We all know, I think, about the debilitating and stifling features of shame. America’s Protestant history includes putting the wayward in the public stocks as well as the endorsement of pan-religious commitments to guilt, shame, and blame for acts of non-conformity. To be shunned, in social worlds or in matters of conscience, for expressions of dissent, disobedience, or any breach of normative expectations has proven an effective tool of repression and control. Simply being oneself —by race or ethnicity, gender identity or politics—has too often resulted in rights abrogated and identity voided, with serious repercussions for all involved, including the oppressors.
Power’s most dangerous companion is authority, which rarely remains amorphous when it can become actual. At least half of America is reaching into that primitive desire to rule and be ruled. Our project of self-governance is at risk because it is the alternative to monocracy. When there is only one view we place ourselves in the gravest jeopardy of losing our empathy and our decency.
In today’s New York Times op-ed Ross Douthat, who opines from the Right, representing himself as a conservative Catholic, makes a familiar argument that liberal social gains are forcing themselves on the recalcitrant traditionalists without, of course, admitting that his own views have created the normative expressions that have historically denied human rights and asserted the dominance of the status quo. Here’s the link to his piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/21/opinion/campaign-stops/clintons-samantha-bee-problem.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region®ion=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0
Liberal views have finally entered the public discourse to imply a new norm, one of inclusion and tolerance—and intolerance of those who would reject them. There is, I think, no other way to pose the dilemma. We are always to considering just what we will tolerant and what we are prepared to do about matters we deem intolerable. The concomitant criticism and shunning of those advancing “conservative” views is not only for their antediluvian illiberality but also for their insistence on maintaining the old norms of power and authority. This opinion isn’t simply a viewpoint or vision, as Douthat suggests, but also the assertion of a certain constituency’s claims to power. Precisely who claims authority reminds that the claims themselves will have real impact on everyone.
America’s older white population feels their loss of power and opportunity, coupled as it is with their unwillingness to innovate, to migrate towards jobs, to move from their views and into other possibilities. In effect, Douthat argues correctly here that the Left would do to the Right what the Right has always done, which is to impose itself not only as the claimed-majority view but with exclusionary prerogatives. Failure to move with change means being left behind and that is precisely what is happening economically and culturally. This insistence on transformation-as-status-quo is what majorities do, they create dominance and must ask themselves at whose expense and with what sort of implications. Atrophy is the hobgoblin of power so long held that by the time its grip is challenged it is too late to admit error or failures of complacency. To move forward then becomes nearly impossible and those who have moved become increasingly intolerant of the conservative’s failure to learn. Even fellow hillbillies point their fingers and write their elegies (I mean you, J.D. Vance). How does requisite intolerance co-exist with tolerance?
Douthat cites Samantha Bee and others’ avidity for imposed decency as a stratagem foisted on those who would prefer their own familiar dogmatisms and bias. Those arguing for a more inclusive and tolerant world are, once again, made out to be the oppressors, something the Right wing press seems content to embody every day in the persons of President Obama and Secretary Clinton. The irony notwithstanding, the dominance of conservative white males is at last being challenged and, as Trump demonstrates, they clearly don’t like it.
Reactionary behaviors are not limited to Douthat’s style of argument: anyone at a Trump rally cannot mistake the shameless denunciations and calls for violence against the “other.” The militancy of the Right has always assumed the mantle of “law and order” confers immunity on those with the guns. “Protecting” your 2nd Amendment rights is a euphemism for the encroachment on the authority of those powerless to thwart the changes that empower others. And so too the shameless displays of power meant to intimidate and manipulate, nowadays with the added purpose of enriching those dedicated to selling the hardware of your Amendment “rights.”
And this returns us to our point of departure. For all its debilitating and exhausting bearing, we humans experience in shame a hedge against our own shameless recalcitrance to decency. It is, in fact, when every shard of self-reproach evaporates into self-approval that we fail to establish boundaries for ourselves. What are we willing not to do? What do we feel about how we feel about ourselves and how we treat others? And at what point are our own principles and values worthy of some form of abashment so that we don’t become the oppressors we abhor?
Tolerance accepts others’ views without endorsing, approving, or even countenancing opinions. Acceptance only means people feel and believe, even when such beliefs obtain the threshold of unacceptability: we are required to understand boundaries and ask ourselves what we are prepared to do about breach. We are too small a world, too global a world, too connected in ways we don’t fathom to reject each other’s humanity. With that humanity comes differences, many of which are irreconcilable. But at what point are views so discordant that there is no room left in the room for the expression of such opinions? In a genuinely polarized America this issue raises serious questions about inclusion and the meaning of tolerance. What discourse needs to be permitted in a free society?
My point is to take seriously the double-edged sword that is tolerance itself and to reconsider how the liabilities that come with experiences of shame shouldn’t lead us to disempower our need to cultivate and create empathy and understanding. It may be asking too much to feel along with the bigots whose fears appear impenetrable and whose views are deplorable and apparently irredeemable because they do in fct refuse to reconsider themselves. Making America great again is a phrase loaded with the worst forms of nostalgia, the kind that rings with falsehood because it asks for the past when the present invites a very different future.
This call for the past is now utterly shameless— the dog whistles are audible at every frequency— and those shouting the loudest to “take back” their country know that there is nothing left to say or do but reject all differing views as other — and that is the problem.
And there too lies the key to a more “constructive shame” or perhaps we might call it self-purposing conscience, one that insists we not only argue for our views but argue with them. Even when the “other side” regards their certainty implacable and resorts to whatever ruthlessness suits their agenda, it is the task of reflective conscience to remain critically attuned to the need to tune itself. It is too easy to become tone deaf to our own song of the self. Listening to others can be painful but the failure to listen for one’s self means we have no edge to mark the contours and fringes of our self-created reality.
We must make our own first boundary, a boundary of critical self-reflection that imagines the unimaginable in order to fathom what is all too real in those who would reject that same project of personal examination. We may not need to tolerate the intolerable so much as fathom how to provoke change that has both the resilience and process of constant revision. This may prove too challenging for those drawn to fear as their boundary-creator but like shame, fear too can provide productive lessons in understanding the complexity of feelings and play a role in fostering better worlds. The issue at hand is not whether shame or fear or any other “negative” experience plays its part in our stories but rather what more complex role each plays in the constellation of human feelings. We wouldn’t have these feelings if we didn’t need them. So what are we going to do about that?