Joel Bellman holds forth on the value of shame.
As long I can remember, itâs been an article of faith among the cognoscenti that âshameâ is a bad thing, a discarded remnant of our prudish past, evoking those apocryphal Victorians who even draped their furniture and piano legs.
Like its cousins âmodesty,â âdiscretion,â and âdignity,â shame somehow evolved from a civilizing mechanism, reflecting what quaintly used to be called âgood breeding,â to one that repressive authorities wielded like a cudgel. In practice, shame today seems hopelessly outmoded and fundamentally about imposed denial: of honest emotions, of creative freedom, of sexual expression.
Shaming is judging, after all, and that implies limits, boundaries, constraints. Too many of us, nominally adults, still seem to believe that as grownups, we no longer need permission. As in, âI just start kissing them. Itâs like a magnet. Just kiss. I donât even wait. And when youâre a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.â Grab them by their privates. Anything.
As long as shame largely remains the sole province of religious authorities, self-appointed guardians of public virtue, and assorted busybodies, it deserves most of the discrediting it gets. For a classic example of this debate, on the cusp of the so-called sexual revolution, a 1966 episode of William F. Buckleyâs program Firing Line
, offered an extended colloquy between Buckley and Playboy editor and publisher Hugh Hefner on âThe Playboy Philosophy.â This was a long-running editorial series in which the broadminded Hef (no pun intended) expounded on his free-thinking rejection of puritanism and obsolete sexual attitudes, among other topics. Buckley, founder and editor of the conservative National Review
and a devout Catholic (whose first book, âGod and Man at Yale,â decried the universityâs secularism), defended traditional Judeo-Christian morality and the notions of moral absolutism and sin, against Hefnerâs implicit libertine leanings. The program is shocking todayânot for any taboo subject matter, but in its earnestness and the intellectual seriousness with which both men defend their positions.
Of course, he who is without sin can also be without shame. Otherwise, Buckleyâafter roundly and repeatedly condemning Hef âs Playboy Philosophyâcould never in good conscience have accepted payment for his many articles for Playboy
over the decades, or exulted as the featured subject of the Playboy Interview
in May 1970.
Shame, after all, is less about guilt and externally imposed control than about acting with judgment, restraint, and self-respect. Think about those familiar admonitions: âYou ought to be ashamed of yourself!â âHave they no shame?â âHeâs utterly shameless.â Itâs not good to be seen as undisciplined, lacking in judgment, having no conscienceâacting without shame.
Shameâthe ability, and the motivation, to identify and renounce bad behavior to avoid the disapproval of our fellow humansâis the ultimate guarantor against anti-social conduct. We can make excuses for ourselves all day long: do unto others before they do unto us, situational ethics, exigent circumstances, âI just didnât think,â âI never meant,â and so on. But unless youâre a sociopath, a still small voice of conscience that only you can hear softly whispers, âYou know better. Donât.â
If Martin Shkreli had any shame, would the infamous hedge fund manager have defrauded investors, evaded taxes, and jacked up the price of life-saving prescription drugs by some 2000-5000%? Would InfoWars demagogue Alex Jones have promoted the deranged fantasy that parents of schoolchildren murdered in a mass shooting had just faked the whole thing?
Could Republican operative Roger Stone have openly boasted about being a conduit for campaign dirt stolen and leaked by Russian intelligence?
Would White House aide Stephen Miller have implemented an immigration policy that tore apart families and caged children at the US border?
Would the Rupert Murdoch media empire still have chosen to profit by trafficking in conspiracy theories, extremist commentary, and baseless propaganda undermining public faith in democracy?
Would Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene really have suggested on social media only a couple of years ago that Jewish-controlled space lasers set wildfires in California, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be executed for treason, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that Hillary Clinton and her top aide had killed a child in a ritual sacrifice?
Imagine if Donald Trump had been born or raised with a sense, not of entitlement, but of shame. Would he still have bullied his way through school, cheated his way through college, swindled his way through business, philandered his way through his marriages, betrayed his country, fomented an insurrection and been impeached twice?
One of the most famous and oft-quoted lines in 20th century politics occurred in an exchange between Boston attorney Joseph Welch and Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, spurred by McCarthyâs wild accusations of Communist infiltration of the military after the Army refused to grant special treatment to one of his aides. At one point in the proceeding, McCarthy sought to undermine the credibility of Welch, who was representing the Army, by smearing as a Communist a young associate in Welchâs law firm.
âUntil this moment, Senator,â Welch shot back, âI think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness.â After Welch defended his associate and tried to cut short the discussion, McCarthy persisted in his accusation, prompting Welchâs legendary mic drop, âHave you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?â
âA decent respect to the opinion of mankind,â Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, of the colonistsâ responsibility to explain and justify the American Revolution. Decency. Respect for others. Responsibility.
In a word, âshame.â Not feeling guilt, where you simply did something wrong, but feeling culpable, deserving of blame, and opprobrium, earning public disapproval. And shouldering the obligation to rectify your mistake and try and make things right.
If the last few years have taught us anything, we should have learned that shame has its value. In both our political decisions and our personal
conduct, we have much to atone for. Letâs begin by admitting that we ought to be ashamed of ourselvesâa lot more often.