Is There a Role for Shaming in Public Ethics?

Is There a Role for Shaming in Public Ethics? October 8, 2015

One of the most famous questions ever asked in public of a public person was U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 during McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt in Congress. In total disgust Welch asked McCarthy “At long last, Senator, have you no sense of decency?”

This was an example of what I call public shaming for ethical misconduct that does not violate the law. Sometimes I wonder if we need more of that.

Too often, it seems to me, Americans (and I’m sure others) have come to accept without public comment or condemnation decisions and actions by public persons so long as they do not violate the law.

Of course, there are exceptions, and what I am wondering is why we do not extend those exceptions, make them broader. What are we afraid of?

The exceptions have to do with intolerance. Derogatory comments about women and minorities made by public persons nearly always draw harsh, public criticism and often result in sanctions.

In recent years I have noticed a definite trend in public entertainment, especially movies and television, toward the sexualizing of child actors. I can’t tell how many times I have come off my “easy chair” while watching a movie or televised program at home and exclaimed “They’re sexualizing that child actor!”

In other words, movie makers and television program producers are increasingly placing child actors in quite explicit sexual situations that no child (anyone below, say, fifteen or sixteen) should be in. I’m not talking about explicit nudity, but dramatic or comedic situations where the child actor(s) cannot avoid being involved, even if only as observer and/or commenter, in sexual activity or overt sexual language.

This is just one example of what I am wondering about. Most reasonable Americans would shudder at such situations involving children in real life. Why not in response to movies and television shows?

I, for one, want to say to those movie makers and television show producers: “At long last, have you no sense of decency?” and “If you must portray or insinuate sexual activity in your movie or television program, can you at least leave the child actors out of it?”

But this just illustrates a larger, broader concern that I have. Where is our sense of decency and where is our resulting outrage as Christians or just as citizens when people with influence and power abuse it–even if they stay within the limits of the law?

During the televangelist scandals of the 1980s and 1990s many people publicly shamed televangelists for their apparent greed and hypocrisy. The Christian satire magazine The Wittenburg Door (intentionally misspelled) offered a “Green Weenie Award” in every issue–usually to greedy or hypocritical “Christian leaders.” That’s the kind of shaming I regard as valid and valuable in applied ethics.

But in the past two decades I believe I have noticed an increasing sense that calling powerful and influential people out as lacking decency is either inappropriate (because shame is itself a bad thing) or ineffectual. Powerful and influential people seem to get away with just about anything and with impunity so long as they do not engage in racist rhetoric or break laws.

I return to my example above: I say to movie makers and television program producers who, for example, have child actors talking about “rim jobs” (as in a movie I recently saw): “At long last…have you no sense of decency? Apparently not!”

It seems to me we, as a culture and as a people, Americans in general, have simply given up on decency. We may be decent in our own lives, but we express little or no outrage toward people with power and influence who flaunt their indecency, their lack of shame, in public ways.

Now, I realize the dangers involved in what I’m calling for. We don’t want to be like those “Baptists from Kansas” who picket funerals. I’m not even coming close to that! Of course there are examples of abuse of public shaming; those need to be called out, too. To them I ask “At long last…have you no sense of decency?”

Then there is the danger of being sued. We are reluctant to point an accusing finger even at the worst offenders of public decency because they might sue us. After all, they didn’t break any law!

I think a society that has no moral compass beyond the law is on the verge of breakdown. Cannot we at least agree, in spite of our diversity, that creating movies and television programs that involve child actors placed in situations where they are made to be aware of sexual conduct or language far too mature for their age have no sense of decency? I’m thinking, for example, of a television situation comedy where a child actor lived with two male adults who were constantly talking about and engaging in explicit sexual conduct that no child his age should even know about? And, as I recall, when he–the young male actor–attempted to protest publicly HE was shamed!

It seems to me we are moving quickly toward “no limits” in public entertainment and political speech. Can we not draw some lines–outside of law–about decency in public? Those lines, which once existed, seem to be disappearing.


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