THE LIMITS OF SHAME.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat have been having an ongoing conversation about marriage and families. This is from Dreher's latest contribution:

Like I said, I don't know, and cannot know, how Ta-Nehisi grew up. From his own testimony, it sounds like he and his siblings turned out okay. But look: he sees no particular reason to marry. It is likely that the children he and his partner have will see marriage as unimportant too. The idea that marriage is unimportant has real world consequences when it becomes normative -- look at the high crime, poverty and social dysfunction rates in the black community in this country, where the overwhelming majority of children are born out of wedlock, and have been for a generation. The causal connection between unwed parenthood/broken families and social dysfunction cannot be disputed. That Ta-Nehisi and his family appear to have defied the odds is a great thing -- but they do not refute the statistics.

What you applaud, you encourage. Wisdom, let us attend. Having children outside of marriage should be stigmatized, for the common good. To do otherwise is false compassion.

Conservatives regularly overestimate the beneficial effects of shame. Shame provokes response in the form of impulse, not long term planning. A person who is ashamed isn't going to think, "I'd better get a degree" or "I'd better get married," they're going to think in the short term about what they can do to rectify their sense of self-worth.

How do you see people--men in particular--act when they're ashamed? You rarely see them do something like get married or get a fantastic job; usually they're going to hurt or exploit someone, make them feel as low as they do--this is the lesson learned by the shamed from the shamer, regardless of the lesson the shamer thinks they're teaching the shamed.

There's something weird about the way conservatives approach social problems like out of wedlock birth or poverty, as if the people with such problems glean some kind of orgasmic pleasure for struggling for cash, or raising a child as a single parent. These things are hard enough without shame, and while I agree with Dreher and Peggy Noonan that what "you applaud, you encourage," I'm very skeptical about the idea that shame can produce productive behavior. Dreher's argument assumes that the people in question aren't already ashamed, or have failed somehow to internalize society's larger values about family. I generally find that the opposite is true, they've internalized them to a fault. It's one thing to encourage marriage through positive reinforcement, it's another entirely to punish people for being unmarried and think that has a beneficial effect on society.

-- A. Serwer

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement