In any society not in a state of civil war, shame is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful. Individuals or organizations caught cheating, lying or otherwise doing evil, when exposed and called out, are expected to be embarrassed. They should repent their sins and promise to make amends. Other than pure coercion, what else can disarm those who violate the norms of society?
Evolutionary biologists tell us shame is hardwired not only in humans but many other social animals. (They may not experience shame the same way humans do, but the outward markers and consequences are the same.) We seek group membership in good standing, and while there is an incentive to exploit others for personal gain, or just relax our commitment for a while, the punishment of group rejection is a more powerful force. That’s what holds us together.
It is natural that shame is invoked as a political weapon. Corrupt businessmen, politicians and public officials may be flying high, but if we can document the facts they are trying to hide, we can clean them out. A video documenting otherwise hidden police abuse, an audio recording of the murder of civilians released by Wikileaks, the disclosure of evidence of law-breaking by justices or political leaders should accomplish this. Also testimony from women abused by powerful men: if they come forward and tell the world what really happened, that should stop abuse in its tracks.
All of this depends on the biological mechanism of shame to kick in: those whose hidden misdeeds have been exposed should feel disarmed and admit defeat. It isn’t enough that they be reviled by other members of the community; if direct coercion is unavailable for any reason, it is only the shame response that makes exposure a force of justice and not an empty gesture.
But the shame response shouldn’t be assumed. In fact, what evidence we have suggests it operated only within limited circles through most of human history. Liars and cheaters were accountable to their peers but not underlings or outsiders. If a Roman warlord falsely took credit for a battle won by a rival, this might be a problem if the truth were known by other commanders, but would it matter what the soldiers knew? Shame was circumscribed and structured by deeply embedded customs and social hierarchies. You might have the fantasy you could go back in history and present the truth those who lived through events couldn’t see, but how much difference would it have made?
The faith that shame is a force of universal application and effectiveness is a modern indulgence, a product of the rationalism and optimism of an Enlightened world. It ignores at least two uncomfortable truths. The first is that the shame response is not equally strong in all people. Some are ruled by the fear of shame and exercise little independent judgment or initiative. Others are almost impervious to it; they seem almost to feed on the disapproval of those around them and succumb only to the application of overwhelming power. The second is that shame, like all other psychological factors, is mediated by the way we make sense of the world—religion, ideology, and social custom. This is why priests and warlords experienced shame only among their peers and not universally, and why the notion of universal shame is a historically specific political hypothesis.
So back to the present time. Those of us who take the Enlightenment outlook for granted tend to assume it’s enough to bring out the facts about dishonest, corrupt or abusive power holders to cause their downfall. In case you have noticed, however, it’s not working. We have a president whose rampant dishonesty and exploitive behavior has been amply documented, but he doesn’t care and just continues on. The Kavanaugh hearings were more of the same, not only for Kavanaugh himself but also the senators shepherding him to his seat on the Supreme Court. And it is wider and deeper than this: think of the campaign for war against Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, when Bush could even make a comedy skit out of the pretext of looking for weapons of mass destruction. Or the patently dishonest arguments put forward to justify tax cuts for the rich. Exposing these lies gave many of us a sense of vindication, but it had no effect on outcomes. Above all, those in power showed no sign that they cared whether or not they were exposed. To stop them it was necessary that they be stopped.
I see two reasons why we are having an epidemic of shamelessness. The first is the emergence of a philosophy on the political right that the majority of the public is craven and easily duped, so the higher good depends on a strategy of deceit. This has its roots in the teachings of Leo Strauss, the philosopher who taught generations of University of Chicago students after fleeing the Third Reich in the 1930s. Strauss believed the great works of philosophy were written in code, since deep thinkers, by virtue of their very depth, understood that most people were shallow and un-virtuous. They couldn’t say this out loud, so they had to devise clever ways to say it to their inner school of acolytes. (For a counter-view, see this, but it argues only for Strauss, not his students.) Strauss transmitted this perspective to young skeptics of liberalism, who developed it into a high-minded critique of democracy, from which it devolved into the end-justifies-the-means credo of movement conservatism. Far from evoking embarrassment and shame, being revealed as a liar is a badge of honor among the elect; it shows they are elevated above the credulous masses. Movement activists discovered this philosophical stance is also a source of tremendous power: once you are no longer in thrall to your scruples or anyone else’s and can be held back only by a superior force, most mechanisms of social control have no effect, and you can accomplish greater things. Note, by the way, that such cynicism is not a monopoly of the Right; classical Leninism too justified shameless deceit on the ground of the relativity of morals and the overriding logic of History; public exposure of facts had no effect on Communist show trials.
It seems to me another element is at work, although I can’t quite describe it. Many people who have not transcended the shame response in their own lives (they are “good people”) nevertheless vicariously identify with heroes and celebrities who have. It seems there is a thrill to be had in cheering on the bully we are not capable of being ourselves. But why should there be a historical ebb and flow to this spectacle? Why now and not before? Why is Trump admired for his disdain of social norms, while Nixon succumbed to his? Is it connected to the evolution of movement conservatism, as the Straussian sneer is translated into tweets and viral video clips? Is it a product of the pseudo-intimacy of the virtual world, where the thrill of the bully, transmitted to us through what feels like a personal medium, can be experienced almost first-hand? Or something else, or all of the above?
I would like our culture analysts, who are so adept at discerning subtle shades of colonialism in language and art, to take up the study of shame and its progressive disappearance from public life. In the meantime, those of us who are disgusted by the shameless behavior of those in power should have no illusions. We won’t get them to back down by uncovering further evidence of their misdeeds, although evidence remains the basis for rational judgment and should always be sought. Only greater political power will overcome shamelessness.
I think you are correct in with this result being a combination of ” the evolution of movement conservatism… a product of the pseudo-intimacy of the virtual world, where the thrill of the bully, transmitted to us through what feels like a personal medium, can be experienced almost first-hand?” being the answer.
Not every racist has the heart(maybe gall would be a better word) to go to Charlottesville and demonstrate their ability to have no shame, but many just revel in doing so in the virtual world(not to mention the voting booth).
But this is also a two edged sword. You have these shameless people being “judged” by people who are actually afraid of calling them shameless. It just isn’t nice. So the shameless people get a pass because others do not want to feel shamed for calling them out for what they are.
“Only greater political power will overcome shamelessness.”
I will agree that’s the key, but in order to accomplish it we need to be “shameless” ourselves. Not in our thoughts and deeds, but in how we deal with the “shameless”. We have not done a very good job at that, and it needs to change from our actions that are shown here:
Yeah, this is a real problem. Of course it is only a real problem if you think calling racist voters who have never voted Democrat and will never, ever voted Democrat will cost you their votes. Waste of time to worry about these peoples’ sensitivities, and as the author clearly points out, this kid gloves treatment of the deplorables negatively impacts actual Dem voters.
““I think you know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American,” the senator said of the Florida governor’s race. A small outcry ensued, accusing Sanders of evading the reality that opposing a black candidate out of discomfort with black leadership is, by definition, racist. Sanders tried to clarify his comments later that day. “There’s no question that in Georgia and in Florida, racism has reared its ugly head,” he told NPR. “And you have candidates who ran against Gillum and ran against Stacey Abrams who were racist and were doing everything they could to try to play whites against blacks.”
In neither statement did Sanders indict voters for backing racist candidates. To the Daily Beast, he recast their racism as mere discomfort, and to NPR, blamed a candidate-led con job and not the electorate itself. That he did this may have been a rhetorical lapse, or strategic to his political aspirations — calling racist white people “racist” is probably a good way to ensure they do not vote for you. But either way it is not the truth, and echoes a broader tendency in American politics to entice such voters by lying to them about how racist they actually are……..”
Soon after the 2016 election, Sanders spoke critically about the limits of appealing to voters on the basis of identity alone — a thinly veiled critique of Clinton’s rhetoric. “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ ” he said. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.” Yet this is not true on the other side. Appeals to identity seem not to have harmed Trump en route to victory, or Ron DeSantis on Tuesday. On the contrary, Trump’s rhetoric was practically a who’s who of white grievance causes. DeSantis, Gillum’s Republican opponent in the Florida governor’s race, used Trump’s formula to sweep the board with white voters, garnering 51 percent of the white female vote and 79 percent of the white male vote, according to CNN exit polls. This was despite the Republican lacking so much as a concrete political platform as late as September. The essence of his appeal was less policy than it was race.”
And it is almost unbelievable that this blame the victim type strategy actually works.
“His run was driven by white voters who felt the mere existence of a black governor would inflame tensions. “[The Obama election] trickled down to everything,” Courtney Cooper, a 36-year-old white Trump voter, told the Washington Post. “Now everyone is so worried about the other race.”
The implication was clear: DeSantis’ racism was functionally invisible, while Gillum’s mere allusions to that racism heralded impending racial conflict. This is a persistent balancing act for black politicians especially. Obama suffered the consequences of speaking too bluntly about race in 2012, when he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon [Martin],” after the black teen was killed in Sanford, Florida. The comment proved politically explosive, transforming what had been a source of bipartisan outrage into a right-wing crusade to smear the dead child.”
“Sanders likely used a similar calculus, albeit weighted by less political risk due to his whiteness. Both men understand that racist white people are a significant voting bloc, and winning governorships and presidencies must at the very least account for them. But it is a tradeoff. Unwillingness to alienate racist voters inevitably leads to coddling racist voters. Whether everyone who voted for DeSantis fits this descriptor is up for debate. Whether the parameters Sanders outlined in his initial statement does — voting against a black candidate because of some race-based “discomfort” with said candidate — is not. Sanders is describing racism without naming it, even as he is willing to indict the candidates for reaping its rewards. That it’s not politically expedient to have this conversation honestly — especially if one sees the alternative as gift-wrapping American democracy for Trumpian grifters, kleptocrats, and white supremacists — is one of the more pathological features of today’s politics. But how sturdy, really, is a democracy kept afloat by lies? We are rapidly learning the answer together.”
This column uses Sanders’ recent comments, but Sanders is just one politician and all of them have been doing the same thing he did. Time for all of them to wake up and realize that the
Courtney Coopers of the world are not going to vote for them regardless of their rhetoric.
Tell the truth.”
There is another way to think about the seeming increase of the lack of shame.
It is contained in the story of the little boy who cried wolf. For the one or two who haven’t heard the story, eventually his cries were ignored!
How often do we read or hear some accusation that someone is a bigot, a misogynist, a racist, or a xenophobe? That is happening quite often.
How often is that accusation backed up by some real documented proof of generally recognized outrageous behavior? That is not happening near as often.
Anyone who questions a 35 year old complaint, in which no place or time is given, is automatically labeled a misogynist or a bigot.
Question whether illegal immigrants, who had NO background check whatsoever before entering the country, should be allowed to stay in the US and you will automatically be labeled a xenophobe or bigot.
Over the last 25 years politicians have become less and less tolerant of the views of other politicians. They are especially strident in their public attacks when they want something which will not benefit the majority of Americans.
And during that time we have seen a growing movement toward political correctness. We are told that this is about kindness, but kindness is not coerced. A lack of kindness or courtesy or a difference of opinion can not be corrected by a full blown public attack. You can not create a new social norm by a full blown public attack either!
The public has just become tired of the verbal assaults, or they became angry.
For the record, I had not seen your comment before I posted mine.
Doesn’t matter to me.
Neither does allegations of accusations that are claimed to be unsupported that are totally unsupported themselves.
It mattered to me that you knew.
And in addition, I don’t want to get a reputation as a arsonist.
Too late for that.
As long as Americans refuse to acknowledge the collective shame of massacring and displacing over a million innocent people around the globe since 9/11, for stealing much of the world’s wealth to feed our glutenous habits, for selling countless billions of dollars of weapons to any tinpot dictator would would lick our boots,for building a nation on the backs of the enslaved and the corpses of countless millions of natives and for all the horrendous damage the sainted “American way of life” has done to the natural environment, we’re going to continue the way we are until the empire finally (and mercifully) collapses and burns like the plague upon humanity that it is.
When you speak of being shameless, my thoughts turn to economic matters. If I had to pick a root cause for this dreadful change in our culture, that is where I would focus my attention. Domestically it looks like this has been underway since the 80s. Looking at the larger picture, I would say that what has been happening in the country was going on overseas for much longer. I think if racism ended tomorrow it would not fix our problems as long as imperialism and predatory capitalism remained in place.
Welcome to Angry Bear. First time comments go to moderation to weed out the spammers and advertising
A bit of a different take on shame at a lower economic and societal level. Something, I started writing a long time ago.
“The poor man’s conscience is clear . . . he does not feel guilty and has no reason to . . . yet, he is ashamed. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles unheeded.
In the midst of a crowd; at a church; in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar.
He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.” John Adams
For the poor white man in the 19th century, poverty added the injury of being socially invisible when compared to a man of wealth or prominence. Society not acknowledging their presence created a class of insignificance effectively shamed into oblivion as a class not worthy of notice. Adams did not speak of the black man and slavery took it one step further creating a stigma worst than that of poverty and more shame inducing. Slaves were economic chattel to be disposed of at the discretion of their owners without observance of their being at a separate class lower than that of the poorest white man. While not as overt in the 20th century, the distinction of black slave versus poor white man has kept the class system alive and well in the US in the development of a discriminatory informal caste system. This distraction of a class level lower than the poorest of the white has kept them from concentrating on the disproportionate, and growing, distribution of wealth and income in the US. For the lower class, an allowed luxury, a place in the hierarchy and a sure form of self esteem insurance.
A short read: “Violence: Reflections of a National Epidemic” Dr. James Gilligan
Having been to any number of prisons and talked with inmates, this does make sense to me. For them, shame still exists and is injurious.