29 June 2015
The shame of it
The current Time magazine has a little piece about an alarming trend of parents creating videos to shame their children. This trend came to many people's attention after a 13 year old girl in Washington state committed suicide after her father filmed her with her hair shorn for "sending a boy a racy photo." That father didn't post his video for the public to see, but the daughter apparently started sharing it -- who knows why? -- until it spread beyond her control. Some parents are posting shaming videos, however, and kids seem to have enough problems with shaming from their peers. Kids today can't take shame, it seems. Old-timers will complain that people have no sense of shame today. They think of shame as a necessary tool of social discipline. Whether that was ever true or not, the formula is complicated in our time by the fact that, as one expert says in the article, "The Internet is forever." A recorded shaming could literally haunt a person for his or her entire life. But how bad should shame haunt us? The real problem may be that in our time shame has become something more severe and scarring than it once was. Another expert says, "The reaction to shame is an inherent sense that you're no good, that you're damaged as a person. And if you're no good, what hope do you have of correcting what's going on?" Yet I assume that in the past people were shamed with the idea of improving them. While in some cases, as with cowards in wartime, shame was meant as a permanent stigma, on other occasions we must assume that shaming was meant to teach people, young or old, a lesson they were presumed capable of learning. What seems more certain is that people were thicker-skinned then, whether they learned from shame or not. I wonder whether our different attitude today has something to do with a belief that each of us has an immutable self, one that never really changes drastically over our lives and should not be expected to change much. We still presume ourselves capable of learning facts from books or from the Internet, but perhaps we think there's a limit to how much, on other levels, we can improve, or simply change, and yet remain ourselves. For what other reason would anyone assume that he or she will always be the contemptible loser that irresponsible peers or parents sometimes portray? Shaming is irresponsible if it doesn't point the way toward improvement. Peer shaming is probably the worst form since it often follows the logic of alpha animals thinning out a herd and isn't interested in whether you can someday redeem yourself. Parents ought to know better but some of today's parents were yesterday's students, presumably going through the same ordeals if not inflicting them on others. There's a lot in American life for many if not all of us to be ashamed of. but what's the point of shame if it doesn't spur us to change our lives? The reason a person should feel ashamed is not because she isn't fit to live, but because it should be obvious, to her as an individual just as it should be to whole communities and nations, that she can and must do better. The shame that comes from a sense that you can't do better, or that no one should ask you to, is an unhealthy form of shame, but it can't be the only shame, or else our whole civilization is in trouble.