of shame, from sanctimonious politicians and commentators to the people they judge to be less than, while making sure those people stay less than. It works at the top (deciding not to hold a hearing on a Supreme Court judge nine months before an election because it’s too late, then cramming one in one month before the next election, just because you can)  to the bottom (creating an arcane system of rules and restrictions around SNAP and WIC so that it’s almost certain the people behind a coupon user in the grocery store are going to get annoyed, and guess who they get annoyed at. I’m convinced the purpose of such restrictions is the creation of this annoyance – increasing shame within the person’s immediate vicinity – than than any monetary or nutritional benefits. Of course, this is just my uninformed opinion, and I’m sure there are a dozen reasons it’s wrong, but I still think it’s confusion by design for the purpose of stigmatization). Then there’s blaming meat packers and poultry processors for the explosion of COVID-19 in their ranks because they live in their own cultural conditions, conditions like crowded households of multiple families required by the low wages they are paid. And that’s just off the top of my head, a starter set of things some officials should be ashamed of.

Whew. That felt good. But this is supposed to be about the story, about writing.

The tone of the story – from the nebulous, distant third-person narrator – is almost as bureaucratic as the solution it provides for the imbalance of shame: Those judged to have too much shame will undergo a procedure that turns that shame into a physical substance – “It was generally the size of a large pillow and resembled a raw steak” – and report en masse to a building where they line up across from a line of officials judged to have too little shame – get your hands out of your pants, Rudy, you’re not tucking in your shirt and we all know it – for the exchange. The politicians wear masks to conceal their identity, and resist the procedure. But it happens. Afterwards, one group goes skipping away for ice cream, and the other slinks into their limos. Guess which is which.

There is no central character, except perhaps the narrator and the never-identified government body that mandates the exchange. Normally, a story personalizes such events, tracing one person’s story, which brings the reader closer to feeling the humanity behind the situation. But here, the relief of the shame-givers, and the discomfort and arrogance of the shame-receivers, is clearly shown, but the emphasis is on the societal role, rather than the effect on individuals. It helps us get a little closer to demanding that government, instead of being a rule-enforcing bureaucracy, create solutions to problems, even the problems it creates itself.

So much work had gone into this exchange, so much planning. Was this, finally, the strategy that would help the nation? The organizers watched the officials get into their cars. The cars started, turned, and drove onto the highway. Those at the warehouse stood, watching the cars vanish into the distance, and then everyone—carefully—cheered.

Bender made an interesting choice to end the story with the exchange, explicitly asking the question, “Was this, finally, the strategy that would help the nation?” This “Lady or the Tiger” ending sets up a debate for readers, who can imagine and discuss different possibilities. The most optimistic view: the officials will find shame so painful they will stop giving themselves tax breaks while the people who work the hardest – and don’t kid yourself, food service, chicken plucking, housekeeping, personal care are harder than writing reports or trading stocks, and for the past year, more deadly – get less and less. More realistically, perhaps, is that the shame recipients are psychologically hard-wired to reject shame, which is why they have so little of it to begin with. Or they will leave office and a new crop of the shameless will come into power.

Logistics aside, we can even ask if a deficiency of shame is the overall problem. Does greed – and you can argue over whether greed for money or greed for power are different things – play into it as well? This is why the story makes a wonderful avenue into thinking about how society can – should? – be structured, into looking at the question (borrowing from T.M. Scanlon and Chidi Anagonye), what do we owe each other.

One brief wag of the finger to Pushcart: they list the story as an essay. That happens from time to time. There is an essay-like quality to the prose, but, obviously, it’s fiction.

I was so intrigued by this story, I went looking for Bender, to see if it appears in any of her books. No, it doesn’t, but the description of her 2018 collection The New Order appealed to me, so that’s on its way to me now. Whether I’ll get to it this year, I don’t know – my In-Between-Reading bookshelf is sagging under the weight of rereads and new reads I’ve been picking up over the past several months – but l want it in the lineup. I think Refund will find its way here next year.

Yes, this is one of my more impulsive, less thought-out posts. I may regret it some day. But the idea of bringing back shame to public servants bypasses the inhibition center of my frontal lobe and has me writing from the emotional center, rather than reason, at a scream. That’s what an effective story does.

 * * *

Complete story available online at Yale Review.

3 responses to “Pushcart 2021 XLV: Karen Bender, “The Shame Exchange” from Yale Review Online January 2019

  1. There is an excellent craft essay by Amber Caron analyzing a short story “Snake” by Rebecca Evanhoe. Caron focuses on how shame works in the story and how shame works in fiction in general. The story is paywalled but subscribers to Harpers can read it here. https://harpers.org/archive/2011/11/snake/

    Here’s one paragraph from Caron’s essay:

    “In my search for stories and novels, this issue of shame appeared again and again. Characters trying to hide their poverty, their skin color, their sexual desires, their physical deformities, the disgraceful way they treated a friend or parent or child. There is much to be said about how shame functions in fiction, but it’s helpful to divide these stories into two categories: those that use shame as a point of arrival, and those that use it as a point of departure.”

    • Hi Keith, good to hear from you again!

      That’s an interesting way of looking at this story in particular, which involves both arrivals and departures relative to shame. When my local library reopens (right now, books are available for check-out by appointment, but periodicals are still languishing on the lower level by themselves) I’ll track down that article.

      It occurred to me during this post that shame was a hot topic back in the 80s and 90s in pop psychology – more pathological than guilt, which is feeling bad about something you’ve done, shame is a feeling about who you are and is almost always based on social evaluations of others. No one feels shame about being poor unless they’re told that they’re poor because they don’t work hard enough or that God rewards good people with wealth so they must be bad. Then there’s gender-based shame, which Christianity has institutionalized and capitalized on to the benefit of patriarchy.

  2. Pingback: Pushcart 2021 XLV: Click to End | A Just Recompense

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