Friday, May 7, 2010

A Culture of Shamelessness

Thanks to technological advances, too many of us are overexposed. We share our private moments with our thousands of Facebook friends. We think nothing of revealing our friends' secrets, even to the point of taking pictures of them in unguarded or intimate moments, and then sharing our bounty with the world.

Since everyone seems to be doing it, it's beginning to feel like the new normal.

Before going any further I will mention that I always hesitate before blaming things on technology. Ridicule as a political tactic was not invented with the internet. The risk of having our secrets betrayed has existed as long as there have been secrets. Gossip is not new.

If anything, the fact that so many people are revealing so much that had previously been the province of intimates suggests that we have overcome our feelings of shame and embarrassment, to the point where we seem to be entering a culture of shamelessness.

For my part I would give considerable credit to the therapy culture. Talk shows, reality shows, and memoirists have all told us that shame is bad, that we need to be more open about expressing our feelings and sharing our intimacy. Most often they are talking about the shame that accompanies traumatic abuse; they want to see victims of sexual molestation testify in court and tell about it on Oprah.

But they also encouraging us to expose private matters in public. Think of Katie Couric having her colonoscopy televised. And she was not the only one.

Whatever anyone thinks of adolescent sexting habits and the availability of porn, it is also true that we are constantly exposed to ads and posters and displays of women in their underwear. Surely, it is a pleasant and agreeable sight, but still, the fact that we do not even think twice about it suggests that we have succeeded in overcoming a goodly quantity of our senses of embarrassment and shame.

So, if you ask how people can overcome the loss of embarrassment and shame, numbness would be one of the first things that comes to mind.

Jeffrey Zaslow wrote in the Wall Street Journal that we live in an age of humiliation, by which he means not only that we are all threatened by exposure far more than anyone in the past, but that we do not think twice about subjecting our enemies, and perhaps even our friends, to ridicule. Link here.

Perhaps it was happenstance, but after I read Zaslow's piece I came upon Christine Rosen's more comprehensive article: "The Death of Embarrassment." Link here. Her article is longer and more theoretical.

If you put them together, and assume that both true, you would have to say that the threat of exposure and humiliation has numbed us to the negative emotions of embarrassment and shame.

Of course, there are other ways. We can defend ourselves against the constant threat of exposure by exposing ourselves. That almost counts as a counterphobic response. You feel compelled to prove that you are not afraid of heights, so you become a mountain climber.

But we do not need to defend our own dignity. We are also, as social beings, compelled to defend the dignity of our friends. But, how do you defend your friend's modesty when she has humiliated herself? You would do the same thing she has done. That way, she will not feel alone.

Take a high school girl who sexts a naked picture of herself to her boyfriend. Said boyfriend then shares it with the rest of the soccer team and the girl is mortified beyond human endurance. Her girlfriends can make her feel better by running off to expose themselves on Girls Gone Wild. If they are all in it together, then it must be OK. Their friend no longer feels ostracized, separated from the group for having revealed her intimacy.

Keep in mind that the face save is never just yours. When you see someone who has exposed too much, your first instinct is to cover him or her up.

As Rosen points out clearly, shame is a social emotion. So is embarrassment. Both are sanctions people feel when they fail to live up to the norms of proper behavior. Together they form the basis for our membership in community.

According to Rosen, the difference between shame and embarrassment lies in the fact that shame involves a major failure, the kind that risks getting you expelled from the group or that requires you to resign from it. The CEO who leads his company into bankruptcy; the general whose strategy causes his army to lose a major battle are examples of shame. The same can be said of the college student who is caught cheating on a final exam.

Embarrassment is elicited by a more minor slip-up, a more minor breach of etiquette or decorum. A piece of lint on the sleeve of your jacket, a piece of spinach in your teeth, an open fly... any of these can cause embarrassment. They do not threaten your membership in the group, but they do risk reducing your status in it.

In Chinese there are two different terms for "face." One, lien, refers to one's belonging to a group. The other, mianzi, involves one's place within the group.

Or else, compare shame to guilt. When a man commits a crime, assuming that he does not have accomplices, he and only he is going to be punished for it. Guilt is the province of the individual.His wife and children will not be held responsible for his criminal activity. They will not be serving his sentence with him.

Yet, the commission of a crime also constitutes a major social failure, effecting the reputations of the rest of his family. They may be treated as social pariahs, or they may remain on lesser speaking terms with their neighbors. They will share his shame, but not his guilt.

If, as Rosen suggests, we are comfortable having our teeth whitened in front of the passers-by in the mall, then we have overcome a certain level of embarrassment. If we no longer really care how we look to others-- in some part because the therapy culture has been pounding the message that we should not-- then we have conquered embarrassment.

I mention in passing that most of us would be much happier if our fellow citizens cared just a little bit more about how they look when they go out in public.

If no one cares what anyone else thinks of him, does that mean that we have created a culture of shamelessness? After all, if shame is as bad as the therapy culture says it is, why would shamelessness not be good? Hasn't the therapy culture been working long and hard for all these many years to destroy our shame culture, the one that requires etiquette and decorum, propriety and modesty, honor and duty?

You need a sense of embarrassment to be motivated to practice civility. And you need a sense of shame to be motivated to feel honor and to act responsibly, as your duty dictates. Without these sanctions you will only feel responsible to yourself, and will believe that life is about getting away with what you can until you get caught.

A culture of shamelessness is really a culture based on guilt, where life is a perpetual and exhausting drama of crime and punishment, of abuse and retribution. It's every man for himself, you are on your own, nothing else matters but what you can get for yourself.

In a guilt culture, if actions are not specifically designated to be illegal, then you have the inalienable right to do it. And if other people do not like it, if they still have a residual sense of decorum, well they need to be denounced for being judgmental.

If you want to see this kind of culture in action today, look at what is happening on the streets of Athens. The people who risk losing some of their pensions or salaries are creating a violent political drama that makes no sense whatever. They want what they believe is theirs; the rest of the country be damned. They do not seem to realize that if the country is not bailed out they will be losing even more than the current austerity measures dictate.

As some have suggested, America is on its merry way to becoming another Greece. The way to avoid it is for more and more people, from Wall Street bankers to labor union leaders, to put the good of the nation ahead of their personal benefits.

This will require draconian measures, considerable political will, and a cohesive shame culture. Time will tell whether we have it, but for now the signs are not encouraging.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The way to avoid it is for more and more people, from Wall Street bankers to labor union leaders, to put the good of the nation ahead of their personal benefits.

That's a great point. However, my entire life, I've had a big part of my paycheck taken against my will to "help" whomever.

I've been forced to put 'the good of whomever' before my family and myself. I'm not happy about it.

When push comes to shove, I will push and shove.