Two recent news articles have been sitting in the back of my mind lately. The first one is about the girl in Florida who was bullied to death, and the second one was about the coach in Utah who suspended the entire football team for cyberbullying, among other things. This being the time of year when we spend time studying my favorite religious splinter group, the Puritans, these news stories got me to thinking about shame. The longer I mull over these three topics, the more strongly I come to believe that we need to get a little more shame back in the game.
Shame has gotten a bad rap in our society, but like many things we disdain, it has its role and its purpose. Shame keeps us from breaking taboos. Shame helps us regulate our own behaviors. Shame helps reinforce social norms and desired actions, like treating others as we want to be treated. Shame acts as an external conscience when we are too young or immature or unaware or distracted to listen to our internal conscience. The Puritans knew this, and used it in spades (to a ridiculous extent, actually). A lot of our cultural mores come from the Puritans, including the term "Puritan work ethic" and the belief that financial success is proof of God's favor. But somewhere along the way, we discarded the concept of shame as a necessary element of a smoothly-functioning society. How else can we explain the fact that one of the ringleaders in the Florida bullying case showed no remorse for her actions, if her statements on social media are any indication? What's more, it's a short journey from not being ashamed of what you do to not taking responsibility for what you do. After years of working with kids making the transition into adulthood, I can tell you that the kids who scared me the most, the ones whose names scroll across my brain when I'm running through worst-case scenarios, are the ones who deny accountability for their behavior and who show no shame when they're caught.
I don't think it's coincidence that bullying has become a more prominent issue at the same time that the concept of shame has been marginalized. After all, if your every action has been explained away as being caused by something outside your control for the duration of your short life, then what motivation do you have to regulate your behavior? If you know that Mom and Dad are going to defend you to the outside world regardless of what you've done, then why NOT do whatever you want? Our fear of allowing our children to feel any kind of negative emotion, whether it be distress or frustration or embarrassment or, yes, shame, results in people who don't understand the impact their words and deeds can have on others. Then we unleash these kids into the echo chamber of social media, where they congregate in their age cohort without benefit of adult supervision and reinforce one another's worst impulses.
So what do we do about this? Our society used to be much more homogeneous, which makes social norms much easier to enforce. Fewer people are directly involved in major institutions, such as church and civic groups, that reinforce expectations about community standards. These trends are not going to change anytime soon, so there's no point moaning about the good old days of Father Knows Best and Mayberry, RFD. I also don't want to go back to a time when we used to shame people for who they were. not what they did. Quite frankly, I don't care what your parents' marital status was when you were born or which public restroom you choose to use, nor should we care. But let's face it, the rules of being a decent human being are fairly simple: Treat others the way you wish to be treated. Be honest. Don't take stuff that isn't yours. Show consideration for people who aren't as strong as you are. Respect others unless they give you reason to do otherwise. Leave things better than you found them. Do good work. (Notice I said that these rules are simple, but I did NOT say they are easy. Plenty of us, including yours truly, still get hung up on that first one an awful lot of the time.) When we break those rules, we should be ashamed of ourselves - and if we're not, then someone should stop us and say, "shame on you!" We have to tell people that their behavior is not acceptable, and then not accept it. We need to think about what kind of society we want to be, and what kind of behaviors we want to encourage, and then discourage actions that don't contribute positively to those ends. All of this requires - demands, in fact - that we accept the reality that perfectly nice, reasonable people, people to whom we may be very closely related indeed, are capable of behaviors befitting heinous little snots. This does not mean they're not good people; it means they are humans who need to learn what's acceptable and what is not.
I am hopeful that the current no-shame, no-blame social mores will come to an end someday (I'd like to see the pendulum swing away from this trend in my lifetime, but I'm not as sanguine about that coming to pass). That coach in Utah benching his team for being jerkfaces is a good start in the right direction. I like to think that most of our wretched excesses are at least somewhat self-correcting; for which see alcohol consumption in the late 1800s, followed by Prohibition. It truly will be a crying shame if this doesn't.