The Absence of a Culture of Shame

Article excerpt

DEFINITION: Shame. 1.1. The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one's own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one's own), or of being in a situation which offends one's sense of modesty or decency.

--The Oxford English Dictionary

"THE BASIC PROBLEM is that there is an absence of a culture of shame." That is the recent judgment of a European business executive regarding the ongoing scandals of corporate America. His words, however, go beyond simply corporate wrongdoing, and can apply to broad aspects of our culture and society, of which corporate greed is cruelly symptomatic.

Clearly, shamelessness has been tarnishing American culture to an ever-increasing degree since the end of World War II, though many Americans and their leaders will acknowledge neither the signs nor the extent of their affliction. To do so would require the kind of stern moral self-examination that is now largely alien to our secular ways and selves. It would require, too, the kind of reflectiveness that a Behemoth society would have no understanding of or patience with, as we press on with our attempts to create a new heaven and new earth here and now. To feel shame is something that hardly crosses the minds of Americans or that discomfits their conscience. We are, very simply, unprepared for dealing with pangs of shame or for undertaking spiritual soul-searchings. We are so governed by our temporal absorptions and adventurisms that we ignore moral and spiritual considerations. Our only certitudes are those that belong to the whirl of the world and the flux of time. We think of shame no more than we think o f sin.

Shame is a word that has no active place in our vocabulary, and when it is occasionally invoked it has no real meaning for us. Certainly it is a word that does not excite or liberate or make us enthusiastic. If anything it is a word that is perceived as restricting our expansive sentiments, our rights and ambitions; that implies or is antecedent to self-restraint, and conduces the recognition of self-limitation. Goethe's belief that only through limitation can mastery be attained is not one that the modern imperial self deems acceptable. Indeed, shame is one emotion that is not valued in contemporary life since it is commonly seen as something that thwarts self-expression and self-indulgence. As such it has been transformed into an ignominious word and emotion, viewed as carrying with it moral intimations and responsibilities that are interpreted as being unproductive and binding.

Both our social scientists and our social engineers, especially since the 1960s, view shame with deep distrust, even scorn, since it has for them inherently moral and religious connotations. Denouncers of the logos, especially those in the academy, prefer to bury or to truncate its meaning insofar as they reject not only standards of language but also standards of behavior. To them the classical and biblical uses of shame in a virtuous sense are objectionable and irrelevant in a postmodern age. Preachers of sexual utopianism in particular view shame as a fraudulent emotion, and today their view has been carried to fantastic extremes in all areas of a secular society, in which the pursuit of what is shameless is often equated with creative freedom.

It is imperative to resist forces that would reject, or muddle, or revamp the definition of shame as it has endured for many centuries. Shame is a heart-word that belongs to the legacy of Greece, Rome, and Israel, and to Western civilization throughout the last 2,000 years, and must be preserved and transmitted at all costs, if a common culture is to survive in these most perilous of times. We need, then, to be reacquainted with what precisely shame means, what it has always meant, despite ferocious efforts of "the enemies of the permanent things" to abolish the meaning of history and of humankind, and to create a new social and moral order. …