Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | April 5, 2015

On Shame

Monica Lewinsky has re-emerged, and I say good for her! Please take the 20-something minutes out of your life to watch the video. It’s well worth it. 

I agree completely that “Internet shaming as a blood sport has got to stop,” and I applaud her call for a more compassionate culture, both off and online. Nothing good comes from public shaming of private indiviuduals, usually women, usually over sexual misconduct. Innocent lives have been ruined — even lost — by the vicious words of anonymous haters spewed for no legitimate reasons.

There is another consequence of this cultural coarsening, in which the whole concept of “shame” has been so perverted that its true purpose — yes, shame has a purpose — has been lost. 

Shame is the feeling of distress or humiliation caused by the awareness of having done something wrong or foolish. Note that it requires two separate components: both the action, and the awareness that the action is wrong or foolish. In verb form, it means inflicting the emotion on someone else by making them aware that their actions are shameful. This presumes that the individual is not already aware of it him or herself. 

So how can shame be good? Simple. Fear of shame, and therefore its avoidance, is a powerful motivation to refrain from wrong or foolish behavior, be it words or actions. 

Remember when the expression, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself” actually had an effect on behavior? One of the darkest episodes in twentieth century American history, the reign of reputational terror known as McCarthyism, was finally brought to an end by a courageous lawyer name Joseph Welch who basically told Joseph McCarthy that he ought to be ashamed of himself. (His actual words were, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”)

There was a time when shame, specifically public shaming of public figures, served to hold those public figures in check. Nowadays, I can’t help but think that the relative explosion of shaming has served to dull the responses to it of those who really should be ashamed. The O’Reillys, Limbaughs, Palins, Cruz’s,  Tea Party folk and their predominantly Republican Congressional ilk who lie, slander, and hypocritize (is that a verb? If not, it should be) their way into our lives trumpeting the evils of “big government” all the while pure and simply ought to be ashamed of themselves. “Ought to” being the operative words. 

Perhaps when the poor choices of young people, troubled gay and questioning teens, and of course women of any age who dare to buck so-called societal “norms” of occupation, appearance, or sexuality cease to be fodder for relentless Internet shaming — what Lewinsky calls the “culture of humiliation” — then those who ought to be ashamed will no longer be able to hide behind the ho-hum numbness of “everyone does it.”

If nothing else, it can’t help but improve our civic discourse.

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Responses

  1. Of course, there is no shame in having sexual relations with a married man (serial philanderer though he may be).

  2. Doc, I agree with you 100%. As for the first comment here, I might as well try to teach algebra to a cat than to try to suggest compassion for Monica, whose stupidest decision has defined her life. There but by the grace of God …

  3. Actually I do have compassion for Monica. She was one of many women victimized by the serial philanderer-in-chief over the years. However, having compassion for her is not mutually exclusive with the opinion that we should also recognize that there is plenty of shame to go around, and not just for ‘predominately Republicans.’

  4. I gather from the foregoing, particularly the one that says “plenty of shame to go around”, that anyone, male or female, who has ever had a sexual relationship with someone other than his/her spouse has reason for shame. If that is so, yes, indeed, there is plenty of shame to go around.

  5. Tom, if you haven’t seen the TED talk Doc is referring to, I’d highly recommend you watch it. We all did stupid things in our youth, now imagine if one really stupid (and private) thing that you did in your early 20s was given national prominence and defined you for your entire adult life. The fact that so many people *still* think she needs to be shamed for an affair 20 years ago… when there are other public figures who are intentionally behaving horribly, in a way that actually affects us, and are not jumped on in the same way she was… make me shake my head in disbelief.

  6. “The O’Reillys, Limbaughs, Palins, Cruz’s, Tea Party folk and their predominantly Republican Congressional ilk . . .”

    Seems a little one-sided, Doc. Are you saying there is no need for shame on the other side of the aisle?


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