Here is a simple truth. It isn’t surprising or even terribly interesting. This is it: I’ve done shameful things in my life. I’m not going to say any more because—obviously—I’m ashamed. I try to be a good person, but I can look back over nearly a half century of living and still recall actions that bring up feelings of shame and remorse when I think about them. Fortunately.
Shame and guilt, however, don’t have a very good reputation these days. We live in an age where the cardinal public virtue has become tolerance. We are supposed to accept who we are and accept others without judgment. Certain attitudes, like racism, cannot to be tolerated, of course. Other traits, like integrity or kindness, are declining in prevalence but are still holding on fairly well—for the moment. But traditional virtues of fidelity, chastity, temperance, humility, modesty, self-denial and self-sacrifice often lack defenders in the public square.
Public shame these days is short-lived and often contrived. In New York, we have now have two formerly disgraced public officials, Anthony Weiner and Eliott Spitzer trying to make a resurgence as public servants. South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, the governor who followed the Appalachian Trail all the way to the lair of his Argentinian mistress, is also trying for a comeback. One wonders why these intelligent men who are capable of many things are so insistent on living in the public eye—that craving for attention may be even more disturbing than their sexual dalliances. Any shame or embarrassment they may have felt is clearly covered up by a bottomless well of narcissism. This is what we want for leaders?
Americans tend be a forgiving and tolerant lot. Bob Dole asked in 1996, “Where is the outrage?” during the campaign against Bill Clinton. At the time he asked this question, the bimbo druptions and long string of ethical lapses by the Clintons were well known. Perhaps the saddest thing about the Lewinsky scandal that came later was not that we had a President with so little self-mastery and so willing to abuse his position of public trust for cheap gratification. The really sad part was that we knew about it and chose him anyway. Shame on us.
I understand that people have different views on the morality of sexual indiscretions or their relevance to political life. But there are usually other issues wrapped around the sexual indiscretions. Clinton’s infidelities may not be of public concern, but the imbalance of power in that relationship between the President of the US and a lowly intern should concern us. Spitzer’s use of prostitutes while Attorney General and Governor involved not only sex, but gross hypocrisy, not to mention law-breaking. The people of Massachusetts may think little of the drinking and carousing of Teddy Kennedy, but does this mean they should overlook—ever?—his leaving a young girl to die in the cold water off Chappaquiddick? [See also Grover's excellent points about sexual virtue in public life.]
In our society we do not have legal sanctions for all actions that are immoral. Dishonesty, for instance, is a crime in certain contexts (such as when testifying in court), but generally liars go unpunished. There are no sanctions for adulterers or those who say mean things to children. Poor sportsmanship is not a crime. Without legal recourse, we depend critically on social disapproval to sanction immoral actions. Indeed, our social order is threatened when people feel no shame for shameful things. The Founders understood well that we needed both to have our liberty protected and a civil society that valued public virtue. In other words, we depend on shame to create a society worth living in. Unfortunately, our popular culture often celebrates public behavior that was once thought shameful. Those who may condemn public indecency are castigated for pointing out what is shameful, while those who act shamefully are lauded as heroes.
In a civil society, condemning shameful acts needs to be balanced against the social benefits of forgiveness and charity. Wearing a scarlet letter does not allow people to change and move on, and it reinforces hypocrisy and hidden acts (which everyone has). Privately, a forgiving heart is essential to happiness, I maintain. Yet we have little hope as a society if we reach a point where most people feel no shame for that which is truly shameful.
Recently the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” feature asked the question, “Would support for abortion rights grow if more women talked publicly about their abortions?” It is still largely the case that women who have had abortions do not talk about them widely, even among friends and family. In some cases, they feel ashamed; in others, they fear being made to feel ashamed.
That we live more or less peacefully with an astronomical 1.2 million abortions a year is possible only because abortionists have managed to do what those who commit atrocities (slavery, genocide, caste systems of various types) have always done: they dehumanize the victims. As imaging technology becomes better and better, this fraudulent dehumanization project is harder and harder to maintain. The percentage of Americans who claim to be “pro-choice” has slipped from 56% in 1995 to 45% in 2013. Abortionists fight tooth and nail against regulations that require women seeking abortion to confront the humanity of the fetus rather than buying into the deceitful language of “uterine contents” or similar euphemisms used in the industry today. They don’t want the public debate to center around what abortion is at its core. This is because the truth of abortion can yield nothing but shame.
Those who want to reduce the shame associated with abortion face a Catch-22: the more people realize how commonplace abortion is, the more they will realize how that commonality is evidence that most American abortions are performed not to protect the health or life of the mother, not because the fetus is deformed or disabled, not because of abject poverty of the parents, not because the mother is a young teenager. The central fact of abortion in America today is that it is performed mostly for the sake of convenience. Unplanned pregnancies can cause significant inconvenience, to be sure, but, in most cases, the circumstances are not desperate. Because there are morally legitimate reasons to have an abortion, one can make the case (not a strong case, mind you), that such a decision should not involve the government. But even though there is sharp disagreement about abortion policy, it will be a truly sad day if the shame associated with illegitimate abortion is removed from our social norms.
This past week the Times published a shameful essay entitled, “My Mother’s Abortion,” in which a woman talks about how her family was there to proudly support Wendy Davis in Texas as she waged a filibuster against stronger abortion restrictions. She argues:
What the movement for reproductive rights needs is for the faces of freedom to emerge from the captivity of shame. To my mother’s generation, I ask: Speak openly about the choices you have made. To all women: ask your mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and partners about their reproductive histories. Show that abortion has myriad faces: those of women we love, respect and cherish. You have the power to cement in the minds of your communities and families the importance of reproductive freedom. You have made decisions that are private, even anguishing, but the weight of this political moment demands that you shed light on those decisions.
The author, Beth Matusoff Merfish, urges that women like her mother tell their stories so that we will all understand the importance of “reproductive freedom” (as if abortion has anything to do with freedom). Her mother’s abortion took place when she and the father were in their early twenties, students at a prestigious state university, and engaged to be married. Does this sound like hardship? Is Ms. Merfish’s mother really the “courageous” woman her daughter makes her out to be?
No. This is simply shameful. To say so doesn’t make me any better or worse than the people involved because my moral failings have nothing to do with the shamefulness of what happened here. Should we forgive? Of course. But no one’s forgiveness will bring back the life that was taken. That is truly a shame.
The courageous are those who hold themselves accountable for their actions, who take responsibility. They are those who defend and preserve life, not take it. Everyone on this planet has a mother. All of those mothers made personal sacrifices in having children. Some of them made extreme sacrifices. They are the ones who are truly courageous.
In the Times debate mentioned above, Daniel Allott concludes his essay fittingly: “The closer we get to abortion, and the more we understand about fetal development and the effects of the procedure on women, the more repellent it becomes.”
Let’s hope he is right. And let’s hope we don’t lose our capacity for feeling shame or take advice from those who want to turn our moral compass upside down and call that which is shameful courageous.