Zeitgeist

Freedom from shame?

July 12, 2008

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My Southern suspicion that New England is full of crazy people gained another exhibit for the prosecution last week.  The “Parade of Horribles” in Beverly, Mass., a Fourth of July tradition of grotesquerie that is exactly what it sounds like, featured several floats mocking the Gloucester “pregnancy boom” in which seventeen girls at one high school decided that sixteen was an appropriate age for single motherhood.  The floats including dancing girls in pregnancy suits and signs reading Knock ‘em up high where expectations are low, Gloucester, MA and GHS girls went to band camps, came back pregnant tramps.

The parade organizers are, incredibly, not the crazies in this story.  It only took twenty-four hours for their antics to be one-upped by Gloucester mayor Carolyn Kirk, as quoted in a Boston Herald editorial.  “I believe in accountability, but,” she said, “I don’t think there is a place for shame.”

I sympathize with those who have complained that the Beverly parade was tasteless, although complaining about the tastelessness of a parade of horribles is like saying the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is “fun, but too noisy.”  But Kirk’s quote raises a different complaint, and an important question: if we find no shame in becoming pregnant at fifteen, then for Pete’s sake, where could we possibly find it?

The blog Feministing recently featured a horror story about a fifteen-year-old’s attempt to buy a pregnancy test.  The problem was not that she was unable to find one, nor that having found one she was unable to buy it, but simply that the woman at the counter gave her a hard time, saying things like “You shouldn’t be having sex in the first place.”  Reflecting back on the situation, the fifteen-year-old came to the conclusion that “We’re teenage girls, not the spawn of Satan, and we deserve just as much respect as a thirty-year old woman buying a pregnancy test.”

Kirk’s quote and the story from Feministing are part of a trend on the Left to add a fifth freedom: freedom from shame.  Usually, their efforts to eliminate shame are veiled in euphemism.  For instance, when Kirk says that the city of Gloucester’s response to the pregnancy spike should be to have “a constructive and useful dialogue that will benefit our community,” she means a dialogue in which no one feels bad about herself.  The price of doing something bad should be to feel bad about it, just as the price of acting like a fool is looking like one.

Shame culture—or, as the idea was known in better times, honor—is appealing to conservatives.  It squares nicely with a certain affinity for hierarchy. (There is a certain romance associated with behavior that is “immoral,” but none with behavior that is “beneath you.”)  It runs up against the liberal idea that to understand all is to forgive all and subverts the natural human tendency to construct narratives in which all of our actions, however stupid or wicked, make sense in context.  It holds men and women to a standard far stricter than conscience, which is subject to all of the philosophical gymnastics we use to justify our transgressions.

Having fought for the legal right of sixteen-year-old girls to procure abortions, feminists find that there are still many people who will look down their noses at girls who have decided to live up to their “PORN STAR” t-shirts.  It is unpleasant to have a confrontation with a store clerk who is willing to criticize a high school sophomore for buying a pregnancy test kit.  It is meant to be.  I understand the desire to extend sympathy and charitable understanding to a young woman who has found herself in a difficult situation, but it is important to remember that, if we acknowledge a woman’s right to believe that it is immoral for fifteen-year-old girls to be having sex, we must acknowledge her right to enforce that belief through whatever legitimate means she has available, including her right to look a girl in the eye and say, “What you did was wrong.”

Opponents of shame often use the slogan “Don’t judge.” I am sure that Carolyn Kirk and I would disagree about what our culture’s standards of sexual behavior should be, but to say that shame is an inappropriate tool is to throw moral judgment out the window altogether.

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