Monday, December 12, 2005

The Future of Shame

“Shame is the starting point of ethics.”
- Alain Fienkielkraut, Haaretz,
Nov. 17, 2005.

Shame is underrated these days. In the modern popular culture there are fewer more heroic archetypes than the person who overcomes the shame, guilt and stigma imposed by the repressive society and then basks in our highest modern achievement, self-expression.

But shame is historically the way we save us from ourselves. Long before there was law there was exile, public humiliation and the like. Indeed, some punishment then (think of colonials placed in the stocks) and now is about shaming as much as material deterrence. And while the modern reaction by students when reading the fate that befell Hester Prynne is distaste (and even Cliff’s Notes impresses upon them how objectionable the "harsh, stark, unbending Puritan social and moral structure" is), what was objectionable is not that she went through it but that her paramour, Rev. Dimmesdale, didn’t. It is the primary function of civilization to deter us from doing that which our instinctive desires otherwise command us to do. The ability of the law to do this is quite properly limited; to conceive a child out of wedlock has been shown by reams of research to be a socially costly act, but no society could call itself free if it imposed formal legal penalties on the parents. Instead, it falls to the rest of us to do that. When (as is often true) the law cannot perform this civilizing function, stigma imposed by others is all we have left. And stigma need not be simple punishment; it can be a force for introspection by the stigmatized, which may in turn lead to better decisions in the future combined with forgiveness and help by others.

But shame is in decline. Charles Murray has contended that the rise of Big Government is responsible for this. The existence of anti-discrimination and tenant-protection laws makes it far more difficult to discharge or evict people for good reasons, because a court or government agency may wrongly decide that the reason is an unallowable one. Similarly, the subsidy of socially costly habits through transfer payments to single mothers, erratic child enforcement on fathers and the like encourages things we ought to discourage. When people are once again free to hire or fire and to rent or not as they like, and when parents are uniquely responsible for providing for their children (under penalty of losing them if they cannot), then, to paraphrase, to spend months without working is to once again be a bum, to fail to uphold one’s marital vows is once again to be a tramp or a rake, and so on.

There is something to this, but that theory is, I think, insufficient to explain the decline of stigma once imposed against behavior (which, thought about differently, simply means the shrinking of the zone of what is truly aberrant – what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously called “defining deviancy down”). We are now a highly mobile society, and this mobility combined with the dominance of work and the rise of forms of time-hogging entertainment that don’t involve face-to-face contact with others (first TV, now the Internet) mean that society is simply unable to impose stigma. For it to work the person facing it must care about the views of those imposing it. When you live your whole life surrounded by the same community, and you know them well and they know you well, their opinion matters in both an emotional way (because they are close to you) and a material one (because your livelihood is so closely tied to theirs, and hence their belief that your reputation is bad will hit you in the wallet). When people are constantly drifting from neighborhood to neighborhood and state to state, and when they don’t even know their neighbor’s children’s names, it is difficult for stigma to have any force. If your children are running wild around the neighborhood, what your anonymous neighbors think of it means little to you. The argument is actually similar to the more famous one by Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, who in his famous book Bowling Alone contends that these same forces erode American civic engagement.

If the same holds for shame, the problems that it is meant to combat, types of behavior that are socially costly but unwise or improper to control via the legal system, begin to spiral out of control. The atomization of modern life (more true in some modern societies such as the U.S., it must be emphasized, than in others such as Japan) is a process that brings tremendous benefits in terms of self-liberation, but unless handled with care it can bring costs too.


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