Wednesday, July 16, 2008

For Shame!

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the power, and lack thereof, of shame. As regular readers of this blog already know, I'm currently working on a manuscript in defense of human rights via a reconstituted humanism (what I'm calling a "weak humanism"). Yesterday, I was flipping through a book I read several years ago by the former Executive Director of Amnesty International, William F. Schulz, called In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All, in which Schulz argues for a "pragmatic" defense of human rights. Schulz thinks that there is a limit to the effectiveness of moral/ethical appeals to human rights, and hence aims to persuade his readers of the importance of human rights by showing the real political, economic, environmental, and public health consequences that are manifest "in our own backyards" when we allow human rights violations to go unchecked. It's an eminently informed (and possibly even noble) argument, I think, but one that has clearly already conceded the priority of self-interest to its putative detractors. To paraphrase Schulz, if we can't shame people into defending human rights, and if we can't effectively prosecute them for failing to do so, then we can at least point out to them the myriad ways in which their blindness to the effects of these violations undermines their own interest. Think of it, in a way, like the Hobbesian argument for the social contract (as opposed to the Rousseauian one), which gives us such a horrifyingly frightening picture of the state of nature that no rationally self-interested person could object.

In principle, I am sympathetic with Schulz's argument, as I am generally hesitant to assume any universally applicable moral or ethical ground upon which one might base a claim for political action (like defending human rights). But what interested me this time around in re-reading Schulz's book was the ease with which he rejected what the Founding Director of Human Rights Watch, Aryeh Neier, famously called (in his 2003 text Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights) "the mobilization of shame." Pace Albert Camus, who once claimed that "there is no evil that cannot be surmounted by scorn," Schulz suspects that scorn is quite often the least effective manner of mobilizing action. The problem, of course, is this: if your interlocutor does not already share some sense of decency, fair play, and moral approbation with you, then it is of no use for you to appeal to his or her violation of that sense. In other words, "shame"-- effective as it might be in the right circumstances-- only works when you are already preaching to the choir.

Even still, I find myself torn about this evaluation. My research on various truth commissions (especially the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Argentinian Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas) led me to believe quite strongly in the power of public shame as an effective alternative, and sometimes supplement, to traditionally punitive or retributive justice. One of the reasons that I was initially drawn to the study of truth commissions is that they seem to exemplify the implicit connection between truth and justice, especially when the "truth" is as horrifying as that of human rights violations. When Nunca Más, the final report of the Argentine truth commission, was published, it became an immediate best-seller, and the fact that it consisted mostly of first-hand accounts of victims made all the truths of Argentina's Guerra Sucia ("Dirty War") a matter of both public shame and public outrage. To bring the matter a bit closer to home, one only needs to be reminded of the public shame that followed in the wake of our government's monumental failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina. So, although I would stop short of Camus' optimism with regard to all of the evils that can be surmounted by scorn, I feel fairly convinced that many can be effectively combatted with shame.

I've always found Jean Paul Sartre's analysis of the power of shame in Being and Nothingness to be quite compelling. There, Sartre suggests that it is only the (implied or real) presence of "the third" that compels us to act rightly. (He does this, brilliantly, through a vignette of a peeping tom who, upon hearing a bump in the hallway, suddenly becomes aware that he--the "watcher"--may also be "watched.") And yet, even I realize the effective limit of this kind of "survellience" morality. My father was a preacher, and I remember him telling me many years ago that "you can't shame anybody into anything." What he meant, I think, was something along the lines of Schulz's intuition-- that is, you can't "shame" someone into making changes in his or her life of which s/he is not already ashamed. But what of those "hidden" shames? What of those "bad faith" shames of which one has not yet become reflectively aware?

My suspicion is, when it comes to human rights violations, that our problem is not that the power of shame would not be activated in people who could be doing more to prevent the violations, but that the truth of the violations remains (consciously or not) hidden from the putative actors. So, unlike Schulz, I am not willing to so easily give up on the mobilization of shame, though I am willing to concede that it is not a power that can be mobilized sans context... like all powers.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

More to say later when I'm less tired, but I'm curious if you've read Rushdie's Shame, although Shamelessness might be a better title: It's a fictionalized account of Pakistan in which the two main characters (who are clearly General Zia and Zulfikar Bhutto) are both unable to experience shame, but in which their shame gets manifested in a tertium, a monster.

DOCTOR J said...

No, I haven't read Shame. Actually (and I'm a little embarrassed to admit this) I haven't read any of Rushdie's work. Ah well, you can't read it all, unfortunately.

This one sounds interesting, though...

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

If you read it, let me know what you think.

I ended up thinking a lot about this post this morning while listening to the BBC world news coverage of whether or not the pope will offer an apology for clergy sexual abuse at the Catholic World Youth Conference (or something like that, I'm way too lazy to look up the name when my made-up name adequately describes the org.) which is happening down under. I also don't mean that he'll apologize for whatever sexual abuse happens at the Conference, which is a different issue entirely.

Now, clearly there's a big difference between apologizing and the positive work of shame that you're talking about, and I personally always feel a lot of discomfiture at public apologies of this sort. On the one hand it is a certain kind of shameless shame. On the other hand, it's better than no shame at all...

But the thing that struck me particularly was a Vatican spokesperson's claim that they "wanted to focus on the future at the Youth Day" (since kids are presumably our future --- or maybe their own future); and that speaks in an interesting way to the question of the "pragmatic" argument you broach here.

Now, let's assume for a second that pragmatic and utilitarian here can usually be used roughly synonymously (is that fair?) --- This seems to follow from your gloss on Schulz's book, though I haven't read it: that is to say, you can argue that you can show people that they should defend human rights on roughly consequentialist grounds.

Now, as we all know, one huge problem of consequentialism is that it has a very difficult time dealing with the past, and can only do so by treating it as a precedent for the future (think of the lying discussions we've all had in ethics classes: if the utilitarian wants to show that lying or promise breaking in general is bad even if breaking a particular promise or making a particular lie seems to lead to net benefit, they invoke the idea that a lie or broken promise now mobilizes and authorizes future instances of lying or promise breaking). This attitude, which "flattens" past and future, seems to be what motivated the Vatican spokesperson also.

Assuming I'm reading you, Shultz and the Catholics all correctly, one way of interpreting your question would be: does shame give us a way of understanding the claim of past sins on our present and future selves without forcing us to subscribe to a universalist deontology?

Am I understanding you correctly?

Booga Face said...

Good question, and I wonder if this is why Negri, Hardt, et al., focus on networking to mobilize for this reason. In a sense, the logic behind networking is kind of self-interest, yes? And unlike Schulz, networking is not necessarily rational self-interest, because it includes "affect" and other forms of sociality.

But I'm curious about Sartre's idea of the "third." I've been meaning to pick up Being and Nothingness again. When I tried to read it at age 17, I was overwhelmed and have been scared to pick it up ever since.

Would you say that groups like Amnesty and the United Nations function as an institutionalized "thirds"? It sounds like what Sarte is saying is that what will motivate an ethical relation between person X and person Y is the fact that person Z is watching. And analogously, country X won't invade country Y if the United Nations is watching. Somehow, the third is necessary for ethics, but why and how so? The basic scenario reminds me of when I was a counselor for an after school program, and the kids would stop fighting when they realized they were being watched. Of course, sometimes they would fight anyway...

But maybe I'm oversimplifying, and I wonder... would Sartre be comfortable with a transcendental third?

In a paper I'm in the middle of writing about single parenting, I engage with feminist arguments about the social construction of gender roles, and I say something to the effect that one of the things that complicates this deconstruction of the gender *binary* is the real presence of a third -- the baby. But I wasn't sure I actually knew I was talking about...

DOCTOR J said...

Good questions, guys.

Ideas Man: I guess the first thing I want to say is that my original post was intended to distinguish myself from Schulz, inasmuch as I think that his text leans much more toward the kind of consequentialist reasoning that you describe (and away from "the mobilization of shame"). I'm not sure which side to put the Catholics on (mine or Schulz's), but I agree with you that the phenomenon of apology and the phenomenon of shame are different considerations. We can't ever know whether or not any given apology is connected to some sense of shame, or whether it is purely utilitarian, as the "debate" between Derrida and Jankelevitch shows, I think. Of course, I side with Derrida in that contest, who claims that any apology that is beset with conditions (i.e., there must be remorse, there must be sincerity, there must be shame) is not a "real" apology and, therefore, does not provide a "real" opportunity for forgiveness. But, again, I think that's a whole other conversation. (Or, in my case, it's a whole chapter of a dissertation!)

I think Schulz is right that we can show people that they should defend human rights on entirely consequentialist grounds... for just the sorts of reasons that you and Booga Face point out. But I also agree with you that consequentialist reasoning has a hard time dealing with the past in a moral (and not simply economic) sense.

So, my short (and at this point, admittedly inadequete) answer would be: yes, I think that shame, because it is a moral sentiment and not simply a calculative strategy, gives us a more robust and felicitous manner of connecting past, present and future. So, unlike Schulz, I'm not ready to give up on the "mocilization" of that moral sentiment, mostly because I think it can be a more compelling motivator for action than base self-interest.

And I'm not sure whether or not this forces us to subscribe to a universalist deontology... but I hope it doesn't.

DOCTOR J said...

Booga Face: There are, of course, dozens and dozens of scholarly articles on Sartre's notion of "the third," most by real Sartre scholars, so take what I say here with a grain of salt. (Also, for the record, I think the meaning and function of "the third" changed in subtle ways for Sartre between Being and Nothingness and The Critique of Dialectical Reason.)

Yes, groups like Amnesty International and the U.N. function as "instutionalized thirds," as does "the state" or "the church" or "the family" in general, I think. And remember, those thirds don't even have to be real, but only perceived... so I would say that "The Company" in Borges' short story "The Lottery at Babylon" serves the same function. I see this structure as an interesting alternative to someone like Levinas, who sees "ethics" as being enacted between two-- the Other and myself--where the Other "calls" me to a kind of radical responsibility for my actions toward him or her (or Him). Sartre, it seems to me, removes that lever of responsibility by one degree with "the third," such that it is not the (mere) presence of the singular Other that motivates ethics, but the situatedness of both myself and the Other in a structure of being-with-Others (Mitsein). I see the "third" (real or imagined) as testifying to that structure of Mitsein in a way that no two singular individuals can, thus giving the structure of being-with-Others a kind of intersubjectively-verified objectivity that is one-degree stronger (and more compelling) than Levinas' face-to-face encounter gives us.

[Ugh. Blog writing really forces one to move fast and loose over these ideas!]

I don't know (though I should) about the "transcendental third." Of course, Sartre wouldn't allow for a transcendental third on the order of "God," but he clearly isn't a philosopher of immanence, either. So, maybe he would allow for a "transcendent third" (beyond any possible knowledge of a human being) but not a "transcendental third" (the condition for the possibility of human knowledge). The third clearly transcends our knowledge of it, which is why Sartre's peeping tom feels "judged" by the third, but beyond that, I'm not sure... I'd have to think more about it.

I like your suggestion that the baby operates as a "third" who reinforces gender norms. I would only add that the baby, it seems to me, does this as a symbol and a proxy for the institutional third of "the heteronormative family." So, if single mothers feel judged as inadequate or transgressive in some way, it isn't because they think the actual baby is judging them, but rather because the baby represents a larger and more ubiquitous third that most certainly is attempting to "shame" single mothers.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the detailed and interesting follow-ups.

I do, however, think that both of my children are regularly trying to shame me.

And props for using "mocilization."

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

P.S. I hope this goes without saying, but by no means do I mean to by my flippant joke minimize the social pressures put on actual single parents, single moms particularly . . .

DOCTOR J said...

Ah, Ideas Man, now you have shamed me for my misspelling.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I thought it was just some word I didn't know --- f'real.