In any society not in a state of civil war, shame is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful. Individuals or organizations caught cheating, lying or otherwise doing evil, when exposed and called out, are expected to be embarrassed. They should repent their sins and promise to make amends. Other than pure coercion, what else can disarm those who violate the norms of society?
Evolutionary biologists tell us shame is hardwired not only in humans but many other social animals. (They may not experience shame the same way humans do, but the outward markers and consequences are the same.) We seek group membership in good standing, and while there is an incentive to exploit others for personal gain, or just relax our commitment for a while, the punishment of group rejection is a more powerful force. That’s what holds us together.
It is natural that shame is invoked as a political weapon. Corrupt businessmen, politicians and public officials may be flying high, but if we can document the facts they are trying to hide, we can clean them out. A video documenting otherwise hidden police abuse, an audio recording of the murder of civilians released by Wikileaks, the disclosure of evidence of law-breaking by justices or political leaders should accomplish this. Also testimony from women abused by powerful men: if they come forward and tell the world what really happened, that should stop abuse in its tracks.
All of this depends on the biological mechanism of shame to kick in: those whose hidden misdeeds have been exposed should feel disarmed and admit defeat. It isn’t enough that they be reviled by other members of the community; if direct coercion is unavailable for any reason, it is only the shame response that makes exposure a force of justice and not an empty gesture.
But the shame response shouldn’t be assumed. In fact, what evidence we have suggests it operated only within limited circles through most of human history. Liars and cheaters were accountable to their peers but not underlings or outsiders. If a Roman warlord falsely took credit for a battle won by a rival, this might be a problem if the truth were known by other commanders, but would it matter what the soldiers knew? Shame was circumscribed and structured by deeply embedded customs and social hierarchies. You might have the fantasy you could go back in history and present the truth those who lived through events couldn’t see, but how much difference would it have made?
The faith that shame is a force of universal application and effectiveness is a modern indulgence, a product of the rationalism and optimism of an Enlightened world. It ignores at least two uncomfortable truths. The first is that the shame response is not equally strong in all people. Some are ruled by the fear of shame and exercise little independent judgment or initiative. Others are almost impervious to it; they seem almost to feed on the disapproval of those around them and succumb only to the application of overwhelming power. The second is that shame, like all other psychological factors, is mediated by the way we make sense of the world—religion, ideology, and social custom. This is why priests and warlords experienced shame only among their peers and not universally, and why the notion of universal shame is a historically specific political hypothesis.
So back to the present time. Those of us who take the Enlightenment outlook for granted tend to assume it’s enough to bring out the facts about dishonest, corrupt or abusive power holders to cause their downfall. In case you have noticed, however, it’s not working. We have a president whose rampant dishonesty and exploitive behavior has been amply documented, but he doesn’t care and just continues on. The Kavanaugh hearings were more of the same, not only for Kavanaugh himself but also the senators shepherding him to his seat on the Supreme Court. And it is wider and deeper than this: think of the campaign for war against Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, when Bush could even make a comedy skit out of the pretext of looking for weapons of mass destruction. Or the patently dishonest arguments put forward to justify tax cuts for the rich. Exposing these lies gave many of us a sense of vindication, but it had no effect on outcomes. Above all, those in power showed no sign that they cared whether or not they were exposed. To stop them it was necessary that they be stopped.
I see two reasons why we are having an epidemic of shamelessness. The first is the emergence of a philosophy on the political right that the majority of the public is craven and easily duped, so the higher good depends on a strategy of deceit. This has its roots in the teachings of Leo Strauss, the philosopher who taught generations of University of Chicago students after fleeing the Third Reich in the 1930s. Strauss believed the great works of philosophy were written in code, since deep thinkers, by virtue of their very depth, understood that most people were shallow and un-virtuous. They couldn’t say this out loud, so they had to devise clever ways to say it to their inner school of acolytes. (For a counter-view, see this, but it argues only for Strauss, not his students.) Strauss transmitted this perspective to young skeptics of liberalism, who developed it into a high-minded critique of democracy, from which it devolved into the end-justifies-the-means credo of movement conservatism. Far from evoking embarrassment and shame, being revealed as a liar is a badge of honor among the elect; it shows they are elevated above the credulous masses. Movement activists discovered this philosophical stance is also a source of tremendous power: once you are no longer in thrall to your scruples or anyone else’s and can be held back only by a superior force, most mechanisms of social control have no effect, and you can accomplish greater things. Note, by the way, that such cynicism is not a monopoly of the Right; classical Leninism too justified shameless deceit on the ground of the relativity of morals and the overriding logic of History; public exposure of facts had no effect on Communist show trials.
It seems to me another element is at work, although I can’t quite describe it. Many people who have not transcended the shame response in their own lives (they are “good people”) nevertheless vicariously identify with heroes and celebrities who have. It seems there is a thrill to be had in cheering on the bully we are not capable of being ourselves. But why should there be a historical ebb and flow to this spectacle? Why now and not before? Why is Trump admired for his disdain of social norms, while Nixon succumbed to his? Is it connected to the evolution of movement conservatism, as the Straussian sneer is translated into tweets and viral video clips? Is it a product of the pseudo-intimacy of the virtual world, where the thrill of the bully, transmitted to us through what feels like a personal medium, can be experienced almost first-hand? Or something else, or all of the above?
I would like our culture analysts, who are so adept at discerning subtle shades of colonialism in language and art, to take up the study of shame and its progressive disappearance from public life. In the meantime, those of us who are disgusted by the shameless behavior of those in power should have no illusions. We won’t get them to back down by uncovering further evidence of their misdeeds, although evidence remains the basis for rational judgment and should always be sought. Only greater political power will overcome shamelessness.