I was startled to hear President Obama use the word “shameful” in upbraiding Wall Street executives who accepted $20 billion in bonuses last year, in some cases after their firms had received federal bailout funds. As the President told a gathering of reporters in the week after he took office, “it is shameful” that these executives were continuing to reward themselves as they had during the boom – or rather, bubble – years, even as they expected taxpayers to prop up their failing firms. Wall Street was going to have to repent, by showing “restrain,” “discipline,” and above all, “responsibility.” Sounding rather like a parent astounded by a display of adolescent selfishness, yet still hoping that an appeal to reason might get through, the President added, “They should know better.”
I was startled, I realize, because I’d learned to think of the practice of shaming as distasteful, primitive, a throw-back that could and should be engineered out of contemporary society whenever it cropped up. One of the issues I follow in my work in health care ethics is what happens after a patient is injured, whether this injury results from one person’s mistake or from a badly-designed system. I’ve learned to condemn those reflexive “blaming and shaming” habits in health care that may seek relief through scapegoating a resident or a nurse, rather than by facing a complex problem and, if necessary, beginning the hard, slow work of changing a damaged culture that cannot keep its most vulnerable members safe from harm. And I’ve learned that good doctors and nurses may feel ashamed of their mistakes: as physician Atul Gawande memorably wrote about a mistake he made as a surgical resident, “I was what was wrong.” This private shame, if coupled with public shaming practices, may mean that physicians and nurses carry their mistakes around with them for years, even decades, rather than figuring out where these incidents belong in their moral and professional lives.
I also realized that I’d learned to think of the practice of shaming as an anthropological and psychological curio. Honor and shame cultures were understood to be utterly different from justice cultures – and we were one of those justice cultures. Except, of course, when we, as a society, reverted to the rough justice of scapegoating. We should know better – but sometimes, shaming felt better.
And yet, I don’t think President Obama was scapegoating the Wall Streeters, indulging himself, and ourselves, in a little rough justice, a little dose of public humiliation to transfer our unruly emotions – including, perhaps, our guilty consciences – onto the fat cats. I think he was reclaiming what scholars of Jewish and Christian ethics refer to as the prophetic tradition, that bracing diagnostic practice that calls a society back to its moral self, sometimes by calling out its most flagrant transgressors, who were always those who broke covenant with the widow and the orphan, who ignored the stranger at the gate. The goal of this kind of shaming is not necessarily the conversion of the moral outliers, but a reminder to the rest of us that their behavior lies on the other side of a discernible line – no ethical “grey area” here – that divides right action from wrong action. They should know better. We do know better. We are responsible for using what we know to create that culture of “restrain,” “discipline,” and “responsibility” that will take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, that will serve us all better – until, inevitably, flawed builders that we are, we have to repair it yet again.
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