But what does it mean to speak of political conflicts and problems in terms of their shamelessness? And why are we so eager to wield shame against our political enemies?
In my research on the politics of shame and shamelessness, I identify a long-standing pattern of anxious lamentation about the death of shame in moments of political instability and disruption. These laments are rooted in nostalgia for an imagined past, when something we called shame made it possible for us to civilly coexist. In the United States, this is an old story. President John Quincy Adams’s supporters lamented the death of shame — even as they deployed a shaming campaign about Andrew Jackson’s marriage to a “bigamist” in the election of 1828 because Rachel Jackson’s decades-old divorce had not been properly filed. White supremacists appealed to sexual modesty and shame in their opposition to middle-class African Americans using the courts to desegregate Southern schools. The late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain lamented the death of shame wrought by unapologetic displays of gay liberation and “same-sex marriage.” More recently, in an opinion piece titled “The End of Shame in America,” Marc Thiessen traces the shamelessness of Alabama Judge Roy Moore to President Bill Clinton, noting that “[d]uring the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton figured out that if you have no shame and ignore calls to resign, you can survive any scandal.”
Such laments express a massive gap in values between the actors in question and those who want to shame them. And because it seeks to resurrect a particular understanding of past values as the solution to the conflict, lamenting the end of shame typically has a conservative, quasi-aristocratic and anti-populist cast. It says that the only way forward is to go back — to an old social order and the rules of conduct that shame allegedly guaranteed.
We can read these stories as cautionary tales about the power of shaming and its tendency to backfire. To the extent that shame “works,” it is because individuals feeling shame judge themselves by either dominant standards or the standards of a person or people whom they respect. Leaving aside what psychologists say about shame’s harm, from a political perspective, the use of shame and shaming as a tool of social judgment and correction depends upon a semblance of common values between the people being shamed and those who are pointing out their character deficits. Absent those common values, each side can point out the other’s shamelessness, which then triggers more cries of “Shame!” or “No Shame!” back and forth, ad nauseam. With each attack, the other side becomes more convinced of the correctness of their own position and the shamelessness of their enemy. Consider Walker’s response to protesters in Wisconsin: Walker tweeted about the protesters’ chants drowning out a high school choir singing Christmas carols. The protesters, not the Republicans, lacked shame, in his account.
So should progressive activists then banish the term “shame” from their tool kits? Absolutely not. “Shame!” functions as an urgent alert to those who are already sympathetic to a particular cause or point of view. The audience in Wisconsin isn’t really the legislators, who passed the bills limiting the powers of the new governor and attorney general, despite the chants from the crowd. The audience is the broader public in Wisconsin and beyond, whose values more closely align with the protesters or are at least open to questions about what is happening in Wisconsin. Even more than reminding us of our values, these voices from Madison summon us to do something. The cries of “Shame!” function as an SOS, not an appeal to bring shame back — whatever that would mean.