Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Shame is not enough

Shame is a good thing. It helps hold us in check. There is a story up today about a former politician who was arrested for driving around waving his erection at women driving other cars. At one point he apparently got it up to 90 miles an hour with said erection poking out the window. No, I don't know how he did it either but, and this is the important thing, that is where we'd all end up if you had no shame.

By the way, if you go to the original story, you'll notice it says the guy was exposing his "genitals". That's another interesting aspect of shame, that it leads people to say "genitals" when they mean "erection". Shame tends to lead us to not do things that will make people laugh at us to be sure but it also tends to make us squeamish about things we all know and understand but would rather not admit we know and understand. That is why newspaper editors go to great lengths to mask the primary motive of some guy driving around to expose himself. What primary motive? If you read case studies of exhibitionist behaviour, you will quickly learn that the vast majority of male exhibitionists don't just strive to show themselves to others, they aim to get an erection from the arousal that comes from exposing themselves.

And we all co-operate in keeping these secrets. Why? If I asked you directly, you'd most likely say, "Because I don't want to know!" Yeah sure. But suppose I left you alone in a room with video of some celebrity's shameful behaviour and then I came back in quietly twenty minutes later to catch you watching. What would you say then? You've never pried into or been curious about someone else's shameful secret? Ah, but you say, "Sure, I'm intrigued but I resist." Okay, but the first time around you said you didn't want to know and that is different. It was also a lie.

(We do the same thing with women by the way. Exhibitionism from women is far more acceptable in our society than from men but we still go to great lengths to conceal the sexual motive women have for this. We tell ourselves it is from peer pressure or a need to be popular or the bad influence of Hollywood, we tell ourselves just about anything rather than admit that women and girls get a sexual charge from doing this.)

You may say, but I would never get a thrill out of exposing myself that way. No, of course not, but when you have sex, does it matter that your lover  is there to experience you having sex? That's a big part of the experience isn't it? Yeah, something has gone a bit crazy if you are driving around exposing yourself but doing it with another human being is big part of the thing. That's part of the shame: we don't do these things ourselves but we understand perfectly well how they got where they are. 

I digress on this because I want to tease something important out. When you claim that you don't want to know shameful secrets that you, in fact, do want to know, that is shame at work. There are websites that mock celebrities for their behaviour and dress. Have you ever been to one of them? Are you ashamed of what you have done? Of course you are. But what do you want to do about it? Well, nothing because ... well, because nobody is being hurt (consequentalism) or because there is no law against it (deontology).

If your reaction is to say, "I'm never going to TMZ or Go Fug Yourself again!" let me assure you that you are wasting your time. You can't stop playing the shame game. It's part of being human. You can play it at more exalted levels if that makes you feel good. You can read Jane Austen or Shakespeare, for example. They both use shame as a dramatic technique over and over again. Willoughby is shamed and then he comes crawling to Elinor and tells her all about it and we feel good for justice has been restored through shame. (Exam question: Why does it matter so much that Willoughby actually confess his shame at his own behaviour instead of just feeling it? 20 marks. This isn't a exam for English literature but for Virtue Ethics 101.)

One problem, of course, is that we all do things that would shame us if others knew. You may feel perfectly comfortable having your spouse see you reach orgasm but you'd probably not want your mother to know too much about it. Your mother loves you and all and she wants you to be happy in an abstract sense but there is stuff you'd rather not have to explain to her. And even less so to your neighbours. (Oddly enough, you might not have problems fantasizing about some random stranger whom you'll never have to see again seeing something by "accident". )

That's not a problem because there is nothing wrong with having sex and orgasms or having fantasies to help you reach orgasm. There is a lot good about it. But it is and should be an intimate act. If you and your spouse like to dress up in medieval costume as part of your sex play, go to it but close the curtains first. And shame helps here.

The other problem, and this is the really big problem, is that shame is a self-oriented emotion. It leads us to protect our honour or, if we can't do that, at least minimize dishonour. It doesn't lead us to care much about others as others. Think back to age five when you were caught doing something and you immediately responded by claiming others had done likewise. Why did you do that? That Joey did it first doesn't absolve you of one ounce of guilt. But it does reduce your shame.

Every mother in the history of the world misses the point of this exercise and promptly says, "If little Joey jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?" That's because your mother cared about guilt more than shame. You had done something wrong and she wants you to apologize and, much more importantly, not do it again in the future. She was disappointed in you and wanted you to try harder to please her by being a better girl or boy. Because she is focused on this, she thinks that you invoke Joey as the reason why you did it. Your real goal was to reduce your shame by cutting all the other poppies in the room down to your level.

And if you had been able to lie with a reasonable chance of getting away with it, you would have tried that instead.

As it is, your mother played right into your hands by treating your excuse as a reason and you meekly agreed that you wouldn't do what Joey did in the future. And it felt good to meekly do that because you'd dodged the bullet because you knew full well that Joey doing it or not doing it had nothing at all with your doing it. You knew it was wrong and you were damn glad to have the excuse of Joey doing it first. (assuming he did and it is just as likely that you made the whole Joey thing up.) And if you ever got a chance of doing it again without getting caught, you were going to jump at it.

But, we are tempted to say, our mothers won in the long run. Why do we say that? Well, because we learned how to behave. And the proof of that is what? That you don't do anything shameful anymore? You might be tempted to say (I'm certainly tempted), "But I'm better than I used to be and that should count for something".

Okay, but to whom and why? And we still have to figure out why we got better.

It seems like the answer should be something like this. Even though you fully intended to keep doing the fun thing in the future if you could get away with it, you now realized that there were consequences to getting caught. Now all you need is a little prudence, that is the realization that the risks of getting caught outweigh the gains that come from occasionally getting away with it, and you're home.

It's odd though that we don't often make that argument when teaching children, or even adults, how to behave morally. And it has limitations. Would you do the bad thing if the chances of your getting away with it looked really good? The answer to that will be yes in some cases and no in others. "Depends on what the thing is,"  you will say. If it is glancing at the breasts of a woman you know when she bends down to get something out of her purse, you might do it (relevant disclosure: I definitely would) if it is having an affair with the same woman even though she is married, I would hope you wouldn't do it. But everyone should see that one act is in a different moral class than the other. At the very least, you should see that if we keep moving the needle down the scale it will reach a point where no shame-based rationalization would be acceptable; even if you could talk yourself into having affair on the grounds that you won't get caught, you wouldn't use the same argument to rationalize rape. If you have to think about that, something has gone deeply wrong in your moral development.

But shame isn't what makes the difference when you do this. If anything, the act of voyeurism carries more shame than sexual infidelity. In our society we laugh at the man who is cuckolded more than the one who cheated on him. Heck, not just in our society. Having an affair come to light might cause some people to get angry at you but you won't be the one feeling shame.

Shame and honour are essential to any morality but they aren't enough.

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