February 23, 2009
The publication AM New York had on its cover last week the words Hall of Shame with the framed photographs of the athletes Barry Bonds, Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez accused of having using illegal steroids.
Time Magazine in its February 23rd, 2009 issue lists 25 people to blame for the present financial meltdown. Their photos are aligned in front of a white background, very much like a wall of shame.
Shame is a very powerful emotion. We always remember instances in our lives when we were shamed and we have difficulty forgiving whoever humiliated us in the past. We fear hearing the words "shame on you" or "you should be ashamed of yourself."
The words of Joe Welch, the Boston attorney to Senator Joe McCarthy on June 9th 1954, "Have you no shame, Senator?". still resonate in our collective historical memory. Overnight, McCarthy's immense popularity disappeared. It was the beginning of the end of his career.
In our present Western culture, shame is often seen as a sentiment to be banished. In a highly tolerant culture, where almost "anything goes" there is very little left to be ashamed of. Who today blushes? The absence of shame in our society may be one of the reasons for the general decline in civility.
However in other cultures, such as the Mid-Eastern and Oriental societies, shame or rather avoiding shame, plays a crucial role. In those cultures, it is of utmost importance to avoid losing face not only for oneself but also for the other.
The fear of shame can protect us from doing something unethical.
Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, says in his book The Subtlety of Emotions that: "Shame is probably one of the most powerful emotions for moral behavior. Shame is closely connected with self-esteem and self-respect. Its emergence indicates that some of our most profound values are violated."
Shame or the fear of shame can be a very good indicator that we should exercise caution before taking an action that we think may cause us shame.
As the Roman first century philosopher Seneca once said:
"Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit."