Years ago, a psychiatrist told me that “should” and “shame” spelled trouble: Too many people were burdened by the feeling that they should live their lives according to external dictates or the expectations of others. And too many people carried shame for the wrong reasons, and long after it served any useful purpose.
The psychiatrist meant what the author Ann Patchett wrote in a memoir — that “shame should be reserved for the things we choose to do, not the circumstances that life puts on us.”
There is no shame in being poor or having had a terrible childhood, no shame in becoming depressed or ill, no shame in finding yourself in a distressing or humiliating predicament that was not of your making.
But we are human and not easily consoled by such liberating thoughts. Some of us become bogged down in things we can’t control and almost instinctively ratchet up momentary embarrassment to the level of debilitating shame. That’s why some people see psychiatrists.
But there is a healthy kind of shame. It is a powerful ingredient in the human chemistry and serves a useful purpose, as a kind of tonic for hubris, unethical behavior or full-scale corruption. And it seeds genuine remorse.
There just might not be enough of it to go around.
I heard shame — or, rather, the lack of it — mentioned during a podcast discussion of Sean Hannity, the Fox News talk-show host who was revealed to have sought the legal counsel of Michael Cohen, the New York lawyer and fixer-confidant of Donald J. Trump.
Hannity rails constantly against the special counsel investigation of Trump and Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, and he expressed particular outrage at the April 9 FBI raid on Cohen’s office, home and hotel room.
Hannity did all of that without informing his millions of viewers of his relationship to Cohen — and, once the relationship was revealed, without apologizing for the failure to disclose. Hannity received no reprimand from Fox, and he quickly resumed the business of being Trump’s primary cheerleader, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s primary basher, on cable television.
“One of the things I find so disturbing [about Hannity] was his shamelessness about it afterwards,” David Plotz, the host of Slate’s Political Gabfest, said on the show’s April 19 episode. “I feel like the main thing that has happened in the world in the last couple of years is the rise of shamelessness.
“Social opprobrium is much more powerful than laws most of the time. [The reason] we don’t do things is not because there’s a law against it, but because we’d be embarrassed or ashamed. ... If [shame] stops being a tool, if people refuse to feel shame, either because they know their team will support them, or because they are narcissists, it really undermines the whole fabric of society in ways I didn’t realize until we got to this place.”
I agree with Plotz, though I would not say shame is dead. You still see shame expressed in public from time to time.
On Friday, in a courtroom in Baltimore County, the former superintendent of schools stood before a judge for sentencing. Dallas Dance had pleaded guilty to perjury charges; he deliberately failed to disclose nearly $147,000 he had earned for consulting work, including pay from a firm that won a county contract. His conviction outraged and disappointed lots of people who considered the 37-year-old Dance a rock star of public education.
Dance apologized several times. His remorse sounded genuine, and his demeanor in court suggested profound shame from his self-inflicted wound. “I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed of myself,” he said.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall — Dance got six months in jail — and the harder they fall, the deeper the shame.
But these are not normal times in America. While Dallas Dance might have been willing to express shame, the public arena seems crowded with the shameless.
To cite one of many possible examples from Trump: His successful courting of evangelical Christians required a black belt in shamelessness. Equally shameless, and wholly transactional, is the reciprocating evangelical embrace of Trump, despite recent revelations about his personal life and his distinctly unchristian approach toward immigrants and the poor.
And just last week, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas penned an admiring blurb about Trump for Time magazine’s list of 100 influential people. Cruz praised Trump’s “achievements on behalf of ordinary Americans,” and called him “a flash-bang grenade thrown into Washington.”
Apparently, it no longer matters that Trump called Cruz a liar, maligned his wife and suggested that his father had something to do with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. And Cruz must no longer think Trump is a “pathological liar” and “serial philanderer,” though he called him those things during the 2016 campaign.
In response to Cruz’s love letter in Time, the MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski tweeted: “Have you no shame?”