A Loss Of Decency?

Ask yourself this:  Has society become more cruel, less compassionate?  Has decency been forgotten, shame a thing of the past?  Robert Reich gives us just a few recent examples of how public perception has changed over the past decade or so …

The death of shame

What do Marjorie Taylor Greene, George Santos, Jared Kushner, Elon Musk, and Donald Trump have in common?

Robert Reich

14 February 2023


At President Biden’s State of the Union address last week, Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene repeatedly yelled “Liar!,” Tennessee Republican Rep. Andy Ogles shouted, “It’s your fault!,” and another Republican yelled “Bullshit!”

Fourteen years ago, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson was formally rebuked by the whole House after shouting “you lie” at Obama.

Yet now, anything goes.

Meanwhile, Rep. George Santos remains in Congress despite mounting revelations of outright lies, fabrications, and shady deals that years ago would have sent a member of Congress packing.

We’ve also just learned about Jared Kushner’s quid pro quo with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

As Middle East adviser to his father-in-law, Kushner gave MBS everything he wanted — Trump’s first trip abroad, permission to blockade Qatar, a pass on imprisoning leading Saudi citizens until they paid him billions and another on killing and dismembering journalist Jamal Khashoggi (as Trump later put it, “I saved his [MbS’s] ass.”).

Then, after Kushner left the White House, MBS reciprocated by putting $2 billion from the sovereign wealth fund he chaired into Kushner’s private equity company.

Where’s the shame?

Elon Musk’s concern about the dwindling number of people seeing his tweets prompted the zillionaire to convene a group of engineers last Tuesday to discover why his engagement numbers were tanking. When one of the company’s two remaining principal engineers explained it was likely due to waning public interest in Musk’s antics, Musk fired the engineer.

We used to call such behavior shameless. Now, it’s just what the rich and powerful do.

Shame once reenforced social norms. Through most of human history, survival depended on extended families, clans, and tribes. To be shamed and ostracized for violating the common good often meant death.

Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, thought shame may have evolved as a way to maintain social trust necessary for the survival of a group and, therefore, of its members.

In a 2012 paper, psychologists Matthew Feinberg and Dacher Keltner and sociologist Robb Willer found evidence that shame and embarrassment function as a kind of “nonverbal apology” for having done something that violates social norms. A display of embarrassment shows others that the embarrassed person is still aware of the group’s expectations and is still committed to the group’s well-being.

Four centuries ago, public shaming included scarlet A’s. “Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death,” wrote Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who also sought to put an end to public stocks and whipping posts.

A more recent version of public shaming occurred in 1954 when Joseph Welch, then chief council for the U.S. Army, stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy before a nationwide television audience. During a hearing in which McCarthy accused the army of harboring communists, McCarthy attacked one of Welch’s young assistants for having once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, which McCarthy considered a communist front.

Welch responded: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness …. Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Millions of Americans watching the proceedings from their living rooms saw McCarthy as the dangerous bully he was. By shaming him, Welch shamed America for having tolerated McCarthy and the communist witch hunt he was leading. It was the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s reign of terror.

But today, shamelessness has gained a certain elan. Audacity, insolence, and impudence are welcomed. Irreverence is celebrated. We hoot when someone gives society the bird. Many Americans love Donald Trump’s loutishness.

Meanwhile, instead of being directed at behavior that undermines the common good, shame is now often deployed against people who don’t fit in. Social media unleashes torrents of invective on people who do little more than say something silly or look different or are socially inept. Shaming like this can cause a sensitive teenager to take his or her life.

Why are those who violate social norms now treated like Wild West outlaw heroes, while those who are different are ridiculed? Why are bullies now applauded while those at the margin are ostracized?

13 thoughts on “A Loss Of Decency?

  1. I don’t know. If you read history, there has always been a lack of kindness & decency. What we are seeing right now is a vicarious joy in reporting this kind of thing, which wasn’t the way it was years ago. The general public was shielded from the truth of the nastiness of politics.

    I admit, there is a lot of performative BS going on, especially with the people you have mentioned. It’s like a political Jerry Springer show. I think, “this too shall pass” … people will get tired of this kind of thing, since people always get tired of everything & want something new. We’ll see.

    I don’t think human nature changes very much from generation to generation. We are, for better or worse, the same people we have always been … since the beginning of time. Some of us are kind & decent & some of us are jerks. & some of us are a mixture of the two. It’s the way of the world.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You’re right, Polly. It isn’t anything new, but the Internet and social media have amplified and magnified it, leading us to feel that it is becoming overwhelming. I used to hope that over time, humans would become more accepting of each other, set aside their differences and work together instead of warring with each other, but … that was then. This is now, and I no longer believe that as a whole, the human species is capable of setting aside greed and arrogance in order to make the world a better place. Sigh.


  2. Why are those who violate social norms now treated like Wild West outlaw heroes, while those who are different are ridiculed? Why are bullies now applauded while those at the margin are ostracized?” That is how it has always been – at least as far as the ridiculing and ostracising goes. That’s my experience as an autistic person. Perhaps if there’s any difference now, it is that instead of being different viewed as defectives, outsiders or others, which has been bad enough, now it seems that those who are different are seen as sinister or evil. Defectives, outsiders and others can be tolerated by society to some extent, but those seen as evil or sinister need to be removed from society – for the safety of the society, of course.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Y’know … I think you’re probably right, Barry. But today, it is magnified by social media, the haters have a much louder voice and larger platform from which to spew their toxicity. Sigh. So much for any hope I once had for the human species to actually become kind and caring.


  3. I have no conscience so I cannot be shamed, though people can try. I have no limits, so I cannot be embarrassed. I live my life by my own rules, which I have established over the years. While I live in society, on its very edges, I am not a part of it.
    But this does not make me a bad person, or a criminal or anything like that. I do what I do because I believe it to be the right, the humane thing to do. I do not intentionally harm anyone or any thing. (Though if I ever met Donald Trump Jr I might be convinced to verbally destroy him for hurting all the people and other living beings that he has destroyed! He deserves that!)
    Shame and embarassment do not work, they just create bitter people. Respect and responsibility do work! They help create better people. (DTJr is beyond redemption of any kind. The world is better off without him.)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Slip of the ffinger, I guess.
        But truly, I do not have a conscience. I have an inner system by which I live. Sometimes it goes along with accepted dogma, sometimes it doesn’t. I do not hurt living beings because I was told it was wrong, but because I decided for myself that all life is worthy of respect and charity and compassion. And if I am placed in a situation where someone has to get hurt, i will probably choose me to get hurt, depending on circumstances. I gave taken many beatings in life to save others from being beaten. And except for my very first fistfjght as a 5 year-old kid I have never thrown a punch even to defend myself. My choice. No one else’s. I determine what is right abd wrong for me.

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