Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The death of shame, or a meditation upon Paris Hilton, Alberto Gonzalez and various others

When I was little, my grandmother used to respond to anything that was off-color on the teevee (e.g., a boob joke on Hee-Haw) by saying "They have no shame." I didn't really get what she meant until I was much older. Today I mourn the death of shame.

When I use the word "shame," I am not talking about feeling guilty or embarrassed about things beyond one's control (such as appearance, or background, or having experienced abuse, say). I am instead referring to "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety." [Merriam-Webster's definition] Shame requires first, an awareness that one has done something wrong or improper; then an appreciation that the shameful act was within the person's control; and that the person experiencing shame feels sorrow over that, knows s/he can or should do better, and (one hopes) resolves not to repeat the same mistake in the future.

Where has all the shame gone?

This notion is fresh in my mind because this morning, I read that Paris Hilton's father is planning a huge party to celebrate her release from jail. Where I come from, having your kid go to jail -- no matter what the charge -- is not something to brag about, and certainly is not a reason to throw a party (even if the kid is going to be paroled). Going to jail was regarded as a sign to parents that something went wrong, and maybe that something had to do with the way the kid was raised. Maybe; everyone has free will and so it could just be the kid screwed up notwithstanding a respectable upbringing, but I think the crucial point is that the parents at least considered the possibility that they had missed something or screwed up. They didn't laugh it off or plan an expensive party. Instead, they were ashamed.

I don't want to sound like the crusty old man who blathers on about walking to school ten miles each way in the snow -- without shoes. ("And we liked it that way!") Nor do I want to sound like the hypocritical right-wing zealots that I loathe. But lately it seems to me that no one has any shame any more, and that this isn't a good development for our society. Consider:
  • Man is diagnosed with virulent TB, and is cautioned against traveling, but ignores public health concerns and flies all over the world, subjecting hundreds (including his closest friends and family) to potential infection with a drug-resistant strain of TB. No shame.
  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez nearly faces a Senate no-confidence vote after a humiliating performance testifying before Congress in which he basically demonstrates that he is either lying through his teeth or so inept and forgetful he can't remember an important decision from a year ago. He is unashamed, nay, indignant.
  • Teen and young adult girls flash their breasts for TV cameras in exchange for a T-shirt, knowing that DVDs of their nekkid titties will be sold and whacked off to by men all over the country. Not merely a lack of shame, but a lack of self-respect.
  • Man serves wife with divorce papers when she lies in hospital fighting cancer. He calls up second wife on the phone and tells her he wants a divorce because he is having an affair with an aide 23 years his junior. Shame? Nope; he is running for president on the "family values" platform.
I'm not advocating widespread guilt, people beating themselves up endlessly over mistakes. But it would be nice if, once in a while, people would look at what they've done in the past and instead of dismissing it or justifying it, just admitted that it was wrong or stupid, and felt some shame.

Because, as Pascal once said, "the only shame is to have none."

25 comments:

Lola and Ava said...

First of all, I don't think that the Hilton family lives in this realm, so maybe Paris's papa is simply acknowledging the fact that she will suck the family dry of the grandfather's fortune so you may as well party while you have the money. Or perhaps he is throwing her a party by having all the guests say, "Hello, I am (insert celeb name here) and I have a drinking/drug/sex/WHATEVER disorder."

Second, if I were as inept or indignant as Alberto Gonzalez, I would have been fired a long time ago. My boss would not be trumpeting my virtues to the school board; he would be holding the door for me.

Shame, and guilt for that matter, aren't necessarily bad things. They make you a better person if you own up to them. Without them, you remain in the same state as most kindergarten kids: acting like five year olds . . . like Paris Hilton. Although, having spent time with my nephew, even he behaves better than she does.

Elizabeth said...

Amen!

terri said...

Modern life seems to be one endless parade of "there's no shame in their game!" And you better be careful if you even MENTION guilt or shame. Don't you know -- that's Judging? Mustn't judge, you might hurt someone's self-esteem.

Rachel said...

Amen and Amen! I read this post just a few minutes after hearing about the family visit to jailed da'ling going straight to the head of the line, why do we allow that?!? Maybe by allowing such things "we" cultivate their shamelessness?

M-H said...

Good post Carol. I think that it is good if people are shown that shouldn't feel guilty about things which they had not instigated and/or couldn't control ("I feel so guilty that my baby cries all night!" "I feel guilty that my mother has cancer!"). These feelings are often in fact a form of narcissism; it is as if you somehow have to be responsible for everything that happened. But somehow the baby (probably the one that wouldn't stop crying!) got thrown out with the bathwater.

Cindy G said...

Absolutely on target.

Virginia said...

So well said. And so very true. Thank you.

Robin said...

And, a couple more things --- Paris Hilton has ADD -- since when is that a medical condition requiring such extensive medical care??? They say she's having equal treatment -- then why is it costing SO much more $$ per day to keep her in jail than other inmates??? She's found religion now and is going to stop acting so stupid. Took her 3 days in jail to wise-up?? My question is why is the behavior of these young Hollywood kids so overlooked? Really, aren't there laws in California??? Lindsey Lohan?? Nicole Richie?? They're rewarded with tons of publicity. Oh, and did we forget the infamous "I did NOT have sexual relations with that woman"???????? There is indeed a lack of shame and self-pride these days. Man, you hit a nerve! Off my soapbox now......

Misstea said...

I try to follow American politics (I try to be well-informed about my neighbour to the south), but apparently, I'm a wee bit behind. Which candidate (your last point) is trying to spin things so differently? Sounds shocking.

Tina M. said...

(Misstea: That would be Rudy Guiliani, who is pretty much running on the "I did a good job during 9/11" platform.)

Sing it, sister! I was talking about this with my husband a few days ago and it MAKES ME SICK. What PLANET do these people live on?! I could go on for pages, but yes, I agree with you. My parents would have handcuffed me to the heater until the cops showed up, and called them on me in the first place, if I pulled some of the shit these people do. I grew up knowing:

1. If I do drugs and they find out, they will call the troopers on me. (Dad was a Corrections Officer)

2. If I get pregnant it's not their responsibility and they will not step in to make my life go back to normal by watching the kid while I galavant and now get enough aide from the government to go to college.

3. I had chores every day and a $2.50 a week allowance. I graduated in '96 and I can tell you that was NOTHING. I've worked for my own money, school clothes, and treats since I was 12 and old enough to at least baby sit the neighbor kids.I also bought my first piece of crap car with my own money, and paid my father for the parts to repair it. He kindly installed them for me, and I was grateful.

4. That there are consequences.

Guess that's what happens if your parents are from "somewhere else" (Puerto Rico) and were raised with different values.

Seriously, I'll stop now. :)

Carol said...

Actually it's Newt Gingrich. Rudy has some infidelity and divorce action in his past, but no dumping cancer-ridden wives. That I know of.

Of course, this leads to the joke that I think Jon Stewart made: "Tony Snow was diagnosed with cancer yesterday. He immediately received a letter from Newt Gingrich asking him for a divorce."

Carol said...

Great post Carol. I think the best we can do is live by example. We may not change anyone but we're helping our own kids to do right. Or maybe the next flood is coming...

Corbie said...

Tina, I was raised that way, too -- would've been good ol' midwestern American values, actually, in my case, but no one culture has a lock on the idea of raising kids to be responsible.

I agree, though -- our modern "victim" culture has raised a generation of kids to believe that they can excuse everything away and don't have to be responsible for the consequences of their actions.

Bridget said...

Yes to every single thing you said ... and then some. I will not comment further, since it would mean that I would go on and on and ...

Joan said...

Carol, I wish I could express myself so eloquently. The only thing people seem to feel shame about nowadays is accepting responsibility for less than glorious behavior.

Cynthia said...

Shame is alive and well. I work in a library. When patrons look at porn on the public computers, we ask them to stop explaining that while it may be legal and even appropriate at home, this is a public place and it is not appropriate for everyone in the library. Every time, a look of shame comes over their expression, the drop their eyes, stammer an apology and usually leave immediately.

Yes, shame is around. The problem is not the people being bad. It is the people around them not calling them on the bad behavior. For example, in the case of Paris, we all continue to promote her. How many of us have written to the variety of "news" organizations that covered her story and expressed outrage? How many cancelled subscriptions of newspapers?

Libby said...

Carol, I saw your sensory comment on the Rabbitch's blog, and wanted to know where I could find more information?

Thanks :)
Libby
http://hotrodlibbyloo.typepad.com

Tina M. said...

Corbie, you're totally right! I get a little torqued when I talk about this kind of thing and I forget that there are still people (all over) raising their kids right, it just SEEMS like a lost art. ;)

I think the entitlement issue in America is part of what's killing us as a country. "What's in it for me" and "it's not my fault" are criminal attitudes. The look on some people's faces when they are called on their actions is comical to the point of hysterical. It's like they're aghast at the fact that someone would DARE to challenge their inalianable right to break the rules. It's even funnier when they're rich. Michael Jackson doesn't have enough people in his life telling him no. *shudder*

Wanna be a despot? Go buy an island somewhere and live there ALONE.

Anne C. said...

Very good post, Carol. Part of the problem, I think, is that some people don't actually think what they're doing is wrong--that awareness of wrong-doing that you mentioned just isn't there. And that lack of awareness probably does go back to how a person was raised. A sense of entitlement is problemmatic, too, as is the constant blathering by the "news" media. To Cynthia's point, I was so fed up with CNN's coverage of the Paris in & out saga that I almost wrote them a letter, "almost" being the operative word. I did turn the TV off, but will now compose a letter to them as well.

Donna Lee said...

I have no original thought after all these. I mourn the loss of shame. I don't want people to feel guilty but I do want them to be responsible for themselves and their actions/consequences. I told all three of my girls, "You can do anything you want in life, IF (and this is a big if) you are willing to live with the consequences of your actions".

Kathy Merrick said...

Hmm, Donna, does that include things like vehicular manslaughter and armed robbery?
Or just acting like a 'ho'?
Or maybe telling little kids there's no Santa?
Or putting cyanide in Tylenol bottles?
What about shooting up your college dorm?

Carol said...

Tom's grandmother told his 2 nephews when they were pretty little that there was no -- you know. What Kathy said. They're still bitter.

Marilyn said...

Outstanding post, Caro.

I think that our national media's fascination with these sorry, spoiled brats only proves that true journalism is dying a tortured death. The best journalistic efforts are frequently found on blogs these days.

Seems to me that this sensationalistic reportage dates back to OJ. At least, that's how I see it. Ever since then, it's been nonstop crap.

Carol said...

If I went to jail even in the event of mistaken identity, my parents would have had a party alright. We always celebrated someone's life at their funeral in my family. Seems folks are into owning everything except their actions.

Claudia said...

AMEN!!!