Shame

From Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton, 2011):

‘[Sister Helen] Prejean’s logic rests on the hope that shame, guilt, and even simple embarrassment are still operative principles in American cultural and political life—and that such principles can fairly trump the forces of desensitization and self-justification.  Such a presumption is sorely challenged by the seeming unembarrassability of the military, the government, corporate CEOs, and others repetitively caught in monstrous acts of irresponsibility and malfeasance.  This unembarassability has proved difficult to contend with, as it has had a literally stunning effect on the citizenry.  They ought to be ashamed of themselves! we cry over and over again, to no avail.  But they are not ashamed, and they are not going to become so” (32).

I don’t have much to say to this statement—beyond noting how completely it echoes my own experience and sentiments.  The administration at my university is just about completely non-accountable at this point.  Which made me think that “public shaming” (as I tried to do in the newspaper editorials I wrote about their actions) was the only recourse left.  But they have proved immune to shaming, might even take it as proof that they are doing their “tough jobs” of protecting the university’s interests.

It does not make me feel a sap.  I realize more and more that a certain self-image of integrity is central to my own serenity.  Of course, complacency about one’s self is an ever-present danger.  Pharaseeism afflicts us all.  But I do abide by the rule of “never say no to a student.”  Whatever they ask for, they shall receive—just as the same all-inclusive indulgence is extended to my children.  I have no right, given my job and my salary, to turn students down.  And abiding by that rule is one way I maintain my self-respect.

So the question about the shameless is: where does their self-respect reside?  Where is the line they would not cross, the action they would not permit themselves?  I have always liked what I call “Kant’s rule of publicity”: basically Kant argues in one of his political essays that any action is morally dubious if the agent of that action would prefer it being kept a secret.  We reveal our awareness of an action’s non-morality when we strive to keep it unknown.  (Yes, there is the tradition of keeping benevolent actions a secret—a tradition mostly honored in the breach these days by our publicity-seeking philanthropists—but the existence of this sub-set of good actions needn’t detract from Kant’s larger point.)  The attempt to keep things secret is an acknowledgement of shame and guilt.  But it does seem Nelson is right: when malfeasance is “outed” these days, the impulse is to brave it out, to never show the weakness of admitting guilt or manifesting shame.

And there is the even more gob-smacking pride in offensive behavior, as politicians compete to see who can most vociferously endorse torture and taking food stamps away from the hungry, and CEOs boast about how far they can drive down wages and take away benefits for their workers.  Oh, brave new world!

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