Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair” is not the most riveting of films, but it is moving. As I watched it my thoughts turned to how today’s Western world differs from the past world of the 1950’s and the years before it.
Yes, the blather is great and frothy on the question, so maybe I offer nothing but my late revelation. In a nut – what aspect of Western society has changed so radically over the last 200 years?
In my mind, the lessened power of Accusation, Hypocrisy and Shame. These three minions have increasingly shortened shadows able to darken our lives, and their death warrants are prepared.
In 2012, anyone’s sense of morality is an individual projection that is not easily held as a “true”, “certain” and “absolute” example of virtue. Glaringly, even when groups of people combine and attempt to project an absolute morality some “faulty” aspect of common human nature or behavior (adultery, homosexuality and the like) presents itself in word, deed, photo or video. No one feels high and mighty then simply because we all know we have skeletons buried somewhere.
Therefore, most wise people find their own sense of goodness, and project that even if the recipient is unaware of it or doesn’t understand it. Hopefully, when they do see it and know it, then they do the world a favor and pay it forward.
But none of us knows with confidence what is an absolute good or bad (or even stupid) decision in life. The allusive good and bad (or even stupid) consequences are innumerable to count.
Even the cleverest among us cannot be so certain that some poor decision or indiscretion won’t come to light. Obviously, the person that let the secret slip meant social harm to make the target the object of shame. But, what is the power of objectification as shame in an era where the motivations to harm are so easily recognized?
Human frailties: jealousy, unhappiness, guilt, envy, pride, meanness and more are the eternal roots for the three ugly sisters.
The calculus of thought that propels the accusation that then projects shame gets dogged by hypocrisy. The shame of hypocrisy chases accusation. And, the shame of the accusation nails hypocrisy. This is a lovely ménage à trois, which is thankfully losing its power of appeal in so many areas of our lives.
The ability to accuse, then make it public, and objectify the person as shame is dying along with blackmail – extortion isn’t going anywhere. In fact, if anyone did attempt blackmail for offenses once deemed immoral, then let’s have a good laugh. The balance is the hypocrisy that we all share as human beings. Fine, there are different things that are absolutely sacred and are accountable crimes because in their execution they hurt or kill people, such as – the negligence of children, murder, theft for gain (theft for survival is different), all manners of physical violation, the dishonor of parents and the elderly, the invasion of privacy and oppressed free expression.
But, my aim is to dissect the social and even the State’s misapplication of accusation in instances of hypocrisy to use shame.
The very idea of vice in this era is genuinely laughable, especially in the US. The very idea of degeneracy, as coined by the drug pioneering Victorians, came about when people happily consumed intoxicants of all sorts, and behavior in public and private supposedly reflected social position and perceptions of respectability. But, what has changed?
In some countries of a prudish bent: Porn is ubiquitous. No, you don’t get to have all the sex you may want, and soliciting the real thing means risking getting caught, getting STDs or jailed. So here’s every variety online for vicarious enjoyment (even if the videos come from countries with legalized prostitution or are destinations for human trafficking). Enjoy.
Drugs are all over the place, if the billions of dollars made, the tonnage of drug hauls, and the thousands of deaths in Mexico are believable. However, the consumption of drugs in public or in private is so very secretive (an obvious reason for the secret – the FDA does not regulate their safety and hence they are risky and harmful), and more than 77 percent of substance abusers hold a job and keep their lives together. Which I think is a statistic that needs greater advertising, and study. Really? Pretty surprising.
Knowledge of this as well as the clear albeit tacit acceptance also means that the vehicle of public shaming s loses steam. Our dear President Bush was a cocaine addict for several years, and yet we, the American people, trusted him with nuclear weapons codes. If someone knows for sure someone got fired because they were at work high or drunk, then the more likely reaction is empathy or sympathy and NOT pious, Philistine moralizing. Morality turns inward, and made self-reflective and discussed intimately, but without openness.
What’s also an interesting aspect is that shame, accusation and the pinpoint of hypocrisy define the poor. Everyone knows the privileged have the greatest capacity to do all manner of things that poor people get thrown under the jail for doing. This is a result of society’s severe and mistaken doubts of poor people’s ability to manage their business and their pleasures. Obviously, it’s probably more a lack of work and income that diminishes a poor person’s ability to care for their families or to manage risky behaviors.
Funnily, the marginalized in our society project externally rigid codes of morality to leverage their social position. This makes a cycle that feeds on itself, especially when one poor person, forced into living a life of no pleasure, watches someone jailed for having pleasure. But, even in these communities hypocrisy and accusation and shame are becoming scarce. The crack epidemic and the meth epidemic have well enough done their job on that score – who is so moral? It’s so amusing to think about even, the giggle just bubbles up. The only option is to define one’s goodness in spite of behavior, but the courts of law still use shame, hypocrisy and accusation to administer justice without reference to the person’s goodness as their default personality, oddly
What this means is that the very State is out of touch, which is much more dangerous than anything. If the age is one where accusation, hypocrisy, and shame are no longer adequate tools for social cohesion, then does this mean that the use of them by the state makes poison for the state? What happens when people shrug a shoulder when they disagree with the application of the law? Does something build within the population, and when it breaks that apathy, will the response be ferocious?
If death in all of its forms: social death, psychological death, even physical death result from an hypocritical accusation that compels shame, then if the state is the object of hypocrisy, shame and accusation does that not spell its death? It is a fundamental question because our view of government reflects the concepts of the era.
As I understand it, South Africa’s constitution is one of the most forward thinking of the age. It seems a document designed to compel regret, and not an invitation to take part in socio-economic-political inequalities that need shame, accusation and hypocrisy. This is not to say that South Africa is perfect AT ALL (cue the crime rate statistics and the prime minister’s photo), it only means that it may have made the next step forward for human socio-economic-political evolution.
At any rate, given the decline of Accusation, Hypocrisy and Shame as social vehicles of cohesion, means that some States have become revanchist. This means prison sentences become longer, more prisons rise, greater numbers of citizens, especially the marginalized, face police brutality. All of these are signs of a fearsome change has greeted failed institutions in times gone past. There’s no thought that the change will come, or that I want to be around if it did (may I be long dead and gone).
The only point is: as oxygen ages and decays the body, Accusation, Hypocrisy and Shame do the same for social and political institutions, too.