30 Dec 2019

The history of shame in Aotearoa

From Summer Times, 9:16 am on 30 December 2019

Over time, shame has changed in how it's felt on an individual and societal scale. There are many factors that are at play including moral and religious beliefs, social class and views on gender identity.

Barbara Brookes is a professor of history at Otago University and has been digging into how our fascinations with reputations, both bad and good, have changed since the early 1800s.

Professor Barbara Brookes

Photo: Supplied

Prof Brookes told Summer Times that shame is both an individual feeling and a social construct. Some people might feel it when they go against their code of behaviour without others necessarily knowing, but on a wider scale, for example, it’s also how divorcees in the past were made to feel ashamed of their marital status. 

“It would depend who you are. I think there are very different codes of honour within Māori society than Pākehā society and very gendered codes of honour probably in both societies.  

“So I don't think we can say there's one concept of shame, I think it's multiple, but there's often a kind of shared cultural value that holds things together.” 

However, Europeans upon their arrival to New Zealand had promoted their own cultural ideas about appropriate behaviours, some of which probably was offensive to Māori, she says. 

“Māori had very different styles where they kept cooking separate from where they slept and there were concepts of tapu to keep common food away from the body. But inadvertently the European style of housing crossed those arrangements.  

“And probably in the other way, it seems scandalous to Māori that Europeans went around touching heads … or doing laundry in the same place you would prepare food.” 

There’s also the collective sense of shame versus the individual level, and the topics that involve these tend to get people defensive, she says.  

“[People] sometimes break it down into 'well, I'm the person, I'm not responsible. I'm not responsible for colonialism', without seeing the wider social context in which we all profited from a colonial project which empowered our families, and disempowered Māori.” 


Religious beliefs have also influenced people’s feelings about shame, she says, and there’s often an argument about whether it’s shame or guilt. 

"Often they would think of guilt as engendered by having a certain set of beliefs and not adhering to them … So I think the kind of difference between shame and guilt is that guilt you can apologise for whereas shame is so internalised. 

“It's quite interesting to think where our moral compass comes from because I myself am not a religious person but I believe I have a moral sense and if I offend that sense, I might feel shame. Although people somehow ... conflate morality with religion in a way that I think is unproductive.” 


Shame for women and men has differed and transformed as time has passed, Prof Brooke says. For much of the 19th and 20th Century, men who couldn’t fulfill their role as a breadwinner were made to feel ashamed. 

“There are so many women alive today that we could still talk to who would tell us that their husbands wouldn't let them work, because it was somehow an aspersion on their manhood.

“It was very deeply-felt that to have a working wife somehow meant that you as a man were not performing your role.” 

One of the transitions of shame that’s happened is how men who refused to fight in WWI are viewed, she says. 

“We've seen that those men who refused to fight in World War I, and were vilified for it, punished, given white feathers by women, are now regarded as national heroes.  

"With Vietnam [War] being seen as a useless war and New Zealanders not wanting to fight for overseas causes anymore, it reflects a lot about where the nation's at.” 

Men who volunteered during the war but were found to have venereal disease were taken to an island to be treated, because it was deemed shameful, Prof Brooke says. 

“I mean, on the one hand, you're recruiting the best, and the fittest and then these men turn up to volunteer, and it's found out that they've got the venereal disease. So they have to be treated, but they have to be treated quietly, because we don't want to think New Zealand manhood is not up to the task.” 

She says society’s application of shame in being homosexual in the past has now shifted with Gay Pride, and her theory is that the contraceptive pill had something to do with the mindshift. 

“That's a huge transition in our society, and our students, who were born after 1986, find it a very strange thing that homosexuality was once illegal. 

“What sort of made sex [be seen] as recreation rather than procreation, [and] more acceptable was the advent of the contraceptive pill, because once women could control their fertility, they could have sex as recreation.  

“Whereas earlier, there'd always been the fear of getting pregnant … [but] if the procreation [aspect] has fallen right out and people are doing it for recreation and pleasure, then why are you denying a certain group?” 

Prof Brooke notes that social class also played a role in what was seen as acceptable behaviour, and subsequently what would be seen as shameful. But for women, a lot of shame revolved around sexual behaviour, she says. 

“For example, one of my students did a dissertation called 'bastardry made easy' where in working class communities, illegitimate children were absorbed. So it wasn't so shameful in that society.  

“But as we know in the mid 20th century, a lot of women were forced to give birth out of town, if they got pregnant out of wedlock, there was all sorts of stigma around it, they gave up their babies for adoption in the way that was thought to enable them to create a new life.” 

The emergence and popularity of the contraceptive pill also changed things in the early ‘70s at university for women, who couldn’t admit to living with their boyfriends and had to keep it secret, Prof Brooke says. 

“I mean, in 1971 I think the University Council at Otago had a debate as to whether Student Health should prescribe the pill to unmarried women, because they regarded themselves as in loco parentis.  

“But then they looked at the number of young women having to leave university who were pregnant. So that became a good argument to actually prescribe the pill.”  

Shame works both ways

While traditionally and historically shame has mostly worked in negative ways, Prof Brooke says it can be a powerful tool to cast light on important issues or hold people in power to account. 

“The Springbok tour is a really interesting case, where you know there was a national day of shame when the protesters against the tour tried to call the government to account for not adhering to the Gleneagles agreement.” 

She says she isn’t suggesting people go around shaming others, but there are things New Zealand should be ashamed of, like its national child abuse statistics. 

“It would be a good thing if we thought more about that as a nation and thought how to make it better for children. 

“....in a way in the earlier time, there were these lines of connection between parents and children that tried to hold families in place.  

“The male breed with the woman at home there to raise the children ... but the focus was on raising those children. And now we've pulled that apart, children might fall through the cracks.” 

Prof Brooke says teaching this course has been rewarding to show younger people that our values haven’t always been the same. 

“By looking at the past through this lens of ‘why did people find divorce such a shameful thing?’ it makes them reimagine the past.  

“One of the big challenges of being a historian is trying to imagine yourself in the past and why people felt the way they did.”