It is relatively easy to look at the Western world ranging over the last 30 or 40 years and appreciate the weakening of the rule of law. More and more lawyers, better and better at finding and exploiting weaknesses in our laws, courts erring on the side of defendants rights, the misunderstanding of the concept of root causes (misinterpreted in ways that mitigate the individuals responsibility for his actions); in all these situations, the pendulum has swung from the presumption of the state's prerogatives to the rights of the accused. One or two significant terror attacks and we will almost certainly swing too far back, but for now, there is an imbalance. The emphasis on the rights of the individual over their responsibility to the community has had the unintended consequence of weakening one of the foundations of our society.
While the naturalistic experiment is still underway, the results so far suggest that a society that elevates secularism to a pre-eminent position and goes beyond the separation of church and state to the banishment of any hint of religiosity in public life is a society in grave danger. The experiment is furthest along Western Europe and it remains to be seen whether the enlightened Western Europeans can succeed in their war against Islamic extremism before disaster strikes the Continent. It is difficult to watch from across the ocean without a strong sense of foreboding. Beyond the straightforward inability to defend themselves (the European countries has almost no ability to field armed forces), the experiment has also revealed that lacking religion all too often translates into lacking babies, and a society that no longer reproduces does not last for long.
How does shame fit into this construct? Shame, as I suggested yesterday, is one of the most powerful forces supporting community and the force which is most closely tied to the individual's character. Too much shame is destructive; an excessive tendency to experience shame results in easy humiliation and humiliation leads to rage (it is the common denominator in our school shootings). Our culture has worked very hard to both decrease the power of shame to shape behavior and to legitimize the use of humiliation.
In years past, many behaviors which are today taken for granted as perfectly acceptable were sources of public shame. Unmarried, pregnant women were often sent away from the community because of the stigma involved. Men who conceived babies out of wedlock were subjected to public scorn. Today even the terms are archaic. While I would not suggest we return to the days of scarlet letters and homes for unwed mothers, it is important to acknowledge the social cost of destigmatizing formerly unacceptable behavior. The primary cost is borne by the children who grow up in single parent households and thus begin their lives at a significant disadvantage under any set of parameters measured by the social scientists.
In the current culture, there is an entire celebrity "shame" division of the media. Commit a shameful enough act, and you will be lionized by Larry King, interviewed by Barbara Walters, put on the cover of People Magazine. Publishers will rush to offer you money to tell a ghost writer your sad, self serving, story. Your misdeeds will be pseudo-empathically explained as a result of external forces over which you had no control. Bill Clinton, who ruined his legacy by his inability to control his instinctual urges, remains a hero to our culture, who was unfairly hounded by an out of control special prosecutor. While Clinton's pecadillios did not reach the level of impeachable offenses, a little shame would have been appropriate. Indeed, he should have been ashamed of himself, but there is no evidence that shame ever entered into his calculations.
All you need to know about the legitimization of humiliation is to watch a professional sporting event, not to mention college, high school, and little league. Score a goal, humiliate your opponent; hit a basket, humiliate your "loser" opponent; strike out a batter, jeer at the unfortunate batter. It is not only ugly, it is destructive, and it extends into the stands. Why can you no longer watch a football game on TV without seeing drunken fans making fools of themselves trying to humiliate the opponents? Have they no shame? Have the TV executives who search for these people to put on camera, often to the detriment of the game, no shame? The so-called reality shows are just as bad in their own way. They depend on people being willing to humiliate themselves in the service of money; where is the shame?
Aside from coarsening the culture, an old complaint first expressed in Aristotle's time, I suspect, if not earlier, the weakening of shame creates conditions in which all behavior is valid and valued; anything goes. There was a recent court case in Germany in which a man found a willing partner on the internet, slowly killed him, cooked his flesh, and ate him. The German prosecutors could find no law to charge him with for cannibalism; if we can no longer outlaw cannibalism (if the victim cooperates, it is no different from assisted suicide, which is already legal in much of Europe, in which case the only reason to ban cannibalism is aesthetic) then our culture no longer knows shame, no longer values shame, and chaos ensues.