“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.”
My transplanted Ukrainian wife, who clearly remembers Soviet life back in the bad old days, just related an odd incident that took place during the USSR’s waning days.
In the early 1980s the new Soviet President, Michael Gorbachev, barreled into office with a reformer’s zeal to shake up the Communist system and try—again—to make a “new” Soviet citizen.
As some suspected then and all know now, shaking the system would soon collapse it in a big way, which was not Mr. Gorbachev’s intention at all. Oooops.
However, his second goal—to rehabilitate and reinvigorate the citizenry—was, to my mind, nothing short of audacious. Why? Because the president, mirabile dictu, asked the two- and three-fisted legions of Soviet drinkers to curb their alcohol intake and, especially, stop public consumption of spirits.
Mr. Gorbachev hoped to encourage this by asking citizens to police their fellows. If they found a public tippler they should feel civically bound to intervene with a public shaming of the perpetrator—something I picture as pointing and screeching à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
To be fair, most Soviets had the good sense to find creative ways around prohibition, such as holding “tea parties,” where the cups brimmed with sturdier blends than Darjeeling.
One day, though, one of my wife’s colleagues at their engineering company—a happy-go-lucky, aging tovarish whom everyone liked—stopped at the corner store after work to buy beer. Once there, he innocently fell into conversation with the proprietor and in the midst innocently cracked open and began sipping one of the beers. No harm, right?
Not so fast. A passing co-worker observed the scene, which she then reported back to company managers. Allegedly, the late afternoon’s sipping had soiled the drinker’s reputation, offended his co-workers, and blemished the good name of the firm. Public policy demanded a public exposure.
Thus, my wife and the rest of the office were summoned to an early-morning, staff-wide meeting, where everyone folded their hands, feigned a solemn face, and one by one expressed their disappointment in their colleague. They then urged him to confess his failings and amend his ways.
While a few dedicated shamers took to the session with glee, most staff saw it as a farce and a bother. But there was nothing to do but suspend disbelief and stifle one’s laughter.
Shut up and be shamed
This incident got me thinking about the need in some to shame others. On the individual level, it betokens a power trip by the disempowered, the chance to seize moral authority without ever having to earn it. Justified bullying.
On the macro level, it is characteristic of totalitarian regimes, where public shaming campaigns bolster the autocratic need to subjugate through humiliation. Forced into a cycle of rebuke, confession, and atonement, the populace is soon robbed of its confidence and self-worth. Battered souls are easily controlled. And, if not, there are the gulags, the re-education camps, and other brands of forced conversion.
So, it’s shocking how fast and deep the canon of shaming has spread in places that should know better—like here, in what we used to call “free societies.” The network of humorless inquisitors is already vast, and growing. It stretches across news and social media, entertainment, politics, the legal system, and education, in some cases beginning in pre-school. Even sports media reeks with the stench of witch hunting.
Thus, hardly a day or even an hour goes by where some greasy band of social justice warriors, self-serving “anti-hate” group, pomaded political “activist” or pick-nose TV putz isn’t rousing a whoo-ing studio audience or media torch mob against some hapless heretic who’s slipped the ever-widening bounds of political correctness. It is all meant to indoctrinate, intimidate, and stifle.
Meanwhile, common sense and common sense language become heroic acts. People who buck the system lose their reputations, their high-tech jobs, their businesses, or even their churches. Other doubters may be threatened with jail.
We've experienced this before in America, say, in the temperance movement. But never before have we dished out such a constant and dangerous pursuit of blame and punishment. Just pick your aim to shame and you can find a target to destroy. (And would somebody tell me exactly how “slut shaming” works?)
And no wonder. Everybody caves. We enjoy a constant parade of political and public figures who, when accused of offending, rush to the public square to offer heartfelt--often absurd--mea culpas.
Many of the accusations seem to waft up from the sewers of social media as well as the ideologically-scrubbed environs of faculty lounges. Rioters, too, always have some beef or another …
Mainstream media usually start the ball rolling. How many times have you read or heard openers like, “Many were outraged by comments… “? Many who? Newsroom interns?
It seems that apologies never satisfy. Instead of quelling the mob, the groveling incites more anger, more hunger to guilt and reproach. Sensitivity training for all, sensitivity training forever!
I don’t know how this ends. The list of groups, genders, identities, and sub-species demanding apology and redress grows with every news cycle—as do the panderers and louses egging them on.
Maybe we’ll follow in the steps of the French Revolution, which ended up devouring its worst progenitors, and hope that something that is not Napoleon rises from the political detritus.
But, despite one recent presidential candidate’s brief petulance about submitting, it seems most of Western Civilization has accepted the rollover. A long dark age may be looming.
Mark Twain was surely on to something when he noted that, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” He just never imagined that a blush could become the jailer’s key.