Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Privacy and Shame

The opposite of honor is shame. Shame comes from two sources--either it comes from an internal feeling of shame instigated by a very strong conscience or it comes from an external source, "shaming." Often, the two go together, and the latter reinforces the former. Imagine a society where the first source of shame is severely weakened or non-existent and the second source is almost obliterated.

The story of the three women in Ohio abducted and held up to ten years, highlights the issue. But we have other stories close at hand--the Sandy Hook shooter, the Boston bombers, the Aurora theater shooter, the Columbine shooters. What they all have in common is the fact that someone, probably many people, had an idea that something was terribly wrong with the perpetrators long before they were either discovered in their crime or carried out their plans. Yet, in each case, the perpetrators were not stopped. No one went from banging on the door to knocking the door down, from asking a few questions to demanding responses that made sense, from wondering what was going on to making the call.  Sometimes neighbors or citizens raised a concern, only to have the system again uphold the right of privacy above the right to live in a safe community.

These high profile cases highlight a much more widespread problem in our society. We err on the side of individual rights, of privacy, even in cases where common sense tells us that something is very wrong, cases where the safety of other people hang in the balance. We suspend judgment, partly out of cowardice, but partly out of deeply ingrained beliefs: "guilty until proven innocent," and the now almost sacred distinction between public and private concerns, which translates into "it's not my business." In our society, the greater crime is in looking, not in looking the other way.

Shame probably seems like too weak of a word to use in these extreme cases, but I use it because it does capture the more general problem. Shame has been greatly weakened in our society. Many of the manifestations of this are less catastrophic than the stories mentioned above. Shameless society is evident in everyday life in children running amok at home and in public, allowed to abuse and embarrass their parents, adult children dumping their own kids off on their parents and walking away from their responsibilities. The common denominator is that in each case, there is no shame and absolutely no shaming.

When internal shame was weak, external shaming used to pick up the slack. In tight knit communities, where everyone knew everyone else's business, people would sometimes get embarrassed, and regrettably people who didn't fit in would get treated harshly. On the other hand, to the benefit of the community, people who were strange were labeled strange, and people who did bad things were ostracized. People talked, reputations were damaged, those with weak wills were sometimes kept on track, and those who did not get back in line were known by all and shunned. It is now literally shocking to even talk about the possibility that this social reinforcement mechanism was not all bad, that it served a purpose--the purpose of enforcing community standards and safeguarding the community from those who are particularly weak-willed or sociopathic. Now the incredibly weak willed and the sociopathic are are excused. We  clean up after their messes, as in grandparents practically becoming parents for or literally adopting their grandchildren, and we ignore the unacceptable sign of obvious sociopathology, as in attending our friend's sixth wedding.

Because of liberal society's enshrining of individualism and individual rights to the exclusion of other values, we now see that people are capable of ignoring obviously dangerous people, obviously strange situations, right in front of their eyes.

Of course, the reason we adopted such an elevated status for individual rights and privacy in the first place is to avoid conflict. For instance, we long ago decided that religious beliefs and practices would be private concerns, because the alternative created catastrophic religious wars that got in the way of economic and political progress.  And while these are laudible reasons, we now see that even good ideas or reasonable compromises can be taken too far. If we are responsible people who care about more than just our own private concerns, then we have to admit there is a point where what goes on in "private" is not private because it affects us all, that there is a place for talking, for pointing out, for questioning, for shaming, and for knocking down the door. Protecting individuals and protecting society as a whole usually can be seen as going hand in hand, but not if taken to the extreme. Community is weakened to the point where we think of it as something we form on Facebook--micro-communities of those who share one common interest. Have we lost more than we gained? Is there a need for balance? Do you have the courage to call something what it is and act accordingly?


  1. Re: liberalism's emphasis on individualism: I think that a liberal society really needs social shaming mechanisms. Without it, we have only the laws. The criminal laws of a liberal society are not intended to be sufficient for maintaining the society (if you take Mill’s harm principle as a guide here). And many other laws and regulations meant to do just that (at least to my libertarian-minded sensibility) are outside of the government’s purview. This places a huge weight on social regulation. Punishment isn’t on the table for private citizens, but shaming is.

    And I think Mill was on board with this, and I think that the thoughts above are not contradictory to liberalism. Unfortunately, all sorts of people---many of my students, for example---think that if the law allows some sort of activity, it isn’t for us to judge. But this thought is thoroughly illiberal imo (we certainly don’t apply such logic to KKK rallies!).

    Would you say that there are two things at play: a sort of "pop liberalism" that is suspicious of all shaming, and "theoretical liberalism" or whatever, which countenances it?

  2. This post reminds me of my favorite book Aristotle's Ethics. He dealt with many issues including honor and shame. You said it well!

  3. I hope I'm doing this right--still getting used to this system. I need to respond to both of your comments better than I can do right now--I'm knee deep in papers, as I'm sure you are. However, to Dan's comment, what I can say right now is that I think that more than just pop-liberalism is at work here. But what I mean by that is not that I reject the idea that the popular view of liberalism is different than what we know of true philosophical liberalism. Rather, I mean that what the general public thinks now is in effect what liberalism has become. Liberalism has evolved and I see that today's way of thinking about these issues is a natural progression of sorts, taking liberal ideas to their logical extreme. Religion I think served as the counterweight for a long time, stopping liberal ideas from becoming more radical, but that source of balance has been greatly weakened as time has gone by. You know that religion itself has been affected by the same trends--it's more individualistic and particular, less "catholic" than ever before. One's choice of religion is a very private matter, and religion is so fragmented that it doesn't serve the old purpose of supplying community standards we can all recognize. With that source of counterweight severely weakened, there isn't much of a roadblock to taking liberalism to its logical extreme. I think I'll try to post next time on this same topic and see if I can do a better job of articulating my point than I'm able to do right now.