Topics

NewsNote: Whatever Happened to Shame?

Ellen Goodman is morally troubled. The liberal columnist for The Boston Globe surveys the moral landscape and laments “there’s no shame in the game.”

Goodman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, whose observations are predictably liberal and feminist, but also marked by a keen eye for cultural detail. I still remember a column she wrote almost thirty years ago about an abandoned church being transformed into a condominium.

In “Whatever Happened to Shame?,” published in the December 18 edition of the Boston paper, Goodman reports that The New York Post has hired Ashley Dupre, the prostitute at the center of the controversy that brought down former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, as an advice columnist. Goodman does not welcome this news: “I may be a cynic, but somehow I don’t think the Post was motivated by a desire to reform a wayward (call) girl. Dupre’s second act isn’t reformation. It’s confirmation, if we needed it, that there’s no shame in the game.”

Ellen Goodman is not a scold. She tells us this, insisting that “Shame on you” is “not a phrase that trips off my lips.” But she does see a loss of shame as an ominous moral signal. She referred also to the “scandal of the moment” centering on Tiger Woods and the financial scandals of the last two years.

Her greatest concern is the absence of shame:

If, as anthropologists say, shame comes from a violation of cultural norms, it seems to have found its match in a newer cultural norm: fame. Notoriety isn’t so notorious anymore. If Hester Prynne were around, she wouldn’t be the subject of a novel, she’d be the author of a tell-all memoir with cellphone pictures of a buff Arthur Dimmesdale.

Goodman’s reference to The Scarlet Letter will, I fear, be familiar to a decreasing number of Americans each year. The story has less hold on a society that does not fear (or even understand) shame.

The problem with Ellen Goodman’s understanding of shame is in her paragraph above. If shame is rooted only in “a violation of cultural norms,” then shame disappears as cultural norms change and what was once condemned is now celebrated.

I share Ellen Goodman’s concern about the disappearance of shame, but I do not believe that a secular understanding of morality can sustain a stable structure of shame. Cultural norms are changing before our eyes. The shame that matters is the shame that led Adam and Eve to fashion aprons out of fig leaves and hide from God in the Garden. This is shame rooted in the knowledge of sin, not mere cultural norms. It is shame rooted in the knowledge that we have sinned against God, not merely that we have violated a cultural standard.

It is a good sign that Ellen Goodman is concerned about this. I share her concern and appreciate her candor. But my greater concern is that the absence of the category of sin leaves shame floating on an unstable platform of cultural norms.

The crying shame is the absence of the conviction of sin, and that absence is explained by the cultural disappearance of God as moral judge. The formula is simple: No sin, no shame. Just ask America’s newest advice columnist.