Whatever Happened to “Shame”

Bill Britton

By Bill Britton, Contributing Editor

MORE THAN 2,000 YEARS AGO, the progenitor of our democracy was born in ancient Greece. For those who have read the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and others or Homer’s great epics, “shame” was an integral part of both plot lines and outcomes. In Homer’s Iliad, King Agamemnon stole a slave from Achilles, a shameful act, but Achilles was shamed as well because he failed to retaliate by attacking Agamemnon. In many of these myths, it is hubris—excessive pride—that leads to shame and often, to one’s downfall. (J-L David’s painting: “The Anger of Achilles”)

1-11-10_Anger_of_Achilles, 1/11/10, 4:09 PM, 8C, 6522x9521 (1056+1134), 100%, Repro 1.8 v2, 1/8 s, R69.0, G51.7, B57.6

1-11-10_Anger_of_Achilles, 1/11/10, 4:09 PM, 8C, 6522×9521 (1056+1134), 100%, Repro 1.8 v2, 1/8 s, R69.0, G51.7, B57.6

On June 9, 1954, during the communist witch hunt, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that one of attorney Joseph Welch’s associates had ties to a communist organization. Welch responded with the immortal lines that ultimately ended McCarthy’s career: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness . . . Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

Welch essentially shamed McCarthy in front of millions of TV viewers. Of course, McCarthy could not be shamed, and his exaggerated and often totally false allegations leveled against witnesses ended many careers, with some committing suicide.

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Senator Joseph McCarthy

In today’s political arena, there is little shame exhibited, but there is an abundance of hubris. Donald Trump’s outrageous statements elicit cheers and higher poll numbers, not censure. He has tapped into a vicious undercurrent in America that ignores both morality and civility. It seems that new social conventions are being formulated by Trump and, at this point, about half of the electorate is adopting them.

Of course, Trump is not alone. Those running for elective office, from county clerk to President, play on voters’ short attention spans and their failure to sift through all the rhetoric in hopes of separating fact from fiction. If a claim is made by your side, it is treated as “fact,” by the opponent, as “fiction.” Public discourse has been obliterated and replaced by sound bites (in both its senses). The mass media are complicit in this erosion of decency and honest, investigative reportage. Outright lies told by candidates are reframed by them as media bias.

This abandonment of shame in the public sphere extends down to the local level.

When classmates of my generation misbehaved in grade school, they were rapped on the knuckles or made to sit in a corner as punishment—they were shamed (and fearful that their parents would find out). I’m not advocating corporal punishment, but a teacher today must exercise caution when meting out the mildest reprimand lest they be subjected to accusations of abuse from either the administration or parents or both. Behavior modification using chemicals, e.g., Ritalin, is favored rather than discipline.

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1950’s Classroom

As I make my way through the fog of election pronouncements, I have one objective: to vote for the most decent individual in a widening array of candidates, whether Republican or Democrat, atheist or believer, tall or short, male or female. That old phrase, “ he (or she) is of sound character,” must be part of a candidate’s makeup, which is another way of saying that the candidate must be one who lacks excessive pride but who takes responsibility for his or her actions, shameful or otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to “Shame”

  1. Mr. Britton, we agree on something! For a long time now, I have wished we had a little more shame in our society, it served a useful purpose. Back when I was in high school, it was shameful to get pregnant out of wedlock. Thanks to “Murphy Brown” and many celebrities since then, there is no shame in having any number of children and not being married. Of course, the character Murphy Brown could easily afford to be a single mom while a large majority of the young, single women raising kids today need help from families or the government.
    Which leads us to the politicians and political activists with no shame…black on black crime is growing at an alarming rate with tens of thousands of young men killed every year in our cities. What is shameful are the elected officials and leaders of groups like “Black Lives Matter” who do not even acknowledge the truth about why this is happening…school drop-outs, unwed mothers, no job skills and no jobs. It is more important for the Congressional Black Caucus to stand on the steps of the US Capital saying “hands up, don’t shoot” and perpetuating the myth that a policeman gunned down an innocent black youth than it is for them to actually DO SOMETHING about the REAL PROBLEM.
    When Mr. Trump’s comments and those of others start killing people, I’ll be worried about the tenor of public discourse. Until then, we should be supporting the candidates who speak the truth and don’t shamefully pander to the voters, spewing lies about being victims of racism, voter ID bills being racist, the need for more welfare, free day-care, more food stamps and free cell phones. What we need is more shame, as you said.
    But then again, shame comes from the moral basis that there is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Unfortunately, too many people today don’t want us to be moral judges – that smacks too much of religiosity…good and evil and a higher power to whom we all must answer. So we come full circle – how do you teach decency, integrity and chastity in a sectarian society? Hmmm?

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  2. As usual, Susan, we agree here and there but not everywhere. As an atheist, I’ve been asked how is it possible for people like me to have a moral center? My answer is simple (and likely too much so): I use reason. After all, it doesn’t take my being a genius to recognize when I act badly, but it does require a certain amount of humility (honesty?) to acknowledge such an act. Morality enters in when I resolve not to do it again. In other words, to act decently toward others and toward myself. I suppose this is something that is unteachable in any society except by one’s setting an example of moral behavior, which is sadly lacking in both the public and private worlds of today. The ancient Greeks were a shame society whose members (and gods) punished transgressors. Too often, we reward them. . . . Best,

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