Have We No Shame?

ImageIt is the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and there’s another “don’t say the killer’s name” story making the rounds.

One of the victims refused to appear on an anniversary edition of Meet the Press because they couldn’t guarantee the killer’s names would not be spoken by someone in the panel discussion.

It is not something I should have to say, but just for the record, let me make it clear that my sympathies lie with the victims not the perpetrators of the violence. I am sympathetic to the anger and bewilderment victims must feel when they read that the younger Boston bombing suspect has a following of young women who believe someone with such big, brown eyes cannot be guilty and must have been framed. Yeah, he’s cute. He’s also a cold-blooded killer who was able to suspend all human compassion and commit a horrifying act.

We are shocked by this kind of anti-social behavior. It doesn’t compute, so we come back for more information and more. We look at killers with confusion, horror, fascination. What makes someone like that? We need to know who the perpetrators are to try to make sense of what happened. So we talk about them.

What I am trying to understand is how fame came to be understood as a universally positive category regardless of what a person is known for.  Speaking someone’s name, in and of itself, is not praising a person. You can make someone known in order to damn him.

In colonial times, as an example, people who violated community sensibilities were placed in the stocks. While they were out in the public square, their humiliation served as a corrective and a kind of entertainment. The people in the stocks were the most known members of the community at that moment. To put it in modern terms, they were the most famous.  Being gawked at, having your name on everyone’s lips, was not an honor but its opposite.

When you think about the axis of honor and shame both poles imply being known and talked about.  Both the honored and the shamed are famous.

The particular axis of values at play now seems neither to be about being moral or immoral nor in step or out of step with the community.  It is an axis of known vs. anonymous with known being equivalent to the “honorable” pole and unknown being equivalent to “shameful.”

Old value: Honor= Good  Shame=Bad

Current value: Fame=Good Anonymity=Bad

I had a conversation recently with a friend who is a fan of the kind of reality TV shows where catty rich women cheat with each others’ husbands and say snarky things about one another to the camera while brazenly social climbing. I told my friend that I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be on a show like that and air all their dirty laundry in public.

She started to talk about all of the benefits these women received– fashion design contracts and perfumes and opportunities to appear as a “celebrity guest.”

Being known for bad behavior seems to be socially preferable to being unknown for behaving well. (Thus the ending of House of Mirth had to change when it was made for modern audiences so the protagonist’s noble sacrifice is not left a secret.)

Is it possible that we are judging our fellow citizens not on their inherent qualities or their actions but on their entertainment value?

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