Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Missing Ingredient

There’s a program that shows up on my local TV periodically, “Things That Aren’t Here Any More,” “here“  being Los Angeles. It’s narrated by a reporter popular in the area for many years, Ralph Story (who, sadly, isn’t here any more either). 
His things were really “things” -- old landmark buildings, restaurants, street cars, historic hot dog stands. His era (and mine) came before some other, un-material but maybe more important things faded out. “Shame” comes to mind
My old dictionary calls shame a disturbed or painful feeling of guilt or blameworthiness. It used to have a powerful preventive effect on would-be evildoers, and a corrective effect on wrongdoers, but that doesn’t happen any more. The politician caught taking bribes, the CEO found embezzling money from his hedge fund -- back in the day, the perpetrator would go to ground (and eventually prison) and his family would sneak out of town on the midnight milk train. Not that they were also guilty, but because they were ashamed.  There’s still a society or two here or there where the guy with the big office and the biggest paycheck will step down even if someone else has caused the company to be at fault. If he’s really serious he’ll commit suicide.
But this is an age and a society where you can settle a legal case with every evidence of being guilty but still not admit guilt.  If you’re an officer of a corporation, you’re just about immune. Maybe a fine will be imposed on the corporation (at worst) but the stockholders will pay that. The guy at the top who caused the whole problem may just as easily get a bonus, go on the TV talk shows, and author a book.  The crooked politician may run for office while under indictment, and stage a political comeback when he gets out of the slammer. The missing ingredient is shame.
Earlier generations took a sterner view. Putting the offender on display with his head and hands protruding from the stocks would almost certainly have diverted some observers’ dark impulses into more socially acceptable channels. The guy on display also got to think at leisure about what it was that put him there and decide whether it was a good idea and worth doing again. You’ll still read about someone being pilloried -- but it’s a figure of speech today.  Bring  back the real thing? You could argue it. Is the pillory crafters’ guild still around?
 Keep in mind, it was probably uncomfortable as hell, but the primary objective wasn’t to inflict physical pain; it was shaming. You were set out in the public square for all your neighbors to see and think about what you’d done.

We’d have to re-educate a large segment of the public about what shame is, but I’d be for it. Some time in the stocks could adjust the attitude of even a celebrity CEO or a securely gerrymandered incumbent congressperson. Might even humble an errant Influencer or Thought Leader.The Missing Ingredient