Friday, September 2, 2011
Do you feel like shit or just look like it?
I don't think America is facing a moral crisis so much as an ethical crisis, and it comes from the transformation of our culture from a shame society to a guilt society.
For those who don't know the difference, here comes the explication. A shame society is much like America and the rest of the world was in the 18th Century. Your actions, and your sense of right and wrong, were based on how people perceived you. Your personal honor actually meant something. The implication was that a man of honor would not do anything that would bring shame upon himself or his family. There are some things that we consider to be "wrong," that are not necessarily illegal: drinking in excess (so long as you don't hurt anyone), insulting someone, or committing adultery for example. A gentleman would not do these things lest his reputation suffer.
In a shame society, your behavior that might be licentious or salacious is mitigated or regulated because you don't want people to think you're a piece of shit. This has a draw-back, though, as we know that duels were a part of life. Look at Alexander Hamilton. I'm no fan of his, but getting shot just because he couldn't keep his jackass mouth shut seems a bit extreme for me. The ironic part is that no one really even viewed Aaron Burr as being an honorable man before that duel, so what was the point?
Then we have a guilt society, which is what America is today, for the most part. Human behavior is based not on shame, a sense of one's peers rejecting the person, but rather it's based on the letter of the law. As long as you are not guilty of breaking a law then there's no reason to bar yourself from a specific action. Your sense of morality, your actions, are based on what you can be judged legally guilty of committing.
The upside to that is that even if people would think it's okay for you to do something "wrong,"--like going over the speed limit or buying and using fireworks where it's technically illegal--you probably won't do it for the simple fact that it's against the law. The down side, though, is that if something is not against the law then you don't really give a shit whether or not it's moral or ethical, you're going to do it if you damn well please.
Of course, those are the extremes of shame and guilt societies on an individual level, but this is not so much about the individual as it is the society as a whole. Modern America is a guilt society. There's no such thing as honor anymore, so if you're not breaking the law then who gives a shit? I don't think that's particularly a good thing, and I think that an overemphasis on rugged individualism is partly to blame.
"But Jack, rugged individualism is part of the American mind!" That's a true statement, but moderation is always best. Individualism, while healthy and good in a free society, leads to moral and ethical vacuums, the likes of which most people believe are not a good thing. Fuck society, right? We're not Marxist masses, nameless, faceless cogs in a machine, right?
But what is there to regulate our behavior if not shame? For those of you who are religious, why do you follow Christian morality? Is it just so that you can receive your eternal reward? I think it's more that you've been taught to be ashamed of lecentious behavior, whether your shame is in the eyes of others or in the eyes of God. I fear that shame is being bred out of our children, and what is to come of a society of people who feel no shame?