Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Use of Shame in Determining Ethical Conduct

I saw the Henry Fonda movie The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) today and the ending reminded me the importance of the ethical-philosophical concept of Shame.

Now this may sound incredibly odd to Westerners, but seeing this movie demonstrated that the concept of Shame is a contested one even in our culture. There seems to be at least two versions of Shame. The first usually involves the body. The other broader, less pathological notion of Shame is the regret one feels for having hurt others, or violated something noble or sacred.

Typically one thinks of Shame as in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve felt shame for their nakedness. This form of Shame is an innovation that comes in quite recently in human history (around the time of the invention of male gods, writing, animal husbandry, and settled agricultural societies). Especially in warmer climes, this sense of shame of the human body continues to be an alien concept. Indeed, up until the 19th Century, when uptight, prudish Victorian British arrived in the South of India, they were horrified to see women walk around topless. Only Brahmin women wore tops. This soon changed as the British demanded women began wearing tops, to which the lower castes gave little objection to (as wearing tops was seen as "prestigious"). Needless to say, until this point of history, unless weather required otherwise, this notion of Shame (of the body) didn't exist. This is the sort of shame that a person will feel when victimized by sexual violence. Instead of developing a sense of justice, vengeance, or anger, they may develop suicidal tendencies resulting from an often religified notion of "shame" of the body.

The other notion of Shame is an important ethical-philosophical concept in Confucian Philosophy. Confucian "philosophy" would be better understood in the West as "practical or applied ethics." That is, how to relate to others in a way that creates harmony and balance in families, societies, and ultimately the whole world of humans. So, for example, empathy is critical to how one should comport oneself. Confucian Empathy is different than Buddhist Compassion, as compassion can often have a condescending attitude to it... such as, compassion for someone not as enlightened as you. This concept of Empathy is often mislabeled the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), but Confucius' version was ACTUALLY the Silver Rule (do NOT do unto others as you would NOT like done to you). The important distinction between the negative (Silver) and positive construction (Golden) is that with the Golden rule, sometimes you might give someone something that you want, but maybe they don't also want it (for example, giving a vegetarian a steak dinner). It can be too powerful or narcissistic. However, with the Silver Rule it's much less specific, (so, don't kill, rape, or steal because you wouldn't want that done to yourself) emphasizing preventing misfortune or disaster.

So the way Shame works in Confucian philosophy is to help cultivate a sense of regret or remorse for doing harm to another. Mencius, Confucius' most important disciple put it this way:

"Shame is a great thing for people. Crafty schemers have no use for shame. And if you aren't ashamed of being inhuman, what will ever make you human?"

*spoiler alert*
So, this form of Shame shows up at the very end of the movie, where Henry Fonda reads the letter written by the victim (Dana Andrews) wrongly lynched by the mob based on circumstantial evidence.

"My dear Wife, Mr. Davies will tell you what's happening here tonight. He's a good man and has done everything he can for me. I suppose there are some other good men here, too, only they don't seem to realize what they're doing. They're the ones I feel sorry for. 'Cause it'll be over for me in a little while, but they'll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can't take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin' everybody in the world, 'cause then he's just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It's everything people ever have found out about justice and what's right and wrong. It's the very conscience of humanity. There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody's conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that's all I've got to say except kiss the babies for me and God bless you. Your husband, Donald."

I bring all this up, because BOTH forms of shame come up in the notorious Abu Ghraib torture photos. In it, the victims were sexually humiliated, and due to their treatment and abuse (especially tailored to what would be maximally devastating to them given their culture) felt tremendous shame. Again, because their religion is an Abrahamic one, their reaction of feeling suicidal levels of shame about their bodies cannot be underestimated. However, the ethical form of Shame should be experienced not only by those who conducted such "harsh interrogations" and ESPECIALLY the Vice President's office who we now know ordered it (need link), but all Americans for what was done in our name and under our watch!

This is how the final letter/ speech in The Ox-bow Incident becomes relevant to possibly one of the most scandalous and potentially longest-lasting legacies of America (tragically)! The U.S. is not ONLY a criminal, rogue state (link to Rogue State by Blum). This country has also made TREMENDOUS strides garnering rights for workers, minorities, for freedom of speech, and other civil liberties. THESE should be our legacy and how we will be remembered. But sadly, these photos will probably leave a greater lasting impression in history across the world.

-- The Brain Demon

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