In Praise of Shame

On the Social Utility of Peer Pressure

One of the principal functions of religion is supervisory: The hoi polloi are, on average, neither too virtuous nor too wicked in and of themselves; they are driven primarily by emotions, not by principle and certainly not by ruminations on abstract moral philosophy. Betwixt the feelings of conscience and temptation, the balance will more oft than not be tipped by fear from the threat of invisible beings whose omnicient vision pierces every secret.

As such, the ordinary person can be kept to some workable approximation of what he (or she) knows to be good behavior. So as for the theory of mass religion—or at least, one of the practical functions it performed in the historical time before it devolved to become almost exclusively the profitable enterprise of mercenary soothsayers and smooth-talkers.

Yet this function of gods is only at its most useful in preventing wrongs which people conceal from their fellow mortals—or think they can, oftentimes futilely. Otherwise, for the vast majority of people, the supervisory function can be largely filled by the power of peer pressure, in the form of shame.

In this society, nowadays, it is fashionable to sneer at shame as if it were purely a negative, destructive force. Shame is sacrificed on the altar of self-esteem, which in turn is deemed an unlimited virtue. At least, such is the gravamen of what people say explicitly—and self-servingly. People who are generally disliked may be subjected to an unlimited orgy of shame, shame without reason, shame for the sake of hatred; and the self-esteem of people who deserve it is usually deemed arrogant, unaccompanied as it must be by an undeserved meekness. For all this society’s many faults, it has at least perfected two things: namely, the art of hypocrisy and the science of rationalization.

Yet to the dismissal of shame, I may here retort with an object example: Would you do this, if everybody would know?

What am I now to say? “I’m sorry.”? “Out of fear, I wished to evade your love by setting up some necessity for evading your hate.”? No, I give you my blessing to hate me. That would be just. Though unrequited.

To that, I must reply belatedly: Ah, I know you would belittle me so that my hate is meaningless to you: a thing only invited, then evaded. But what of the hate of others? Or at least their disgust, and your disgrace in their eyes?

In societies deeply bound by honor and shame, such a question would be unnecessary: Its answer would be inculcated as if a religious dogma, thus helping fulfill the same supervisory role as described above. For shame is the thunderbolt thrown from the thousand hands of a peer-to-peer god whose power is condign humiliation, delivered as a consequence of one’s own actions. Vox populi, vox dei. The most obvious limitation of this god is, of course, that he is not omnicient, and can thus be foiled by things kept secret. Wherefore this site.