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What Ever Happened to Shame?

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This past June 29, Breitbart.com, the über-conservative website ran a lead article with the screaming headline OBAMA CAMPAIGN CELEBRATES INDEPENDENCE DAY . . . WITH FUNDRAISER IN PARIS. In the piece's snarky opening paragraph, blogger Ben Shapiro wrote:

Apparently tiring of US soil as a source of campaign dollars, the Obama campaign is headed overseas -- with its celebrity friends in tow. The European Obama campaign starts next week in Paris on July 4 with a reception organized by various fundraising heavy-hitters. Independence Day fundraisers in Paris -- now that's a flag-waving campaign!

  

After attacking the president for what he termed his "European-style healthcare plan" which "Americans . . . see as a massive net negative sucking our coffers dry," blogger Shapiro concluded that "[Paris] . . . may be the only place Obama can still find cheering throngs."

Of course, it goes without saying that President and Mrs. Obama were absolutely not going to Paris for the 4th of July.

Within hours of Shapiro posting his article, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece on the president's Independence Day schedule, which had been easily gleaned from the White House website: "On Wednesday, he will host the traditional Independence Day celebration for members of the military and their families. on the South Lawn of the White House. And anyone who had cared to check out the White House website for July 4 could have read the president's remarks to the assembled picnic goers.

Despite having been quickly shown for what it was -- a bald-faced lie -- Shapiro's story continued to have a life of its own. Thousands of Breitbart.com readers continued to treat it as the gospel, dumping all over the president for going to Paris, "the cradle of Socialism," in order to raise campaign funds . . . and on the Fourth of July! Moreover, the lie also got tweeted by the likes of Karl Rove and was afforded a place of honor on Sean Hannity's message board, where his devotees trashed Mr. Obama for nearly a week more. Some, while admitting that "maybe" the president had not actually traveled to France, nonetheless accused him of "closing down Arlington and then the Vietnam Memorial to veterans on Memorial Day." what these folks had done was replace a discredited lie with a new bald-faced -- and demonstrably untrue -- fib. For orthodox Obama haters, the truth rarely has the power to conquer a lie. As has been proven time and again, a certified copy of Barack Obama's birth certificate means nothing to those who persist in the belief that the man was born in Kenya . . . or Moscow or on Neptune.

Slick innuendo, mendacious half-truths and outright lies are absolutely endemic in modern high-stakes politics; they are the fuel that fires a million screaming headlines and lights up the lowest common denominator. And because this is the United States of America, even the biggest, nastiest whoppers fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Now to be certain, there are some generally accepted prohibitions on free speech, such as:

  • Yelling "FIRE" in a crowded theatre;
  • Sedition (advocating force as a way to change government);
  • Hate speech;
  • Defamation (slander and/or libel);
  • False or misleading advertising;
  • Profanity on public airwaves, and
  • Gag orders or publication bans in contracts, court cases and legal settlements.

Nowadays in the world of politics, it would seem that the telling of virtually any fiction, fable, falsehood or fabrication is acceptable; if you can create it, you can proclaim it. For every lie that is told there are ears that will hear and mouths that will repeat. It seems that today, because the rewards of victory are so immense that no prevarication is punished. And because there is so much lying and misrepresentation coming across the airwaves, in print and via electronic media, we have come to a point where nobody is believed . . . except the politicians you like.

Historically, humanity possessed two censors for keeping mendacity to a public minimum: morality and shame. For the person of even moderate faith, lying and bearing false witness have always been understood as immoral acts; just check the Biblical books of Exodus (20:13), Leviticus (19:11) and Deuteronomy (5:17). For much of recorded history, people's words and deeds were, in large measure, shaped by a desire to live moral lives -- to be moral beings. As such, spreading deliberate lies about others was understood to be both immoral and intolerable. I for one find it terribly ironic that in the modern political arena, we hear as many protestations of faith and morality coming from the campaign stump as parishioners might in a church, a synagogue or a mosque. Sadly, many of those flaunting their moral bona fides -- those who seek to blend religion and politics and to turn campaigns into crusades - are guilty of the sin of lying . . . over and over and over again. Apparently, morality is no longer such an efficacious censor.

But what about that second censor . . . shame? According to Paul Ekman , author of Telling Lies and one of the most brilliant psychologists of the past 50 years:

Shame is closely related to guilt, but there is a key qualitative difference. No audience is needed for feelings of guilt; no one else need know, for the guilty person is his own judge. Not so for shame. The humiliation of shame requires disapproval or ridicule by others. If no one ever learns of a misdeed there will be no shame, but there still might be guilt. Of course, there may be both. The distinction between shame and guilt is very important, since these two emotions may tear a person in opposite directions. The wish to relieve guilt may motivate a confession, but the wish to avoid the humiliation of shame may prevent it.

In other words, we -- the great unwashed public -- are just as much to blame as the politicians, commentators and bloggers for all the untruths, misrepresentations and outright lies. Why? Because we have lost our ability to scream "SHAME!" at those who lie, to those whose deed is at odds with his creed -- in short, to those who talk the moral talk, but walk the mendacious walk. We demand honesty from our leaders but countenance dishonesty from their challengers -- and visa versa.

According to Dr. Ekman, unless and until we the people reconnect with that other great censor -- shame -- those seeking our trust and our votes will continue feeding us a steady diet of defamation, deception and dishonesty -- without feeling a moment's guilt or shame.

"Shame," according to the great Salman Rushdie, "is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture."

To my way of thinking it's high time that we redecorate!

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http://www.kurtfstone.typepad.com

Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)
 

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