“Name It. Shame it. Call it out.” Thus has actress Rose McGowan urged all those who have suffered sexual harassment and refrained from speaking out. With the #MeToo movement now in full throttle, individuals everywhere are coming out of the shadows to publicly humiliate sexual predators, no matter how high the pedestal upon which such harassers sit.
Shame, we are now told, is back in vogue, particularly if it’s directed towards those deemed a threat to sexual consent. The truth, however, is that the Left has been appropriating shame to serve its ideological objectives for generations. The focus on sexual harassment — albeit long overdue — is yet the latest manifestation of liberals’ unprincipled approach to morality.
A Short History of Liberal Shame Campaigns
Psychoanalyst Joseph Burgo, writing for the Washington Post, observes that the #MeToo movement is a bit ironic, given that “shame has increasingly come to be viewed as a repressive force whose shackles must be thrown off.” Indeed, the progressivist agenda counsels everyone to “feel no shame,” whether they be “gay or transgender or overweight; having had an abortion; having survived rape or childhood sexual abuse; or struggling with mental illness or addiction.”
Yet, Burgo argues, “shame may also serve as a force for good when we direct it at behavior damaging to the social fabric.” It sure can — and it has. Although Burgo doesn’t say it, the Left has engaged in aggressive public shaming programs for years.
Burgo continues: “A fear of being publicly shamed encourages adherence to the rules and standards that enable us to live together in a civilized way. When we turn shame upon individuals who violate those standards, we press them to desist.” Sound familiar? How about the decades-long public shaming of smokers?
I remember this ad from the 1990s that compared smokers to chimpanzees. Since then, surveys have found smokers to be considered “outcasts,” “persecuted,” “lepers,” “under-class,” and “blacklisted.” A 2008 survey in New York City found most respondents agreed that ‘‘most people would not hire a smoker to take care of their children,’’ and that ‘‘most non-smokers would be reluctant to date someone who smokes.” A significant minority of respondents even agreed that smoking was a “sign of personal failure.” In 2004, Huffington Post featured an article titled, “Why Smokers Must Be Shamed.”
I also remember the puritanical morality inculcated in me and my fellow grade-school students regarding recycling. We all learned — with explicit teacher approval — to wag our fingers and scold anyone who failed to properly dispose of his paper and plastics. Seattle in 2015 took this to a new level when it instituted a public shaming policy for those who failed follow its recycling laws. The city of Savannah, Georgia, engaged in a similar public shaming campaign to stop littering.
Of course, smoking (habitually or in excess) is bad for one’s health; littering damages the beauty and well-being of our country, and recycling is an objective good in which everyone should participate. The point is that the #MeToo campaign is nothing new — liberal media and organizations for years have crafted public shaming into an intricate science.
This goes well beyond smoking and recycling. The Left pursued an aggressive, ad hominem public shaming campaign against North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory for his stance on transgender bathrooms. That particular operation recruited big business and the NCAA to its cause, while protesters accosted him and called him a bigot. Liberals did much the same in Houston on the same issue.
The Left’s Double Standard
Let’s return to Burgo’s initial commendation of shame: “shame may also serve as a force for good when we direct it at behavior damaging to the social fabric.” As noted above, liberals have certainly employed shame for certain pet causes, usually related to environmentalism or the sexual revolution. Herein lies the double standard.
Sociologists such as W. Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia for decades have noted the tremendous damage divorce — another project of the sexual revolution — has done to America’s social fabric. Children exposed to divorce are more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies. Adolescents with divorced parents are more likely to drop out of high school when compared to children from intact families. Adolescent girls with divorced parents are three times more likely to become teen mothers, while their male counterparts are twice as likely to spend time in prison.
The effects of divorce are a huge drain on our nation’s wealth and resources. If the United States enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960, one sociologist has estimated that the nation would have 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, approximately 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 fewer kids receiving therapy, and about 70,000 fewer suicide attempts every year. Wilcox’s research has found similar detrimental effects caused by cohabitation.
Yet our culture, media, and dominant institutions have not only abandoned any kind of shame attached to divorce, cohabitation, or other deleterious side-effects of the sexual revolution (e.g. abortion on demand, pornography); we promote them as an intrinsic part of our freedom to pursue our own life goals and self-actualization.
Curiously, the only elements of the sexual revolution mainstream culture seems focused on attacking are those perceived to violate consent — harassment, rape, etc. Even here the hypocrisy runs deep: children from divorced families don’t consent to broken homes; the approximately 650,000 American babies aborted every year don’t consent to their conception or subsequent murder; and most parents have not consented to a culture where children are exposed on average to pornography at the age of 11.
The Bitterest Irony
Burgo’s article goes on to provide a methodology for appropriately applying shame. It must not only humiliate, “it should leave room for those who have violated our standards to experience remorse and then to make amends.” The ultimate goal is to “ease the shaming” and allow violators of our culture’s mores to reintegrate into society. Shame, public penance, forgiveness, and reintegration. This also should sound familiar.
Prior to the secularization and atomization of Western society, this is the way our communities, either through the judicial system or churches, dealt with crimes against society. As First Things contributor Marc Barnes notes, citing Cambridge University historian Helen Mary Carrel, the majority of medieval punishments “were administered by small communities who took responsibility for their own criminals. Shaming punishments — like shaving the head of an adulteress or dunking a crooked merchant in the river — worked, and they worked because a person really could be shamed to have broken the peace of an actual community of neighbors.”
Today our public shaming methods obviously need not be identical to these, but can at least include other more modernly acceptable methods of expressing disapproval. Moreover, for many centuries, those who violated church rules were expected to publicly confess their sins and do penance, then were ultimately reintegrated into the Christian community.
Ironically enough, far removed from the Enlightenment and its attempts to remove the shackles of institutional religion’s influence on society, modern experts are (seemingly unknowingly) taking their cues from the tactics of pre-modern Christian societies. Forms of shame — both public and internal — are now good and useful. So is public penance and ultimately, forgiveness (although one wonders why darlings of the Left like Al Franken are being forgiven so quickly). If only liberals had a principled means of applying shame, we might actually be able to cooperate on a vision of the common good for all Americans.