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September 5, 2004 - Have you no shame, sir?

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Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law

Martha C. Nussbaum; Princeton University Press, 413 pages, $29.95.

Publication Date - March 8, 2004


What is this all about?  What is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School at the University of Chicago up to here?


Ah, all this is about warning us about the “remarkable revival” of shame and disgust in our society, especially as they impinge upon the law.


This review (Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, August 8, 2004) explains 

Martha Nussbaum never imagined the currency that events would give to her latest book … which appeared shortly after the spate of published images that recorded the torture of prisoners in Iraq.  From the White House to the boardinghouse, Americans professed dismay at the degradation of Iraqis by troops represented to them as liberators.  As declassified documents have since revealed, though, shaming strategies figured heavily in the American authorities' thinking about how to break Iraqi prisoners.


Nussbaum, a professor of ethics and law at the University of Chicago who is considered one of the world's foremost moral philosophers, claims no special knowledge of the Iraq mess or of the Bush administration's hair- splitting rationales for captives' mistreatment.  But the author, whose previous works include "Sex and Social Justice'' and "Cultivating Humanity,'' sees behind the whole situation a competitive ruthlessness that goes all the way to the top.  "I wrote a little op-ed about it for the Chicago Tribune," Nussbaum told The Chronicle recently by phone, "in which I said that [the official tolerance for torture] grows ... out of a sort of sports team mentality that emphasizes humiliating opponents.  What I don't say much about there is that these forces in people -- to humiliate and to project onto others the vulnerability one doesn't want to feel -- are universal. A public culture can do a lot to heighten them or dampen them down."


"Hidden From Humanity" discusses in detail the psychology of scapegoating selected outsiders -- ethnic, religious or sexual minorities, including gays and women -- for aspects of our own humanity that we wish to disown.

Ah!  It seems the woman wrote the book in response to the emotions you see so much in politics and in the news, that is, calling on two emotions - disgust and shame - to justify what she calls immoral social behavior. 


Immoral social behavior? 


Think of the idea that torture sometimes actually might be okay given how awful the other side is.  Think of the gay marriage amendment effort, to keep selected folks from certain benefits, as they are so… disgusting?


It seems Nussbaum chats a lot with a colleague, Daniel Kahan, and that got her to write this book.  What they are concerned with is “the emotional undercurrents of regressive legal actions.”


Oh.  That.  Baker gives us detail –


"We agreed on anger and fear and deeply disagreed on disgust and shame," Nussbaum said of Kahan. "He has this campaign going to revive shame penalties. I wondered how we could both be thinking about the same things when we reflect on people."


Kahan, communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni and others have argued that society might punish certain crimes better by public shaming -- some updated equivalent of putting an offender in stocks in the public square -- than incarceration.


Such arguments may let us imagine offenders spared the gratuitous torments of prison, Nussbaum believes, not to mention the excessive cost of warehousing the convicted. But shame penalties, she believes, inevitably link to the "primitive shame" that each person experiences -- in infancy and therefore extra-consciously -- at the enraging discovery of his or her utter dependence on others.


Nussbaum seems to think the whole shame-them-in-public business will just harden people into believing they are, well, bad folks.  You know, they get confused about the difference between what they did and who they really are.


Yeah, but maybe they are just EVIL – as we are told about those who oppose us in the world.  You know, rotten to the core.  But then, those who oppose us would have no shame.  It is confusing.


Baker comments that the prisoners subjected to violent shaming at Abu Ghraib (think of the naked fellow being led around on a leash by the smirking girl from West Virginia) were clearly treated “as if their very being were their crime.”  And this is racist, or something like it, some analog.  The problem with you is who you are, not what you did.


What to do?  How to make it so this doesn’t happen quite so often?


Nussbaum argues that guilt, not shame, should be at the root of criminal law.  The argument she makes is this –


Guilt is potentially creative, connected with reparation, forgiveness and the acceptance of limits to aggression. Shame of the primitive type is a threat to all possibility of morality.


I have suggested, moreover, that issues of narcissistic aggression are particularly acute in today's America because of our culture's peculiar attachment to ideas of control and (especially male) invulnerability.


Oh my!  Saying someone should recognize that they are guilty of doing something bad is far more helpful that making sure they feel ashamed of who they are?  Where’s the fun in that? 


Nussbaum completely ignores one of the other functions of the law – making outraged citizens feel sanctimonious, all giddy and giggly, and sated with righteous vengeance, or as the latter is now called, allowing them to have closure.


And that second paragraph?  We have this need to control everything and a matching mindless admiration of strong leaders who take command and listen to no one, with a parallel secret fear that someone might call us girly-men and scoff at us and kick sand in out faces?  Where has she been this last week – Madison Square Garden?


Well, she does say leadership that involves "never admitting fault or weakness, never investigating the fault inside oneself," makes a role model out of "an inability to look inside and examine oneself." 


So?  Why was Arnold Shwarzenegger elected so easily out here?  Why is Bush ahead in the polls?  Duh.  Looking inside yourself is for wimps, for philosophers with tiny, atrophied penises, and for the French.


In the book it seems she discusses what she calls "Man of Steel" fantasies, and ties that to one’s natural urge to deny “the vulnerability and interdependence to which the human condition condemns us.”  Yes, she does say, without any supporting evidence, that we are naturally vulnerable and dependent upon each other in this world – she says everyone needs allies.  Really? 


What about the conservative-right mantra regarding “personal responsibility” and all that?   You know – Real men do it themselves, they don’t need help, and they don’t ask for permission from anyone.  Is she out of touch with the current Zeitgeist?   Perhaps.


Yes, of course, this urge to go it alone does often lead to “disgust directed against people or behavior regarded as alien and even potentially contaminating.” 


Well, we are told who is disgusting.  There are the daily White House briefings, after all.


And think about the Gay Marriage debate, and listen to those who oppose it.  There contamination is indeed the issue – and sheer disgust of course. 


Nussbaum says disgust is usually based on magical thinking rather than on any real danger, and maybe it is.  The personal danger to me, and to our society in general, posed by two guys down the hill finally getting a marriage license and the legal and contractual rights that go along with it, and the tax benefits, just escapes me.  But I don’t much care for magic either.  Sorry.  My fault.


But I will have to dig deeper and think about what she is saying about reality shows like “Fear Factor” –


There's a kind of pleasure of superiority in watching others undergo these things - it's like the people who like to create groups of subordinate beings. I guess shows like that are similar - they do create this kind of class, the twist being that contestants are led into the situation by their own greed. A lot of sensationalistic TV is about creating a kind of exhibition of vulnerability or disability that tells you you're superior. If you at all identify or empathize, it would have to be a torment to watch.


Yikes, I don’t want to think about that!  A whole segment of the entertainment industry based on pandering to casual sadists and would-be thugs who want to gloat over the extreme discomfort of people even dumber and more venial than they are, but are too cowardly to humiliate others themselves and would rather have Fox Entertainment or NBC do it for them - so they can get their jollies at little or no cost and at no risk at all?  Cool.


Nussbaum is onto something here.


The other side of the argument?


Does shame have a future?
Roger Kimball, The New Criterion


This is very long and detailed, and takes Nussbaum to task.


The short form?  Shame is good, so is the concept of sin.  They keep us on the straight and narrow.  Nussbaum is full of crap.  And get real - some people really are disgusting.  Think about child molesters and gay guys.


Quick hits -


Professor Nussbaum wishes completely to emancipate law from the idea of sin. From a traditional point of view, of course, the law is seen as being rooted in a moral vision, which includes a recognition of sin. As the British jurist Patrick Devlin noted in The Enforcement of Morals (1965), “the complete separation of crime from sin … would not be good for the moral law and might be disastrous for the criminal.” Why? Because without the idea of sin, moral life would be an empty calculus of pain and pleasure. “What makes a society of any sort,” Lord Devlin noted, “is a community of ideas, not only political ideas but also ideas about the way its members should behave and govern their lives; these latter ideas are its morals.”


So sin is good, and maybe original sin with which you and born, and which you have to spend your whole life to expiate, even probably even better.  The law is based on the concept.  Sin works.  And shame does too.  Good concepts.


Yeah, maybe.  Then there’s this -


Hiding from Humanity is not only a polemic against the emotions of shame and disgust. It is also a political position paper. Professor Nussbaum is such a ferocious opponent of shame and disgust because she is such a passionate proponent of many things that shame and disgust recoil from. It is ironical that in a book which is partly an attack on “the grandiose” Professor Nussbaum should harbor such a grandiose agenda for social change. From public nudity to poverty, the global AIDS crisis, and homosexual marriage, Professor Nussbaum has embraced the entire menu of politically correct causes.


Yep, she’s probably a registered Democrat, drives a Volvo station wagon and listens to NPR.  Just what you’d expect from a liberal feminist weird-o.


Professor Nussbaum is one of those intellectuals whose intoxication with the thought of her own virtue is equaled only by her contempt for the opinions of the ordinary people whose lives she pretends to anguish over.


Ordinary people know better.  Some things are just disgusting, and some folks SHOULD be ashamed of themselves.  Trust the common folk.


Note that Roger Kimball’s latest book is The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art – as you might expect.


The July 15, 2004 issue of Reason has a Julian Sanchez interview with Nussbaum should you want to read more.


But if you want to read more, well, you should be ashamed.  Think about it.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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