Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Is Public Shaming of Undesirable Behavior Good for American Culture?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Is Public Shaming of Undesirable Behavior Good for American Culture?

Article excerpt

"Have you no shame, sir?" That sentence has haunted conservatives since the Army-McCarthy hearings of the fifties, when it was directed at the Communist-hunting senator by a liberal lawyer. As journalist Carl Horowitz aptly has documented in The American Prospect, conservatives have begun to use the charge against liberal advocates of moral nihilism and the cultural shamelessness it has produced. True, this can lead to excesses, especially when the central state comes to serve as a proxy for what should be a private sense of guilt, but shaming of immoral behavior need not lead to government intrusion and should be applauded by conservatives of all persuasions.

Let's get down to specifics. Consider the "heroin look." If you have picked up a fashion magazine in the last three years, perhaps you have noticed the strange appearance of many of the models. They have gaunt faces, lifeless eyes, drooping jaws and an overall burnt-out look to them, a look enhanced by blue makeup, disheveled clothing and base backgrounds of fleabag hotels and bathroom floors. It's not a pretty sight, especially not in the "fashion" pages.

Perhaps you didn't know that the drugged-out quality of these models was not accidental but fully intended to picture people using heroin or other hard drugs. Thus the heroin look, which is the industry's actual name for this grotesque attempt at salesmanship, came about, according to the New York Times, as a backlash against the airbrushed models of the 1980s posed in settings of prosperity and happiness. The heroin look survived three full years without serious challenge.

Then in February fashion photographer Davide Sorrenti, 20, died a gruesome death from a heroin overdose. He was beloved in the trendiest New York circles for his heroin-chic photos in Detour, Interview, Surface, Ray Gun, I-D and many other publications. A retrospective of his work recently was presented at a New York photography exhibition.

The usual claim made by photographers of heroin chic, the producers of violent and sexually degrading rap music and the purveyors of the basest forms of pornography is that viewers and listeners are capable of separating the medium from the moral message. The glorification of junkies is not intended to promote drug use, they say, but merely to represent life as it is, uncolored by our fantasies of how it should be. If people take it otherwise, that's their own problem.

It hardly is surprising that Sorrenti himself never made such an artificial distinction. He was living the life he glamorized in his photographs, and surely many others have been persuaded as well. Sorrenti paid the ultimate price for doing so. It is a modern-day tragedy, but who is to blame? Who should feel shame? Who should feel guilt? He made his own choices, but what were his moral influences? Either these are fair questions or the public celebration of the junkie might as well as continue. Perhaps we should be undeterred by the "puritans" among us who would ask whether those involved in promoting drug use ought to feel some responsibility for the consequences of their art.

It turns out, however, that even the fashion industry has decided to correct itself. "Photographers now know if you take the heroin-type pictures," says Michael Williams, a friend of Sorrenti's family who arranged the photo exhibit, "It's out of fashion." He told the New York Times that after several meetings with leading fashion editors they "literally said, `We are not looking for any heroin pictures.... We want everything positive and healthy."' So fast has the switch come about that by late summer, there will be a dramatic new look in the pages of fashion publications. It will be the look of health and virtue.

It's about time, and the decision was made long before President Clinton tried to make political hay out of it. It's truly a tragedy that it took the death of a talented young photographer to drive the point home. …

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