3.18.2013

For Shame

http://l1.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/rsQAiy6Xj35f9el93CRcpw--/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7cT04NTt3PTMxMA--/http://media.zenfs.com/en/blogs/thelookout/teen-pregnancy-collage.jpgI half-agree and half-disagree with this recent article in the New York Times about the role of shame in a liberal society.  "A Case for Shaming Teenage Pregnancy" attempts to rebut the fury against New York City's campaign to shame pregnant teens by reasoning that it is good to provoke shame about bad things. 

Yes, it is true that shame is a good thing, and that it is a bad thing when people have lost their ability to feel shame.  (Which, by the way, you grammarians: what is the difference between shameful and shameless?  I'm sure I'm going to reverse the two so I'm going to avoid using them in this post.) 

And, yes, shame is only truly shame when it is experienced in an outward and somewhat public way.  Sure, we can feel inward shame, and even if no one else knows about our bad deed, we can feel bad about ourselves that we will change our behavior, and that's all good.  But shame really makes sense from the construct of certain societal or group norms, and the bad feeling we ought to feel isn't just our own private awareness of falling short of our own individual standard but also our public admission of falling short of some broader standard that others besides us adhere to.

However (and, I realize this may belie my political preferences rather than evoking some absolute or universal truth), I'm not sure I am comfortable with the government being the shamer.  Although I consider the existence of this ad campaign less a bad move by New York City and more a sad indictment of our collective inability to apply healthy shame - in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our faith communities - against behaviors that people should feel bad about doing. 

As for me, I am nervous about government fulfilling that role.  But let there be no doubt that someone does need to fulfill that role.  And shame on us when we haven't stepped up in our own relational and organizational circles. 
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