The Underestimated Power of Shame

"Think twice about what you are going to say, especially if you are going to say what you're thinking."
So goes the old adage. This advice is a caution that seems to garner very little support in an era when airing one's dirty laundry in public is considered a noble gesture, and lack of self control is at worst looked upon as an excusable peccadillo and at best encouraged as a form of self-expression.

Most of us trust that we have become reasonably acclimated to a mutually agreed upon social arrangement, until someone in the public realm flies off the handle and briefly embarrasses humanity by modeling the absurdity of neglecting even the most basic rules of social decorum. Some noteworthy examples stand out, such as the recent outburst by a clearly intoxicated Danny De Vito in a drunken diatribe where he mocked the President of the United States, Michael Richard's impetuous tirade of racial expletives at a comedy club and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's iniquitous "Diablo" speech at the UN.

When Chavez was asked what prompted his bellicose speech at the UN he responded that he was merely speaking from the heart. Michael Richards was somewhat more apologetic about his loss of control and attributed it to some kind of extraneous spirit of hatred which overwhelmed him. Danny De Vito seems to have been just nursing a bender. But all three had, in those moments of delirium, stopped paying heed to normal constraints of civility and unleashed demons heretofore lying in wait in the innermost corners of the soul for an opportune time to spew their venom.

Thus far these animated displays of raw emotion have not significantly hurt Chavez's political career; and it was reported that DVD sales of Seinfeld's show spiked soon after "Kramer" went on his infelicitous "racist" tirade. There are yet no reports as to how De Vito's movie career has been affected, but the trend appears to be in his favor.

This somewhat contentious approach to social discourse has existed since time immemorial, but few have captured the essence of its injurious consequences better than author C.S. Lewis did in his work The Problem of Pain

In his chapter on "Human Wickedness" Lewis describes a tendency in modern man to find merit in the cathartic practice of "bringing things out in the open"; this should be done

"not for the sake of self-humiliation, but on the grounds that these ‘things' are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them".
Many people today likewise find Richards', Chavez's and De Vito's frankness liberating; something that they should be commended for.

Lewis notes that by having temporarily removed their sense of shame men are simply left to operate without any moral restrains. He called it "madness" to think that one can "remove hypocrisy by removing the temptation to hypocrisy", and inimitably defined this "temptation" as the universal experience of shame.

Shame is something that most of us naturally experience when we think or do what we perceive to be against the universally accepted norms of decency; it is what reflexively prompts us to put up a front in order to conceal the decay inside. This is the hypocrisy Lewis was referring to. Hence it is through the "temptation" of shame that we almost intuitively resort to hypocrisy. As our conscience prods us to be purged of our character blemishes - through shame - we should rather learn to behave naturally in a more virtuous fashion, so that acting hypocritically in order to conceal these blemishes is less needed.  

The idea is not that we remove this temptation in order to get rid of hypocrisy - which is a lofty goal in itself - but to behave in such a way so that we are not repeatedly mired in a state of self-disgust which in turn tempts us to hide this pestilence. As we are never going to be entirely rid of this pestilence while we are in the flesh, contrition in seeking forgiveness is preferable to getting rid of shame, as the latter would actually mean removing the few vestiges of restraint needed to avoid a complete abandonment to utter lawlessness and decay.

Lewis sees the folly of such men who by "extirpating shame have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit", and we see this deficiency manifesting itself in many venues, whether we are talking about a celebrity on a third rate talk show, a world leader, or a stand up comedian doing his regular routine.

Modern man has mistaken this obscene display of emotions as a prerequisite to any honest and frank discussion. This is the mark of men who have opened a doorway that leads in many directions, sometimes even toward the low forms of depravity. Even at best, they become bores.  As Lewis notes, the ‘frankness' of those who have sunk below shame is a "very cheap frankness"


Miguel A. Guanipa is an occasional contributor to American Thinker.
"Think twice about what you are going to say, especially if you are going to say what you're thinking."
So goes the old adage. This advice is a caution that seems to garner very little support in an era when airing one's dirty laundry in public is considered a noble gesture, and lack of self control is at worst looked upon as an excusable peccadillo and at best encouraged as a form of self-expression.

Most of us trust that we have become reasonably acclimated to a mutually agreed upon social arrangement, until someone in the public realm flies off the handle and briefly embarrasses humanity by modeling the absurdity of neglecting even the most basic rules of social decorum. Some noteworthy examples stand out, such as the recent outburst by a clearly intoxicated Danny De Vito in a drunken diatribe where he mocked the President of the United States, Michael Richard's impetuous tirade of racial expletives at a comedy club and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's iniquitous "Diablo" speech at the UN.

When Chavez was asked what prompted his bellicose speech at the UN he responded that he was merely speaking from the heart. Michael Richards was somewhat more apologetic about his loss of control and attributed it to some kind of extraneous spirit of hatred which overwhelmed him. Danny De Vito seems to have been just nursing a bender. But all three had, in those moments of delirium, stopped paying heed to normal constraints of civility and unleashed demons heretofore lying in wait in the innermost corners of the soul for an opportune time to spew their venom.

Thus far these animated displays of raw emotion have not significantly hurt Chavez's political career; and it was reported that DVD sales of Seinfeld's show spiked soon after "Kramer" went on his infelicitous "racist" tirade. There are yet no reports as to how De Vito's movie career has been affected, but the trend appears to be in his favor.

This somewhat contentious approach to social discourse has existed since time immemorial, but few have captured the essence of its injurious consequences better than author C.S. Lewis did in his work The Problem of Pain

In his chapter on "Human Wickedness" Lewis describes a tendency in modern man to find merit in the cathartic practice of "bringing things out in the open"; this should be done

"not for the sake of self-humiliation, but on the grounds that these ‘things' are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them".
Many people today likewise find Richards', Chavez's and De Vito's frankness liberating; something that they should be commended for.

Lewis notes that by having temporarily removed their sense of shame men are simply left to operate without any moral restrains. He called it "madness" to think that one can "remove hypocrisy by removing the temptation to hypocrisy", and inimitably defined this "temptation" as the universal experience of shame.

Shame is something that most of us naturally experience when we think or do what we perceive to be against the universally accepted norms of decency; it is what reflexively prompts us to put up a front in order to conceal the decay inside. This is the hypocrisy Lewis was referring to. Hence it is through the "temptation" of shame that we almost intuitively resort to hypocrisy. As our conscience prods us to be purged of our character blemishes - through shame - we should rather learn to behave naturally in a more virtuous fashion, so that acting hypocritically in order to conceal these blemishes is less needed.  

The idea is not that we remove this temptation in order to get rid of hypocrisy - which is a lofty goal in itself - but to behave in such a way so that we are not repeatedly mired in a state of self-disgust which in turn tempts us to hide this pestilence. As we are never going to be entirely rid of this pestilence while we are in the flesh, contrition in seeking forgiveness is preferable to getting rid of shame, as the latter would actually mean removing the few vestiges of restraint needed to avoid a complete abandonment to utter lawlessness and decay.

Lewis sees the folly of such men who by "extirpating shame have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit", and we see this deficiency manifesting itself in many venues, whether we are talking about a celebrity on a third rate talk show, a world leader, or a stand up comedian doing his regular routine.

Modern man has mistaken this obscene display of emotions as a prerequisite to any honest and frank discussion. This is the mark of men who have opened a doorway that leads in many directions, sometimes even toward the low forms of depravity. Even at best, they become bores.  As Lewis notes, the ‘frankness' of those who have sunk below shame is a "very cheap frankness"


Miguel A. Guanipa is an occasional contributor to American Thinker.