Have We No Shame?

AP Images/Frank Franklin II

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.

Comments

"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"

You have absolutely no way of knowing that. Would you have Zimmerman make the tour of TV talk shows expressing his sincere remorse? Would that satisfy you? Of course not, because you would then simply say, for good reason, that he was being self-serving. For Zimmerman, that sort of thing is a lose-lose, no matter what he does. Better to simply keep his thoughts to himself.

As to shame, why would Zimmerman feel shame? He did nothing wrong. He defended himself. Rather than Zimmerman feeling shame, it is our society that should feel shame that a 17-year old felt the need--and the right--to attack a man who was doing nothing more than following him.

Your rather hypocritical, you ask the author how they know Zimmerman felt know shame, but in then go on to say Zimmerman "did nothing wrong", just because the murderer was found "not guilty" does not mean he did NOTHING wrong. Furthermore, following someone is not a right in America, in most states it is an act of aggression in of itself. Your comment illustrates ideology more than psychology, one can say Zimmerman killed in self-defense, but no reasonable person could say he did "nothing wrong", we will see what happens in the next phase...

A guy following me at night carrying a gun in a neighborhood I have a right to be in? And HE's the victim if I decide I have the need to defend myself? . . . or maybe if I decide I need to "stand my ground."

I am armed with a sidewalk, after all. (Actual claim made by Zimmerman's brother and the defense.)

Next point?

"Have We No Shame?"

Apparently New Yorkers and politicians don't, but it's alive and well in most of the rest of the country and populace.

We do not know that Zimmerman WAS defending himself; we only know that there was not enough evidence to prove he was NOT defending himself, so legally he has to go free. The evidence that DID come out, however, strongly suggests that, even if at the very END of the encounter he had to defend himself (with a gun against an unarmed child who was probably in fear that Zimmerman was following him IN ORDER to take his life), he was the one who PROVOKED the encounter, posing an apparent threat to Martin, until Martin began to succeed in protecting HIS life, until the (concealed) gun came out. This is the problem with the SYG law: it allows an aggressor to PICK A FIGHT, provoking his intended victim into fighting back, then use that fighting back as an excuse to kill the victim. And although the recently passed SYG law was not specifically mentioned as a defense, the jury's instructions had almost exactly the same wording as that law.

As to Zimmerman himself, as Hamlet said about his mother's apparent adultery, "Leave him to Heaven." But here on Earth, we need to prevent future Zimmermans from doing the same thing and expecting they will also go free by shrewdly using the SYG principle. The fact that Zimmerman was not arrested until public outrage forced an arrest; the fact that evidence which could have been crucial was poorly stored, as if with an intent to compromise it; the fact that the police did not even try to use his cellphone to identify Martin and notify his family (really holding human life sacred, right?), so that his father had to file a missing person report and only three days later found out his son was dead and his body was in police custody all along; all point to the local police having NO INTENTION TO INVESTIGATE A HOMICIDE, because they, like Zimmerman, placed no value on a black boy's life. The State Attorney's office finally had to go through the motions of a prosecution they never intended to make, so OF COURSE the prosecution was incompetent! It reminds me of a typical Jim Crow sheriff who was told that a black man's body was found wrapped in chains at the bottom of a lake, and responding, "Just like a dumb n* to STEAL more chain than he could SWIM WITH."

And to the person who said he had nothing to be ashamed of, or to feel guilty about, most decent people, when forced by war, duty, or self defense to kill another, even knowing they were legally in the right, STILL feel shame and guilt for having to go to that extreme. Only people with no feelings for others can just consider it a day's work and go on their way.

Shakespeare said "Leave them to Heaven." Some of us today will not even listen to Heaven.

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