Lashed by Lasch!
Shame is something that we all understand. It doesn’t need explaining it’s part of the ethos of the society to which we belong or, perhaps to be more precise, that sector of society that we belong to. So Giles Fraser’s Thinking Aloud podcast: how valuable is shame? looked as though it would make an interesting link with my post Shame on you – Shame on me. However, in following up on some links provided in Giles Fraser’s podcast it would seem that I am taking too simplistic a view. Fred Goodwin being stripped of his knighthood and release of the film Shame, has caused Fraser to consider how effective shame is as a means of punishment and how valuable it is in shaping social norms. In doing so, he quotes the American social critic Christopher Lasch who said that “The trouble with modern culture is that we have lost the shared social and legal boundaries that shame once policed”.
Fraser goes to say that a number of legal theorists have argued for the shaming of criminals as an alternative to prison or financial penalties, making a very clear public statement about right and wrong. These views are not shared by Toni M Massaro. A summary of an article she wrote for the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law with the title ‘The meanings of shame: Implications for legal reform’ describes her critique. She takes issue with the recent revival of interest in shame and shaming in various contexts, including criminal punishment such as sanctions requiring defendants to wear signs in public, or to otherwise advertise their convictions. Stating that legal reforms based on the provocative but potentially destructive call to shame have tended to conflate shame, shaming, and shameful. She contends that the separation of these terms is crucial to meaningful discussions about whether Americans should be shamed for violating social or legal norms.
When Lasch said that “The trouble with modern culture is that we have lost the shared social and legal boundaries that shame once policed”, I feel sure that he never intended this to be selectively applied. That the loss of any shared social and legal boundaries that ‘shame once policed’ is distributed throughout every strata of society. I don’t know if Fred Goodwin, The Phoenix Four, Ken Dodd, Dame Shirley Porter, and the MPs who fiddled their expenses, feel any sense of shame or remorse over their actions. But whether they did or not, I would claim that they are simply a small sample from those in the social strata of our society who should live by those shared social and legal boundaries that those of us in the rest of society are expected to live by. Instead it seems that they live by ignoble ‘shared social and legal boundaries’ that would exempt them from any comparative retributive measures meted out to others in society.
In July 1703 Daniel Defoe was publicly pilloried and imprisoned when he upset the powerful ‘Establishment‘ of his time, by ruthlessly satirising both the High church, Tories and those Dissenters who hypocritically practised so-called “occasional conformity”. I find it impossible to believe that any members of the present Establishment would enact a law that would subject them to public humiliation, whatever the circumstances. So I find it difficult to support, however cost effective and intentionally humiliating, a punishment intended to ‘shame’ those who are essentially petty criminals. Those on whom such a punishment will be the most effective – and the most harmful – are those who are already ‘shameful’ of carrying out any act known to be wrong and shamed at being caught in such an act. The recidivistic petty criminals would regard any punishment intended to ‘shame them’ as a badge of honour, much like an ASBO is regarded. And why not: shame only begins when a loss of self-respect occurs.
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