“We have lost a sense of moral clarity that would give rise to the fear that certain actions—whether we privately feel guilty about them or not—could lead to disgrace. For they don’t. If enough, and enough well-placed people do them, the only disgrace you need fear is the failure to get away with it.” — Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity, 369
In 1994 Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was released and immediately bent the needle of the outrage meter. No matter. It went on to win an Oscar and solidified Tarantino’s bad-boy status. Critics said it glorified violence, but they were not quite right. It didn’t glorify violence so much as trivialize the pain behind the violence.
After the outcry died down I went to see it, lured like anyone else by the promise of sex and violence. In one particular scene, John Travolta turns on a guy in the back seat of his car and threatens him with a gun. But the gun accidentally goes off, splattering the guy’s brains all over the back window. Travolta’s reaction provoked an instant response in the theatre; almost everyone laughed. Nervously, at first, and then in embarrassment, but laughter nonetheless. I felt three reactions in rapid succession: shock with revulsion, spasmodic hilarity, followed by shame and bewilderment. It was the shame that stayed with me long after the plot line had faded. I was trying to understand why I and so many others had reacted that way.
It’s not hard to figure that we cover our embarrassment with laughter, but why are we embarrassed? It’s not as if we need to apologize to the character, a fictional being after all. Would we have laughed watching it by ourselves? It occurred to me that one reason for our embarrassment was that we didn’t want others to think we were heartless, stone-cold bastards. On reflection I came to think embarrassment was the appropriate response. It means that there’s still something in us that can’t bear to watch someone’s humiliation at their most vulnerable moment.
“Guilt,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, “is the internal sense that you’ve done something wrong, even if no one ever discovers it. Shame records your consciousness of wrong before a community whose values you honor.” There it is: our moral behavior has a powerful social kick behind it. We want to do right, to be in favor with God and man. Like it or not we carry the community with us and we measure ourselves up against its approval—approbation is what philosopher Adam Smith called it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Smith thought that we were basically good people, but he saw the approval or contempt of society as a means for keeping our conduct in line with social norms. It was in our interest to do right and receive the praise of others just as the implied threat of community anger at our actions would fill us with shame. That depends, of course, on whether we cared at all what others thought of us. Smith was pretty sure most people did care, leaving out the insane and the psychopaths. And just as his “invisible hand” guided the spirit and function of capitalism, so his “moral sentiments” appealed to our self-interests as well as the interests of a stable society. The balance and order was kept because most of us had both the need and capacity to love and be loved as well as the need to avoid the disapproval of our community.
Neiman makes a persuasive case that shamelessness is pervasive in our culture and our lack of shame is what made such violations of human rights as Abu Ghraib possible. “If the ideal of human rights is destroyed by the violations that were said to be needed to realize it, our children will pay the price. Many of them are already paying, for they believe in next to nothing.”
It’s easy to lose sight of the presence of human decency when we face into the perfect storm of perversity in the media every day. I’m not ranting about particular TV shows, films, fashions, musicians, Wall Street shysters, TV evangelists, or politicians. What I’m trying to get at is the underlying tone of mockery at the human plight that runs through so much of media culture. You can’t avoid it at movie previews where upcoming films, all PG-13 at least, are reduced to slapstick or thunderous exhibitions of firepower. It was there in the photos of grinning soldiers posing with heaps of humiliated and terrified Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It is there when Lance Armstrong, a symbol of courage and endurance to millions, bullies his way through years of doping, lying, and degrading the sport.
Neiman believes that the only way to reverse the erosion of shame is to “return to the language of good and evil.” In a culture such as ours, in which a helpless relativism reduces moral dialogue to diatribes or a pouty solipsism, this is strong stuff. The word “evil” is over-used and abused, trivialized and rendered almost meaningless when it is applied where it does not belong. But even more threatening to our own sense of human dignity is when we refuse to apply it to our own actions—we frail, bumbling, confused and pitifully arrogant human beings.
Kant thought the foundational principle of right action was this: Act so that you never treat other people as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves. That means that we treat ourselves with respect and treat everyone else, even our enemies, with respect also. To demean and demonize them means first of all that we could wish for such a world in which everyone did just that.
We have the means but not the wisdom nor the right to call anyone evil. But recognizing our limitations in that regard does not mean we should give up on trying to understand why we—and others—may do evil actions. We are so easily drawn into situations in which evil actions are the consequence of fear and ignorance; we need a reverence toward words and language such that we could choose to speak of good and evil again.
The degradation of our humanity sometimes pulls us down through enormous events such as genocide or systemic rape and exploitation of women. But if we regain, as a society, the capacity to be ashamed of our evil actions, there is hope. We can retrace our steps, make amends, learn humility, and receive grace.
If evil is not our nature, but in our actions there is hope. We do have choices, tragic though they might be at times. But if we wish to remain human we cannot be passive. Our humanity erodes, slips away, sifts through our fingers when we look only to our own self-interest. This freedom to shape our responses in situations both mundane and extreme is what separates us from lentils and aphids. It truly is the image of God in us.