Eleonora Sartori returns with a guest post concerning the concept of shame and its value in today’s society,
The Empress has no clothes! (Not that she would need much in the Bahamas).
“A sinner comes before you, Cersei of House Lannister. Mother to His Grace, King Tommen, widow of His Grace, King Robert. She has committed the acts of falsehood and fornication. She has confessed her sins, and begged for forgiveness. To demonstrate her repentance, she will cast aside all pride, all artifice, and present herself as the gods made her….”
This is how George R.R. Martin describes the ritual of punishment and penance named “walk of atonement”, used to publicly shame women accused of adultery or prostitution. The confessed sinner has to walk a certain distance stripped of all clothing, exposed to the eyes and jeers of the common people.
Somehow, this brings back the image described in the Gospel of John, the Pharisees, when a woman who has committed adultery is brought unto Jesus since she is meant to be publicly shamed by being stoned. Shame is in fact a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute, the ignominy of being subject to a very degrading condition. However, Jesus unexpectedly answers back: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
“He that is without sin among you”. Another aspect of shame, this time related to the self-awareness of one’s own sins. Shame caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety.
Shame is indeed a manifold concept. It is also a very important pillar of humankind, as very well stressed by Professor Gardini in an article published some weeks ago on Sette – Corriere della Sera (Di cosa ti vergogni?).
But first, why am I talking about shame right now?
I felt the urge of sharing these thoughts when yesterday I read about the fact that the wife of your Prime Minister has been nominated Volunteer of the Year. As correctly put in an article published on The Shift, “The issue at stake was not the validity of Michelle Muscat’s contribution to charity which includes a 10-hour swim to raise funds for the charity she chairs, but the lack of institutional sobriety that comes across when organs of the State bestow honours on the immediate family members of high ranking officials” (It’s all about perception my dear).
The lack of institutional sobriety combines with the constant lack of transparence of appointment procedures on a worldwide scale. I’m just too tired of this ambiguous scenario we’re currently living in, where on the one hand, we have Ivanka Trump championing the cause of women empowerment by carrying out a Fashion Diplomacy strategy and on the other hand, we see Time Magazine nominating the members of the successful and long-awaited #MeToo campaign as Person of the Year.
Does no one feel ashamed for this current situation?
Then I remembered the article of Professor Gardini and I understood the core message conveyed by it. We’re no longer used to feel any shame nor to feel ashamed. Yet, I truly believe that restoring this precious feeling could only improve the democratic society in which we ought to be living in the 21st century.
Referring to Cicero in his analysis, Professor Gardini underlines that he who is capable of feeling shame presumes the existence of a superior entity, a so-called “superior thought”, that is able to assess and judge the insufficiency of one’s actions and in front of which one needs therefore to repent and rehabilitate. This superior thought is nothing but a set of values to which abides the community to whom we belong. A set of values respected by the other members of his community, who can judge and criticize you if you go off track.
Therefore, the sense of guilt is not merely private, but has a public dimension too. It’s the core expression of the principle of accountability.
But what about this principle in the digital era?
Professor Gardini correctly points out that nowadays we no longer belong to a community, but we choose virtual groups to which we want to belong. These groups do not form small societies based on confrontation and discussion, but instead exist as virtual projections of one’s imagine of one’s self. I create my group and in that group I am that particular version of myself.
Thus, in my virtual group I can always claim to be constantly right, since I have the right to reject every kind of confrontation and the arrogance not to take into account any potential different opinion. So much for the principle of accountability.
And yet, there is a very simple way to restore the role of shame in our modern society.
It’s every citizen’s duty to reintegrate into their daily routine the perception of shame and shameful actions. As well pointed out by the Background Paper published by SIDA on Accountability, Transparency and the Rule of Law within the Post-2015 Agenda, “the mere process and framework of accountability, transparency and the rule of law is not enough. What comes out of these structures and processes will, in the end, be determined by the social cohesion among people, as well as by the values and the political environment in society. Individuals have responsibilities and powers of their own to change and affect social norms and trends. Formal structures alone can never guarantee decent societies. »
It is you, the people, who have to publicly shame who you think does not abide by your set of values.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” reads Genesis 3:7.