Whatever Happened to Shame?
Some of you, my dear readers, may be old enough to remember a television program hosted by journalist Arnold Diaz (one version on CBS and another version on Fox Network) in which consumer fraud was exposed and each segment ended with a large finger pointing at the name of the company or individual with the words “Shame! Shame! Shame!” printed and chanted.
It seems to me that today’s American society is ashamed of shame; we have largely banished shame for anything other than acts or attitudes of injustice and oppression. Even in those cases the response seems to be more blame than shame. The old idea of shaming is vanishing; it is actually shameful to shame anyone.
Recently I walked into a big box store near my home to buy a few essentials that could not be delivered to my address. I was wearing a face mask and keeping “social distance”—six feet from other people as much as possible. What I saw shocked me. Almost no customer in the store was wearing a mask in spite of a huge surge in COVID-19 infections in the city. And most people were standing near each other talking to each other. Social distancing was not happening. The scene was exactly as “normal”—before the pandemic occurred. My immediate “gut response” was to yell “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
The point of wearing a face mask is to protect others more than oneself. It may help protect the self but mainly it is for others’ sakes—in case you are infected and don’t know it. Many, many people are carrying and shedding the virus without any symptoms. Especially elderly people and people with compromised immune systems and underlying health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, etc., are highly vulnerable to extreme illness and even death from the COVID-19 virus.
Suddenly, as the country re-opens, many people are acting as if the pandemic is over. They should be ashamed of themselves. That very day that I walked into the big box store the mayor had just announced that all businesses had to require face masks of everyone inside their spaces. Since then I have seen many people going into stores and businesses without face masks anyway. Shame! Shame! Shame!
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Our contemporary America is far, far too individualist. We have little sense of community, of responsibility for one another’s well-being. We talk a good talk, sometimes, but our actions show how little we really care.
But I will offer a very different illustration—from a Christian context. A few years ago I happened to be visiting a well-known and very influential Christian university and was invited to attend an athletic banquet before a basketball game. My friend, my host, led me to the event and sat with me. It was my first time on that campus but I knew it to be a very profoundly Christian institution—at least by reputation.
During the banquet the banquet host, “emcee,” stood behind the podium, got everyone’s attention, and asked one of the university’s star basketball players to come up to the podium whereupon he announced that the young man had just become a father. His girlfriend, it was explained, had just given birth to their child. Everyone in the audience stood and loudly applauded and many whistled and cheered. The athlete beamed with pride as did the emcee who was a university employee.
After the banquet my personal host, a professor at the university, looked disappointed. I asked him about his downcast countenance and he explained that he was extremely disappointed that the banquet attenders, almost all university employees and self-identified Christians, were so enthusiastic about a child being born out of wedlock and an athlete being so enthusiastically congratulated for getting his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock.
What should have happened? In a Christian institutional context the student athlete should have been taken aside by his coach or the university chaplain (I later learned the university has an athletic chaplain) and gently but firmly chided for having sex outside of marriage. He should have been told to either marry his girlfriend immediately or drop out of the university. At the very least there should have been no “hoopla” about his fathering a child out of wedlock.
Am I “old school?” Yes, I admit it. I embrace it. We, Americans, Christians and non-Christians alike, have largely lost any sense of right and wrong other than what is legal/illegal and what is right and wrong in terms of politics and possibly business.
All my life I’ve heard it said that shame does not work. I disagree. If enough people expressed shame toward people who refuse to wear face masks in public places during a pandemic, when all the best medical people are urging it, it would make a difference. But our motto these days is “Don’t judge me.”
The result is that we are increasingly a culture and society of individualists who care little to nothing about others—unless they are “our others.”
I have taught Christian theology to Christian students in three Christian universities for almost forty years. Whenever we study ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church—I bring up church discipline. Very, very few of my students even know what that means. Even pastors’ sons and daughters and even pastors (!) look at me with curious frowns. They don’t like the sound of the phrase. When we discuss it and I explain how it used to work, even at its best, without abuse, most of the students say that it is automatically abusive and should not be done. I give example after example of how I have seen it done without abuse, done lovingly and only with concern to restore the sinning member to fellowship with God and with his or her brothers and sisters. It doesn’t have to involve “shunning” or “the ban” or public shaming in front of the congregation. In most churches in the past it was done by the pastor(s) and/or deacons/elders and in private. There’s an old saying that “Abuse does not require disuse but proper use”—referring to a practice. Just because it has been done wrongly does not mean it ought not be done at all.
Here is what I expect a big box store to do when customers are flouting the advice of top medical experts and government leaders and refusing to wear face masks and practice social distancing. The store manager should speak to the entire store over the speaker system these words (or their equivalent): “We ask you to wear a face mask for others’ sakes; it’s the right thing to do. We have face masks for sale at cost only. Please go to a cash register and get one and wear it or leave the store. Thank you very much for complying.”
Every time I am in a U.S. airport I hear over the loudspeaker system a recorded voice insisting that no one leave their bag(s) unattended and threatening to have them taken by security and searched and possibly discarded if they are unattended. Nobody that I know objects; we know why that is important. If it were made voluntary (“Please do not…”) and people did it anyway (leave their bags unattended) most people would not hesitate to shame the person who left them unattended, if they knew who they were. The same is true of unattended children left alone in cars in parking lots (and also animals). The proper response, short of having the offenders arrested, is “Shame! Shame! Shame!” But that should extend to many more things than just these extreme examples.
Where to draw the line? I don’t know. All I know is that our rush away from shame and “judging” is resulting in people doing all kinds of things that tear away at the fabric of a decent society—vulgar language in public and around children, pornographic images displayed on subscription streaming television services (I won’t name them but everyone knows), people having children out of wedlock and especially fathers abandoning their offspring and their offsprings’ mothers, etc., etc. People will always respond that I seem to want a return to the awful 1950s (and before). In some ways, yes. Some things about America were better then. There. Have at it. Shame on you if you respond unhelpfully. Be civil and fair. Don’t make me shame you!
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