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.