Is there such a thing as shame any more? Some people, it seems, can do the most reprehensible, felonious, and/or disgusting things, yet the word ‘shameful’ never seems to be ascribed to what they have done.
By shameful behaviors I don’t necessarily mean violations of public mores per se, though that might be included. What I mean more is violations of what should be personal integrity. One assumes that most of us have standards of behavior to which we subscribe, and it is shaming those we should be getting burrs in our underwear.
Back when I was still counselling a few years ago I once asked a colleague why he thought it was that some addicts and/or alcoholics got clean and sober and stayed that way, regardless of their education, intelligence and other factors, and others never did nor never would.
He said he had no clear-cut answer to the question, and had often pondered it himself. The only thing he had concluded is that those who do recover are those who felt that in their substance abuse, they had violated a personal sense of integrity. They felt they were ‘better’ than their behaviors indicated they were.
In other words, they had shame. And it can be argued that their shame saved their lives.
There was a time in which shame was very much part of both our morality, and sometimes even legalities. If a person acted shamefully, he or she was ordered to not only be contrite, but to be publicly contrite. Consequently, we had pillories and stocks for misfeasors and blasphemers; the dunking stool for gossips and scolds, and other bits of gear designed to humiliate those who’d transgressed. In literature, the most famous case of public humiliation would be the scarlet A forced on Miss Hester Prynne for her alleged adultery with, as it turns out, the dude she did the illicit nasty with, but who also condemned her.
The ultimate in shaming was, needless to say, public shunning, with the extreme example being excommunication, as practiced by the Roman Catholics, and still in vogue with some religious sects to this day.
In no way am I advocating such public humiliation – though it is tempting, come on, admit it – but I do believe we have lost the demand that we show contrition for our dirty deeds, and consequently it seems sufficient in our liberal society to let people off with a simple “I’m sorry.”
But, that isn’t really contrition; apology is dead easy.
Being stuck in the stocks and lambasted with rotten tomatoes and dog poop, on the other hand, might make a body think about his or her bad behavior.
Of course, ultimately, shame is what we feel within, and if society has loosened so much that nobody feels shame about making a public spectacle, with or without underpants, we’re going to be hard-pressed to humiliate folks.
As a final note, however, I will suggest there is great virtue to shame, as in the case of the addicts I mentioned earlier. Bust a person for DUI and they just might change their ways; especially if the case is publicized.
Case in point. At my original newspaper we had a custom of publishing the names of literally ‘all’ people who appeared in court on DUI charges. As far as the publisher was concerned, it was a public service and it just might make our roads safer. Nobody, but nobody got off the hook. If the Queen drove through town with snootful and got nailed, her name would have appeared in our august pages.
This went along swimmingly until the day our publisher found himself charged with the infraction. The editor of the day (this was before my time there), perhaps feeling that discretion was the better part of valor, and continuing in his job was the better part of household income, offered to overlook the publisher’s misfortune.
The publisher wouldn’t hear a word of it, despite his shame and mortification.
“We have a rule about that,” he said. “And whatever applies to everybody else, applies to me, too.”
He also, speaking of the virtue of shame, quit drinking at that point and never took it up again.