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”)
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.
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.
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.