Has America come to the end of shame?

November 09, 1997|By William K. Marimow | William K. Marimow,SUN STAFF

"For Shame - The Loss of Decency in American Culture," by James B. Twitchell. St. Martin's Press. 208 pages. $21.95.

As Professor James B. Twitchell views America in the last decade of the 20th century, our social fabric has unraveled: It's a world of illegitimate children, unwed mothers, negligent fathers, escalating violence, pathetic public schools and rampant addictions - to drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling.

In Twitchell's America people like O.J. Simpson, Madonna, Mike Tyson and Joey Buttafuoco, who should be censured by society, get the glory, while those who believe in a world in which morality, ethicality and civility predominate become devalued.

This situation, argues Twitchell, is shameful. And, he asserts forcefully, the disintegration of societal values and behavior is the direct product of the diminished importance of shame as a regulator - what Twitchell describes as the 'electrical fence' - of acceptable conduct.

That is the central thesis of Twitchell's new book, 'For Shame' a 208-page lamentation on the overindulgence of people who behave badly and on how the broad breakdown in values is destroying society.

Accordingly, Twitchell says that shame - both feeling shame and shaming those who misbehave - is central to a civilized society. Summing up his argument, he writes: 'We rarely consider that feeling bad, feeling the blush of shame, may indeed be culture's way of maintaining social balance and purpose. Sometimes you are not okay.

' So if Twitchell's theory is right, how did society slip - or perhaps plunge - into this moral abyss? One of the primary culprits is television, he writes, a medium that 'displays most of what we know and much of what we believe. There is only one forbidden act: Never make the viewer feel bad.

' Television, Twitchell says, strives mightily to serve up only what the viewers want to see, gauged by marketing studies and Nielsen surveys, so that advertisers can most effectively sell their goods and services.

Compounding the problem, he writes, was the youth revolution of the 1960s in which college students began to question many of their parents' fundamental beliefs.

No permanent harm came to the college students, the professor says. They all 'grew up to get jobs, pay taxes, move to the suburbs, vote Republican, buy computers.' Instead, the underclass, especially inner-city blacks, who joined the protests, never recovered and ended up afflicted by drug addictions, poverty and unemployment.

Having been a child of the Sixties, like the professor - though still not a bedrock Republican or a suburbanite - I have to state that his thesis, at least to this reviewer, seemed a bit simplistic. Isn't the lessening of shame a symptom rather than a cause of a tidal change in societal values? And, won't society have to change its values in a fundamental way in order to make people feel shame about misbehaving?

But the impenetrable language Twitchell uses to make his case sometimes hampers a reader's ability to critically analyze the solidity of that case. Consider this sentence - and this is hardly an isolated example of Twitchell's use of language - about blaming parents for our problems rather than accepting personal responsibility: 'In this narcissistic movement, confected nostalgia is an epistemology and the child within is the baby Christ.

' Despite my reservations, 'For Shame,' is well worth reading, not because most readers will agree with Professor Twitchell but because the questions he raises are critical in pondering, debating and discussing what's required to have a civilized society.

Bill Marimow, The Sun's managing editor won two Pulitzer Prizes as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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