Shame peaked when Nathaniel Hawthorne slapped Hester Prynne with that scarlet A a couple hundred years ago, and it’s been going out of fashion ever since. To a certain extent, good riddance; for most of the last few thousand years of Judeo-Christian morality, public shame has been more oppressive than moral, the judgment of a tyranny of collectively held values rather than an expression of values worth being held. In an age, however, when privacy becomes more obsolete, due not only to the state monitoring our lives as in the recent NSA scandal but also to our communal acquiescence of privacy, shame becomes obsolete: A jury’s verdict notwithstanding, there’s no indication whatsoever that George Zimmerman feels the slightest twinge of remorse let alone shame over shooting to death an unarmed teenager; and what Paula Deen fights for isn’t redemption from the shame of exposing herself as a racist but rather the resurrection of her career, and maybe some comprehension of how everything can go so wrong from having said just one silly word of no consequence, other than its association with four centuries of slavery, bondage, lynchings, and humiliation.
The mayor of San Diego professes enough contrition to say he’s sorry for intimidating and manhandling the women who work for him and to check himself into sleazeball rehab, but not to resign his job, which a modicum of sincere shame would dictate to anyone who understands shame well enough to know it’s not supposed to be a tactic. If a former congressman’s campaign for mayor of New York is moments away from extinction (it may be over by the time you read this), it’s not out of any sense of shame but because his candidacy has embarrassed itself to death, which isn’t the same thing. This entire episode—it seems some sense of shame on the part of us writing about it should inhibit us from giving these people’s names any more print than necessary—is instructive both for what it has been and what it hasn’t: Particularly given the connection to the Clintons by way of the mayoral candidate’s wife, the affair of a former president and his knickers-flashing intern two decades ago now is back in our memory. While on the one hand it might be argued that sexting is a lesser infraction compared to actual sex, the public finally concludes the sexting is less forgivable not because it’s more or less wrong, not because it’s more or less shameful, but because it’s weirder. In the public lives we now live, when embarrassment crosses over into weirdness, creepiness is inevitably the next country, where shame is an undocumented alien and sociopaths who sexually torture children declare themselves “the best daddy in the world,” as one did in a Cleveland courtroom yesterday.
As a rule politicians can’t be claimed to have a high shame threshold since that presumes a threshold exists at all. For the most part, like the movie stars with whom they have so much in common—which accounts for their growing interchangeability in career paths—most politicians have no private selves to speak of; staring into the mirror in the solace of their bathrooms, they still see a crowd reflected in background. Alone, they cease to exist even to themselves, and it’s been that way for at least the hundred years that mass media has existed; so the question is whether the public’s collective sense of shame—defined by at least one dictionary as “dishonor”—has changed as well, and how much our collective sense of honor has changed with it. Some of this involves our growing sophistication by which we now make distinctions among human failings (politicians and sex), civil corruption (a Virginia governor who believes his position extends him a credit card, all transactions posted against the public trust), and matters somewhere between the two (the former governor and current congressman from South Carolina, who conducted an international affair at taxpayers’ expense), and by which we judge when responsibility is called for and when it isn’t. Nonetheless, at a time when a United States Senator from Louisiana politically survives his adventures in a brothel, the nearly instant resignation a few years ago—without any outside pressure to push him out—by the governor of New York for similar encounters with a prostitute now appears positively quaint, which may be why his episode is barely an afterthought in his rather modest current quest to become Manhattan’s head bean-counter.
If there’s no such thing anymore as a private personality, only a public one, and if public shame no longer exists as a result, then we can only hope it isn’t because private shame no longer exists either. From “reality” TV to digital media everyone now lives out public lives, which involves a new social skillset that by definition excludes shame; rather the metrics of our public lives calibrate some balance of style, provocation, and the most agile dance possible along the shore of embarrassment’s rubicon. Shame is a more profound sense of personal mortification that may be beyond us.