Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Joy of Private Shaming

Here’s another reason to value Miss Manners. It’s not just her sense of humor, but her delicate way of allowing people to see the silliness of their complaints. Or even of their questions.

In a somewhat more exalted context, it’s called shaming. As you know, shaming, as a rhetorical device, has been under serious attack lately. Many psycho professionals are espousing the gospel of shamelessness. And then they do not understand why so many young people expose themselves shamelessly through the practice known as sexting.

In the world of shaming, we ought to distinguish between public and private shaming. In principle, an individual who fails a public responsibility should express shame and apologize… in public. If the responsibility was public, the apology should be, too. And then, said derelict should retire from public life for a decent interval. It is the right and honorable thing to do. 

And we ought to emphasize that shaming can be misused, as a weapon to destroy people. The Chinese cultural revolution perfected the art… we are working to catch up.

Thus, New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, having failed to destroy Brett Kavanaugh and to rehabilitate one Al Franken-- one mentions these to show that her motives were purely partisan and morally degenerate-- recently set out to destroy the reputation of Prof. Alan Dershowitz by trotting out a pile of defamatory innuendo.

Dershowitz himself argued that the New Yorker is out to get him because he is a staunch supporter of the state of Israel and because he has appeared on Fox News.

Anyway, if you are going to shame people, to show them the error of their ways, you should do it in private, or, at least, veiled in the cloak of anonymity. In this way the recipient can contemplate the error of “her” ways in private, and thus find a way to control her impulse or to correct herself without being made a fool of in public.

So, here is one letter recently sent to Miss Manners:

I am 13 weeks pregnant and really annoyed with my husband's family members for constantly asking me how I feel and if I'm showing yet. I'm at the point where I am getting angry enough to try to avoid them.

I guess it's because when I do describe how I'm feeling, they don't listen — almost like the question is just something that needs to be asked, and they don't know how to react to a description of sickness.

I feel like telling them that I'm not going to answer that question anymore. I know those words are blunt, but how should I tell my husband's mother, sister, aunts, dad, etc. to stop asking questions?

Fair enough, Miss Manners prefers polite to blunt. So do I. Clearly, the letter writer does better to ask Miss Manners than to blurt out her deepest feelings toward her family members.

In her response Miss Manners tries to put it into perspective:

Now, now. Of all the indignities people routinely direct toward pregnant ladies, “How are you?” is not the worst. It is not even a particularly nosy question, but merely a conventional pleasantry.

There is no need to be snippy to your baby’s close relatives. However, Miss Manners will allow you to give a frank answer, such as “nauseated” or “cranky” (one word; no graphic descriptions) provided that you do it with an impishly apologetic smile. They will not be likely to press you for details. And in all fairness, you would not want them to offer folk remedies or remind you that your discomfort is worth the end result.

A one word riposte, clear and polite, should accomplish the desired end. Doubtless said family members believe that they should say something. One does not know the nature of the communications that have already taken place, but one may well imagine that the family members are, as Miss Manners suggests, merely indulging a conventional pleasantry.

On the very same day, a woman wrote this bizarre letter to Miss Manners. 

I have a friend who lost her husband. I am sending her a thank-you note and am not sure how to address her on the envelope.

To which Miss Manners replied, gracefully and elegantly, pointing out that whatever the woman was thinking was not at all what she said:

Please reassure Miss Manners that you meant a letter of condolence, not a thank-you note. Otherwise, she would not like to hear the backstory.

Clearly, the woman did well to ask Miss Manners before sending the note. She will feel less embarrassment for having made a minor mistake than she would have if she wrote a thank you note to a woman who just lost her husband.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

Miss Manners: Subtle, and smart. Often amusing, too.