We tend to confuse embarrassment and shame. We might say that embarrassment is a shallower or lighter version of shame, yet we still think of them as two words for the same thing. But if we are to be precise, embarrassment and shame are distinct from one another.
Embarrassed is how we feel when we act out of character or deviate from an internal expectation of ourselves. What is embarrassing for one person might not be embarrassing for someone else. I feel embarrassed when I trip in public, but you might feel unembarrassed when you do the same.
Ashamed is how we feel when we act in poor character, when we deviate from a more universal standard. What is shameful for someone should be shameful for everyone. We all should feel ashamed when we lie, cheat or steal.
There are times when a university might be embarrassed. This past football season, the University of Mississippi unwittingly featured a pornographic actor dressed in a doctor’s coat on a souvenir cup honoring the state’s “healthcare heroes.” This gaff was, quite obviously, a deviation from the administration’s internal expectation about itself. It responded to this embarrassment by mitigating any further damage to its reputation, by never acknowledging the event and by letting the whole fiasco fade into memory. This course of action was, more or less, an appropriate response to the event.
Then, there are times when a university should be ashamed. For years, officials have publicly condemned racism while privately coddling racist alumni. For months, officials mishandled — by their own admission — a secret investigation into the now-infamous photograph of armed students posing in front of the sign marking the place where Emmett Till’s body was found.
For weeks, officials have ignored widespread demands for a proper explanation of the dismissal of Garrett Felber. It should be obvious that Felber was not fired because he won an unauthorized grant for his department. Instead, he was fired because he gave cause for administrators to feel embarrassed again and again and again. If only his bosses had felt not embarrassed but ashamed.
Taken together, these cases point to a wider pattern of how the UM administration fails to handle the tragedies, crises and scandals which beleaguer our community. In each instance — a glimpse of a culture-marked bigotry and nepotism, a potential hate crime, another chapter in our school’s long history of repressing anti-racist speech — the Lyceum has responded with damage control, radio silence and an enduring faith in the shortness of our own attention spans. As a result, the university’s response to almost distributing thousands of plastic cups graced by the likeness of an adult film star and the university’s response to gravely abusing people are virtually indistinguishable.
All this is to say that the University of Mississippi confuses embarrassment and shame on what seems an hourly basis. The school seeks to avoid embarrassment, instead of sitting with its shame. Instead of dealing with the consequences of its actions, the University of Mississippi attempts to manage the perceptions of its actions. Instead of safeguarding our community, those within the Lyceum and those close to it obsess over enrollment rates and property values and tax revenues.
No one cares if the University of Mississippi is embarrassed, feels out of character or acts clumsily from time to time. We all should care, however, that the university finds its good character, acts decently and makes real efforts to exemplify a good school. We all would be better off if the University of Mississippi found its sense of shame for once.
John Hydrisko is a senior English, philosophy and history major from Philadelphia, Penn.