Decoding the Rhetoric about Shame

Article excerpt

Insight's May 15 cover story joins Time and Newsweek in agonizing about the new public concern about shame. According to a Newsweek poll taken in February, almost half the American people believe that we have grown lax about enforcing moral standards. An anthology of essays by Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Demoralization of poverty, has created a stir by demonstrating the financial and moral success of the English Poor Law of 1834. Himmelfarb underlines the ability and determination of Victorian England to enforce a work ethic at every level of society. While the widespread fascination with this example is a welcome sign, it is not clear if we are seeing the beginnings of a moral reformation.

For one thing, almost all discussions of the need for shame have been explicitly political or viewed as such by their critics. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and conservative intellectual William Kristol have cited The Demoralization of Poverty in defense of their own efforts to reduce welfare payments to the underclass. Though I find nothing offensive about that project, historical analogies do have their limits. The intensely Protestant, Bible-reading society in which English reformers of the 1830s and 1840s tried to discourage lower-class dependence on the dole was quite different from our own therapeutic political culture. Himmelfarb herself concedes this point and has been cautious about generalizing from the Victorian experience. In any case, the Republican attempt to benefit from her work has begun to backfire.

Democrats have rightly pointed out that Republicans are attacking not the "welfare state" per se, but underclass benefits. "What about government subsidies to dependent Republican farmers?" goes the predictable rhetorical question from the opposition. Meanwhile, the cultural Left has weighed in with its own list of shameworthy acts. Feminist socialist Barbara Ehrenreich wishes to make us ashamed about sexism and to focus our moral anger on employers who pay men more than women. New York Times editorialists are unhappy that we have not done more to embarrass racial bigots. And Newsweek columnist Joel Klein has found other politically incorrect candidates for shame -- capitalists who do not recognize that "enterprise has limits."

This disagreement about the proper causes of shame conceals even deeper divisions about the nature of social morality. In this matter there seems to be less of a national consensus, though agreement does continue to exist in at least some American subcultures. Relatively isolated groups such as the Amish and Orthodox Jews are law-abiding citizens and have few children born out of wedlock. They teach their young not so much reasoned arguments about ethics as the detailed ritual traditions passed down by their ancestors. The overriding strength of these communities is that to do instill a sense of shame about bringing disgrace upon their kin. And for the most part, they have protected themselves from the social disintegration that now is alarming other Americans. …