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