Monday, November 12, 2012

When was shame replaced by entitlement?

I recently turned 50 and have decided that I am now old enough for two life-altering changes.  In decreasing order of importance: I can now wear a fishing vest and hat wherever and whenever I darn well please; and I can now begin arguments and debates with variations on the phrase "Back when I was your age, things were different."  To the chagrin of my children, I have already embarked on the former change.  To the chagrin of anyone who is reading this blog, I will now embark on the latter.

Back in the old days, society used to have something called shame, "the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another."  In short, shame was what you felt when you violated social norms, and it served as a useful check on individual behavior.  For instance, shame was one reason that women did not strive for very public careers in besotted harlotry. (Yes, believe it or not, besottedness and harlotry used to be looked down upon.)

Times do change, however, and shame does not appear to have the hold it once had.  Old folks like myself often wonder whatever happened to shame.  In fact, if you do as I did and find some youngster to use his Google machine to search the phrase "whatever happened to shame", you will see that it results in more than 231,000 hits.  Online laments about the decline of shame come from the left and the right, and from the secular and the religious.  For example, liberal columnist Ellen Goodman is the author of one of the most prominent laments, and her views received praise and a Christian spin from R. Albert Mohler Jr.

It should be mentioned that we are clearly better off having shed some of the social norms that used to induce personal shame.  I have benefited greatly, for example, from the change of nerdiness from shameful and embarrassing to cool and sexy.  Well, maybe not sexy, exactly.  But at least nerdiness is not the universal deal killer that it used to be.  Or so I've heard.  At any rate, my point is that some social norms have changed for the better.

Some social norms have changed so much that activities that used to induce shame are instead celebrated.  For example, being on income assistance used to be something that one would be ashamed of.  A recipient was likely to accept assistance reluctantly, and only when all other options were exhausted.  Daniel Foster has argued that shame, or the lack of it, is really what America's entitlement problem is all about.  He elaborates on this claim using scenes from the 2005 movie Cinderella Man, in which Russell Crowe portrays the depression-era boxer James Braddock:
We cut to the counter at New Jersey’s Emergency Relief Administration, where a woman whose very job it is to administer public assistance counts out $19, looks at Braddock with something between disappointment and pity, and says, “I never thought I’d see you here, Jimmy.” Braddock, eyes turned downward, collects his money and shuffles off....Braddock owes no apologies for doing whatever it takes to keep his family together. But Braddock is sorry nonetheless, and more important, he’s ashamed. It’s a shame so powerful that it kept Braddock from looking for a handout until he had exhausted all other possibilities. And it’s a shame so powerful that by the end of the second act, with Braddock well on his way to the miraculous championship bout that gives the film its title and its central metaphor, he returns every cent of charity he ever took.
Cut to 2008 and the joy that a woman in Florida feels about the election of Barack Obama as president:
It was the most memorable time of my life. It was a touching moment because I never thought this day would ever happen. I won't have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won't have to worry about paying my mortgage. You know, if I help him, he's gonna help me.
Perhaps the woman intended to pay it all back eventually, but that's not the sense that I get from the video.

At least people on income assistance are not breaking any laws, unlike illegal immigrants, many of whom actually demand that they be rewarded for their actions.  I tend to favor a liberal immigration policy, and there are good humanitarian and practical arguments for creating some sort of status for many illegal immigrants.  For example, the Obama administration announced a temporary amnesty (Deferred Action) for hundreds of thousands of younger illegal immigrants who have been raised in the United States.  Although I oppose the president's use of executive decree to achieve this amnesty, I support some sort of resolution for these younger people whose illegal status is due to the actions of their parents.  But, even if such a policy is a good idea for the United States, you'd think that a person being forgiven and even rewarded for their lawbreaking would be somewhat grateful.  Not necessarily so:
Obama’s June decision isn’t enough, said Sonia Martinez. “I’m undocumented [and Deferred Action] is really important for me and my daughter. … [But] we believe that Deferred Action is not enough for us,” she said.
“We’ll be fighting to keep families together,” instead of winning amnesty for younger illegal immigrants, she said.
Well, all that I can say to Sonia Martinez is that I'm sorry that it's not enough for her that her child is allowed to remain in the United States despite her mother having brought her here illegally.  I am curious to know what would be enough for Ms. Martinez, since it seems that it's really all about her anyway.  I wonder also if she could suggest any other class of lawbreakers who should be rewarded for their efforts.

Our policy debates have been altered also by the withering of shame regarding personal sexual activity.  Under the guise of supposed threats to reproductive "rights", the country was actually treated to a serious discussion about whether or not religious organizations should be required by law to provide free contraception and abortifacients to 30-year old law students.  It used to be that what a woman did in the privacy of her own bedroom was no one's figurative business but her own.  But now it's supposedly a role of the Federal government to make what happens in the privacy of a woman's bedroom her employer's literal business.

For shame.