Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Has Shame Lost Its Sting?

It's one thing to ask why we are so interested in scandal. Following Laura Kipnis I did it two weeks ago. Link here.

It's quite a different thing to ask what happens to the culture when scandal becomes a staple of everyone's mental diet, and what we should do when it does.

Laura Kipnis addresses those questions today, as part of her abbreviated presentation of her book: How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior. Link to her new essay here.

Given the new media, and especially given the prevalence of social media, the chances for public exposure and humiliation have been multiplying.

Aspects of personal life that would never have been revealed have become subjects of everyday conversation. Images that were reserved for intimate moments are on public view on the internet.

We have, as a result, become desensitized to scandal. When a major public figure like Pres. Bill Clinton is caught with his pants down, we express appropriate horror and then quickly forgive him his indiscretion. Within two years of the Lewinsky scandal Bill Clinton was back on top of the world.

Kipnis argues that we are fast losing our sense of shame, and since shame is the emotion that regulates the distinction between what is fit for public consumption and what must always remain private, the boundary between public and private is disappearing.

I consider her point well taken, though there are also some counterexamples that are worthy of attention. Bill Clinton might have overcome his personal scandal, but, by all reports, Monica Lewinsky has not.

Kipnis does not seem to be concerned about it, but when you break down the barrier between public and private, when you allow private matters to seep over into public interactions, you are going to undermine decorum and propriety, making it more difficult, if not impossible, to function with a harmonious community.

How can people deal with the culture's loss of a sense of the importance of shame. Many people have tried to pretend that exposure is no big deal. The prevalence of confessional memoirs and high school sexting tells us that many people are trying to reduce the shame attendant on overexposure by inducing more people to expose more of their private life.

Shame isolates and ostracizes and rejects people. If everyone is doing the same thing, if everyone is equally exposed, then there will be less of a feeling of being a pariah.

Kipnis also recommends that we deal with this situation by becoming addicted to scandal. I suppose that this is a variant on the addiction to pornography, pornoholism.

I imagine that she is being provocative by using the word addiction, but my own observations of addicts would not lead me to recommend that anyone become addicted to anything.

We can revel in bad behavior, especially the bad behavior of others, and feel that we have just found a new and innocent diversion. And yet, the more we enjoy bad behavior, the more entertaining we find it, the more people will be induced and enticed to behave badly. The more people behave badly the more dysfunctional society will become.

You cannot run a business or a family if you are constantly distracted from the task at hand by the latest scandal. Such addictive preoccupations are anything but economical. They are, dare I say, decadent. And decadent cultures, as much fun as they must be, end being poorer for as much.

If shame has lost its sting, the reason must be that we have become numbed to it. For all the thrills we gain from each day's new scandal, it is not necessarily a good thing to dull the emotional barometer that tells you when you have been offended or demeaned, or when you have simply done wrong or failed.

If you are sensitized to insult you can address one the first time it happens. If you are desensitized, you will be absorbing a serious amount of abuse before you start feeling emotional pain. By then you will no longer be able to respond temperately, but will feel compelled to seek justice for a pattern of abuse.

And this same shame, when it is functioning correctly, will also  tell you when you have made a mistake, when you have gone astray, when you have failed yourself or others. No shame, no feelings of having failed. No feelings of having failed, an excessive confidence, even an arrogance, about your own abilities.

You may think that there is something good about overcoming shame, because shame is the most painful emotion, and we do want to protect people from pain. Yet, toying with human nature is usually a bad idea.

When people have lost their sense of shame they behave more rudely, they will insult you with impunity, will abuse you and invade your privacy, and will feel that they have a right to be offensive, vulgar, and generally disrespectful.

People will no longer get along; they will act out psychodramas. Their lives will be consumed in the passions that are provoked by bad behavior.

In a culture that extols bad behavior work does not get done, people do not have satisfying relationships-- either friendly or erotic-- and they do not know how to cooperate, collaborate, or live harmoniously in community.

If shame regulates behavior; if it promotes good behavior and shows how to deal with bad behavior to ensure that it be less likely to be repeated, what happens when we lose our sense of shame? How are we to know good from bad behavior, right from wrong, what we should do and what we shouldn't even think of doing?

If shame does not work, then a culture will fall back on guilt as a regulator. If it no longer makes sense to ostracize people-- that being the primary sanction in a shame culture-- then we will have to punish them when they misbehave.

Many people find the guilt/punishment model more liberating than the shaming model. As a culture we only punish the most grievous transgressions. A guilt culture will punish you for committing grand larceny; a shame culture will shame you for being rude and disrespectful, and sometimes, even for looking or acting strange.

Even though a guilt culture tolerates more bad behavior, it also produces a dysfunctional social environment.

But what happens in a guilt culture when people misbehave, insult and offend and abuse their neighbors? These are not crimes; they do not do not gain you a place in the local penitentiary.

The culture deals with them by filing lawsuits. Bad behavior is regulated through the system of tort law. When a simple apology will not do, when a pledge not to offend again does not cut it, people decide that they can only gain justice by suing, thus, punishing the offending party-- not by taking his time or his hand or his life-- but by taking his money or his property.


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Whither 'Shame'

Shame is a feeling of remorse brought on by personal or public recognition of not living up to a set of standards.

If one makes up their own 'standards', they can easily modify them to excuse themselves whenever they break said standards. This is like the 'situational ethics' practiced by the Kennedy administration, as described in Harry S. Truman's biography, Plain Speaking.

Kennedy knew his philandering was wrong. But having no shame, he did it anyway. And everyone knew about it. But no one spoke about it. Except maybe Marilyn Monroe was about to when she had that unfortunate 'accident' with sleeping pills.

And there's more to it than just peccadillos. Consider hospital staff who don't wash their scrubs or smocks for a week at a time? Walking about in public as a petri dish collection of various drug-resistant strains of nasty bacteria.

Hygene, especially in a hospital is a standard medical professionals MUST keep, for the sake of the public welfare. However, if they have no 'shame', they go about doing what is a threat to peoples health.

That's just one example. There's a train-wreck outside of Denver back in the 80s where the autopsy of the crew found they were all high on drugs.


[When pride cometh, then cometh shame....]

Buy Micardis 40 mg said...

I read your blog on daily basis.This post is awesome in between all the posts.I wanna say heartiest thanks to you for this.

Buy Celebrex said...

Keep up the good work!I genuinely enjoy Here’s how it’s simple by my eyes and also the info in most cases are great written.