Shame and Punishment

I came across this in a recent Harper’s “Findings”: “Easily embarrassed humans, though not the morbidly ashamed, are seen as more trustworthy and are more often monogamous.” This should come as no surprise to anyone, for shame is a beautiful thing.

I am of the firm belief that we have relegated shame to something, well, shameful and instead should be embracing it fully not only as the great motivator that it is, but also the best friend to ethics and morals, and in fact, the great enemy to all moral failings. We simply don’t have enough shame in the world today and the proof is in the people.

Crime, although serious crime has been trending down in the U.S., is still rampant. Theft, assault, swindling, destruction of property, child molestation, and all the rest are so commonplace they don’t register anywhere but the direct victim’s radar. In most cities, a murder a few blocks away may as well be in another country all-together. And the murderers themselves, whereas one would think would suffer the consequences, rarely do. Most are never caught, young ones are given atrociously little punishment and are soon back out on the street, and even many others through plea bargains and the like, rarely suffer much in any manner whatsoever. 5, 10, 20 years in the pen; three squares, television and lots and lots of weightlifting. We put pot dealers in prison for as long as we do people who beat others to within an inch of their life with baseball bats.

The discussion of capital punishment is often centered around whether or not it is a deterrent to heinous crime.* Does the notion that I may be put to death if I kill an innocent fellow human being give me enough pause (or fear) to deter me from the crime if I really want to do it? The answer, of course, is no. Crime rates – and particular murder rates – are no lower in countries (or states) where there is a threat of capital punishment, and in fact, the numbers tend to lean the other way. Countries and states that feature capital punishment have higher rates of murder when compared to similar countries or states. Maybe stupid, angry, physical punishment of another human being is simply catching.

Murderers are not all that afraid to die, it appears to show, and in fact, and especially when you look at murderers of multiple people, most take their own life before the state has the chance to. It’s the ultimate form of cowardice. Cause hurt to others then run and hide before you have to suffer the consequences. It is a truly shameful act, but they check out right before the deserved public shame would kick in, if it did, and it rarely does anyhow.

But let’s put murder aside, and focus on all of the other crime. Most of those criminals do have some sort of conscience still at work, even if very feeble. They have pride certainly. And what might be a deterrent to them? What of, I ask you, the stockades? What about some modern version of the stockades employing online and multimedia techniques? Large screens in city centers, cameras in prisons? [See note on Speedos and ice skates below.] Shine a light on these guys and let’s get to know them. Because criminals are like history, and the more we ignore them, the more apt we are to repeat their crimes.

And what of next of kin? Where does the shame end? Is a young man’s murder of another really just his doing or is his father somehow culpable as well? Certainly not to the same degree, but on average, how many well reared young men grow up to kill? What about rounding up those fathers for filmed interviews on their method of raising their sons? Get some simple questions answered by them. Were they completely absent? Were they drunk or stoned the whole time? Were they abusive? Did they love them, lead them, go to their school, help them with homework, teach them to respect teachers and education, in a word “raise” them? These interviews would not only teach us all about what it means to be a good father, but warn other young men and young fathers as to the consequences of bad-parenting and not-fathering, and also introduce a nice bit of shame into the mix.

Note: The Texas judge who took a belt to his daughter in a brutal 6-minute beating is finally getting his comeuppance for that crime thanks to her webcam and the wonders of YouTube. By far, the best punishment he could have: A good dose of good old-fashioned shame! Lap it up, you sick bastard!

This is the way it has been for most of our history in tribes, villages, small towns and so on. Only with the advent of the city are we able to hide from the public shame of being a criminal or the shitty parent of one. Now, I know that there are instances where “really good parents” just happen to have a “bad seed” who makes them look bad despite their excellent child-rearing, but I think that the interviews themselves would be enough to quell any discussion to the contrary. And we could give them unique URLs to brandish when accused: “Hey, Dick, I hear your son beat the shit out of an old man at the bus stop.” “Yes, but I’m a great parent. Check me out at”

And really, there is no privacy issue for a crime is inherently public. By entering into an illegal situation of any sort, your rights to privacy evaporate. That goes for mom and dad, too. Might give pause to those who are a bit early in their own moral, ethical, educational, intellectual and familial growth and who desire to knock up/be knocked up.**

Popular culture doesn’t even recognize shame. When was the last Scarlet Letter written into literature, song, theater, movies or television? In fact, the absolute opposite tends to be true. Killers are generally fascinating and defiant, thugs are filled with bravado, philanderers leave with the younger “philanderee”. Note the latter is not necessarily a crime, but my argument is about shame and its effects on our moral and ethical character. Crime is just the most obvious outcome to our moral and ethical failing. Shame, as I said in the beginning, is the best buddy to morality and ethical living.

Strangely, the perps who suffer the worst shame tend to be the pervs, who are caught masturbating at the movie theater and the like. That, people love to look down upon with great moral indignation; the newspapers are filled with it, the web lights up; but the ho-hum local murder goes relatively unnoticed, and that perp relatively ignored. While people may think the act is shameful, there is very little moral indignation over killing. A bit of anger pops up at the end of the online news story, then it is gone. The vilification of Pee Wee Herman, however, went on forever.

I understand that we would have issues that need to be discussed around the rights of criminals, double jeopardy, guilt by association, punishment fitting the crime and so on. I also understand and fear that as with the millions of crimes perpetrated every day on television, in movies, songs, and so on, that maybe this will only add to our callousness. “Look! Another sick murderer on the prison-vision screen. Ho-hum. Let’s go to Arby’s for potato cakes!” But how will we know if we don’t try?

So we already have some shame in the public realm, but we are misusing it, or under-using it. We need to apply it evenly or fairly and in fact with more fervor to those who steal, assault, rape, swindle and so on, than to those whose “crimes” have no other victim than themselves. The former are the real criminals and should suffer great public shame for it. A thousand men masturbating in a theater have no discernible effect on society; one single murder rips its fabric in an un-mendable manner. Shame on them!

Author’s Note:

While I stand by the belief that we don’t have enough shame in our society, and that more of it would be a boon to our moral and ethical health, I wrote this over a cup of coffee and so really haven’t considered the consequences of overhauling our system of punishment in any great length. I immediately wonder just how much more “reformed” an already angry and crazed criminal might reintegrate into society after prison knowing his hour-long video in a pink Speedo and ice skates on an ice rink that leans 45 degrees one way and then is able to lift and lower to lean the other way as well – while he slides up and down and has lots of time to consider his crime and its victims – has been shown to millions of fellow Americans (another idea I just had related more the the old tar-and-feather routine but less sticky and more chilly). That, of course, and the whole making really good parents who are already suffering greatly go through the excruciating interview and public shame process… But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here!

*Beyond, of course, whether or not a government should put anyone to death, which I would argue, no way (I simply don’t trust any government to have that kind of power) but they do have the right to embarrass the shit out of them).

**Jeez, or not! Might even inspire them! Look at what incredible embarrassment and peering public scrutiny people are already willing to commit themselves to through reality television, homemade porn, and the like. Might backfire in some Warholian frenzied desire for 15-minutes of fame (sad, fleeting, empty fame…, but now with child!).

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