During the complacency of the Tory years this was certainly the feeling: the cash for questions scandal, the disgracing of Jonathan Aitken, the debacle of the hypocritical politicians who fell like skittles during Major's Back to Basics drive lead to Blair's pledge to re-moralise a demoralised nation.
This brought with it the notion of accountability and alongside it the idea that everyone is to be held responsible for their actions. Jack Straw's stance on parenting and Blair's response to football violence - that the hooligans should lose their jobs - bear the hallmark of an administration that views shame as a useful tool for restoring civic society. They make the link between shame and self-restraint. If we were more aware of the public opprobrium that would greet our actions then perhaps some of us would be less inclined to behave shamefully.
Like many ideas, this one has been prepared earlier, in north America, where all sorts of concerted efforts have been made to publicly shame criminals. Chain-gangs have been reinstated in Florida, not because this has anything to do with rehabilitation but because, the shackling of inmates is a dramatic and symbolic statement to shame prisoners. In Arizona, street- cleaning chain gangs are now sporting traditional black and white striped uniforms.
In Anchorage feckless drivers who don't pay traffic fines now see their names in ads published in their local newspapers, while in Illinois those who have dodged their taxes may have to face the "cyber-shame" of having their names posted on the Internet. In Toronto a man had to walk around a park wearing a sign proclaiming conviction for a indecent act.
Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that any of this actually works as crime prevention. The other problem is, of course, that it is hard to legislate shame into existence if a society has lost its sense of shame.
When our own dear think-tank Demos suggested that we should seriously reconsider the use of stocks as a deterrent, it was taken as a sign of how out of touch the boffins were. There is something innately old-fashioned, even biblical, about the concept of shame. We no longer live in a culture of public shame but one of public confession, and some ways this has been beneficial. Guilt has replaced shame so that it is enough to declare one's guilt and then confess, as though absolution for one's sins comes from confession alone.
Louise Woodward and the nurses found guilty of murder in Saudi Arabia return home to find, even among their supporters, a sense of unease that these women may try to profit from the death of another person. Gazza finds himself dropped from a BT campaign and so will lose a lot of money. One feels at the end of the day, that the loss of earnings might hit harder than any sense of public shame. Those who should be truly ashamed of themselves rarely are.
The public apology to the parents of Stephen Lawrence comes too little and too late. The policemen who should be "named and shamed", as well as Stephen's alleged killers, have been seen so far to get away with it. Public apologies do little to rectify systematic racism, just as the Queen's apology to the Maoris - "Sorry for that bit of raping and pillaging all those years ago' - was laughable.
Saying sorry is easy when so often those who are made to feel ashamed are the victims rather than the perpetrators of crimes. Stephen Lawrence family felt that it was they who were put on trial. When Stan Collymore beat up Ulrika Jonsson, it was her private life that was examined by the media, not his. This is why shame has it abuses as well as its uses. There are many things these days that we no longer feel ashamed of. In the past women who were raped or abused or gave up babies for adoption hid their pain because they were made to feel as if they had brought shame upon themselves.
Things have moved on but not much. Prostitutes are still more likely to be arrested than the men who visit them. Incidents of rape go unreported because women are still too ashamed to go public. Female bodies and their mysterious workings are still so shameful that we still cannot see adverts for sanitary protection that mention the words blood or menstruation
Curiously, the refusal to accept that certain kinds of behaviour are shameful has been liberating on occasion. I was not allowed as a girl to be seen eating, smoking or talking to boys when wearing my school uniform, because it would according to my headmistress bring shame upon the whole school. "We'll have to take them off then, Miss," we used to say delightedly. More importantly, it is because women have refused to be made to feel guilty for having abortions that we now have the rights that we do.
The rejection of a particular notion of public shame has been a powerful political tool for many - to be publicly homosexual is no longer shameful. Shame then, can only really exist when there is a consensus about what is and isn't acceptable, in cultures where there is a high degree of conformity. Japan is always cited as a society in which the concept of public shame effectively regulates behaviour, although even this is said to be breaking down.
Yet in our own far more fragmented society, where moral relativism is the order of the day and we have become far more liberal on social issues, it is interesting that the word shame far more usefully attaches itself to abuses of economic rather than personal power. Despite the efforts of Blair and his cronies to synthesise a politically correct version of shame, the public is still bound to feel more sympathy for the mother of a teenage truant than for a fat-cat who seemingly wields power without accountability.
This seems to me a useful distinction to maintain. The naming and shaming of paedophiles for instance has actually achieved very little in terms of protecting children, whereas the naming and shaming of someone like cash-for-questions MP Neil Hamilton does serve some useful regulatory purpose.
Shame can only work as a useful social tool when it is organic: sinners feel so ashamed that they feel that they must repay a debt to society. Likewise, society has to feel so sinned against that it is not prepared to forgive for a very long time. Whether we are talking of disgraced Tory politicians or the idiots in Marseilles it is quite clear that some people really have no shame. And as uncomfortable as it may be to admit it, there is not a damn thing we can do about it.Reuse content