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Ashamed of ‘Is Shame Necessary’

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She ought to be ashamed.

Jennifer Jacquet, a professor at New York University, has just penned a brief book about public policy. “Is Shame Necessary?” promises to give the reader, its subhead says: “New Uses for an Old Tool.”

But it’s really just old whines in a new cover.

First, let’s talk about what Jacquet gets right. Modern Americans “tell ourselves with a certain amount of smugness that we have been unshackled from shames’s constraints,” she notes. So true. In some ways, that’s a positive. “Like antibiotics, shaming works best when used sparingly. And also as with antibiotics, if shaming is abused, we might all end up as victims.”

For many today, that would seem to be the point. For example, as “microagressions” on college campuses spread like kudzu, everyone seems to be seeking “victim” status.

But the loss of shame has led to a growth in guilt, which Jacquet points out is a far different thing. “The point is simply that the paradigm of the individual, whether real or imagined, elbows out shame, which is an inherently social phenomenon and, in our culture of self-reliance, can seem quaint or anachronistic,” she writes.

But that gets things backward. We don’t have a “culture of self-reliance” today, although we still project a mirage of self-reliance. The Marlboro Man, dependent on nobody, able to ride off into the sunset on his horse, simply doesn’t exist anymore.

“America is increasingly moving away from a nation of self-reliant individuals, where civil society flourishes, toward a nation of individuals less inclined to practicing self-reliance and personal responsibility,” warned David Muhlhausen and Patrick Tyrrell in 2013 in the introduction to the most recent edition of the Heritage Index of Dependence on Government.

This is where a little shame might be useful. For generations, Americans attempted to avoid things such as welfare dependence and out-of-wedlock births. Such things happened, but they were, in a word, shameful.

That’s no longer true, a fact that could have been the point of her book.

Instead, Jacquet dismisses the whole idea with one sentence. “Some of the shame of single-motherhood has lifted as the percentage of women who are married has declined in almost every state since the 1980s.”

Wait — is that how it happened? There are more single moms, so it’s no longer shameful? Or is it that the vast federal welfare state began expanding in the 1960s, meaning an out-of-wedlock child became an asset, rather than a source of shame, to millions of women?

This matters, because as Muhlhausen and Tyrrell add, “[g]overnment programs not only crowd out civil society, but too frequently trap individuals and families in long-term dependence, leaving them incapable of escaping their condition for generations to come.” That’s certainly been the case for millions born to single mothers.

So which came first, the programs or the loss of shame? It’s a question that should at least have been asked. But Jacquet can’t be bothered. She’s got bigger targets in mind. Global targets. Such as global warming, of course.

“The oil-and-gas industry has lobbied the U.S. government (and others) against any policies that would decrease revenues—removing subsidies, enacting a carbon tax, funding renewable energy, or ratifying the Kyoto Protocol,” Jacquet writes. Why, they out to be ashamed! Imagine, trying to make a profit in the year 2015. American society ought to be beyond that.

She notes that Chevron “gave $1.1 million to U.S. political groups in 2008 alone, 75 percent of which went to Republicans, many of whom publicly and politically deny anthropogenic climate change.” Cue Dr. Evil. “One million dollars!” Scary.

Except what’s surprising is how little money that is.

The company earned almost $24 billion that year. A million from that is a tiny percentage to pay to attempt to protect those profits. By comparison a single environmental group, the Sierra Club, spent $730,000 lobbying in 2008. Dozens of other leftist groups kicked in as well. Chevron shouldn’t be ashamed of how much it’s spending; it should consider whether it needs to spend far more.

Jacquet steps on her own message again as she writes: “The recipe for effective shaming begins with an obvious transgression against a norm, an obvious transgressor, and a desired and achievable outcome.” Once again, she’s invalidated an entire book in a single sentence.

It’s certainly not a “transgression” to deliver fossil fuels to market. Companies have been doing that for more than a century. The transgression for hundreds of millions of drivers would be if those companies suddenly stopped providing fuel. So it’s far from clear there’s a transgression or transgressor. As for whether “stopping global warming” is an “achievable outcome,” well, it seems to have stopped itself. There’s been no warming for almost 20 years.

“The American Psychological Association’s task force on climate change, in its 2009 report, included accounts of ‘eco-anxiety,’ whose symptoms include panic attacks, loss of appetite and sleeplessness,” Jacquet writes. I’m ashamed to note that I’m not afraid of, guilty about, or shamed over global warming. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

I also choose not to be shamed by the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which Jacquet mentions approvingly. “Having children today is not only a choice, but a decision that comes with a certain amount of guilt,” she writes. Au contraire. I’m raising three children and couldn’t be prouder of each.

The real problem is that some folks who ought to be ashamed, aren’t.

Jacquet relates a 2004 hoax when a phony “spokesman” for Dow Chemical went on BBC television to claim the company was prepared to pay $12 billion to victims of the Bhopal disaster. “The most cunning part,” she writes, “was that it drew attention to Dow’s retraction, which stated, for the record, that Dow was absolutely not going to do the right thing.”

But it’s not a chemical company that should be shamed here, it’s the actor who pretended to be an employee. And the “journalists” who put him on the air — twice! — to spin his phony tale.

Jacquet also roots for the sort of folks who hit those they disagree with in the face with pies. Milton Friedman’s free market beliefs, she writes “are part of the reason Friedman took a creme pie to the face during a 1998 conference on the privatization of public education.” Around the same time, Bill Gates “was also hit with several creme pies,” she writes.

She’s even ready to provide advice to potential pie-ers. Jacquet promotes a book that urges readers to pie “the reactionary, pompous and otherwise deserving.” However, Jacquet cautions, “We should recognize that the pie of shame is creme-filled—a pecan pie would be potentially harmful.” Thus missing the point again.

There’s no shame in being hit by a pie. The shame belongs to “pompous” liberals who resort to such physical attacks because their intellectual arguments are so weak.

“At some point in human prehistory, if not today, showing shame must have been a very useful thing,” Jacquet writes. Indeed, just as antibiotics save lives when used properly, shame too has the power to improve lives. Too many people are misusing it, though.

Shame on them.


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