The Death of Shame Isn't the Problem; It's the Death of Guilt

Bret Stephens has a column in today’s New York Times: Trump and the Annihilation of Shame, which starts from the death of Charles van Doren — back in the 1950s he was part of a scheme to rig a quiz show. For the rest of his life — he died at age 93 — he was ashamed of what he had done, and refused to profit from it in any way. Stephens’s point is that since then, shame has been under assault, and finally died at the hands of Trump:

In days bygone, the prescribed method for avoiding shame was behaving well. Or, if it couldn’t be avoided, feeling deep remorse and performing some sort of penance.

By contrast, the Trumpian method for avoiding shame is not giving a damn. Spurious bone-spur draft deferment? Shrug. Fraudulent business and charitable practices? Snigger. Outrageous personal invective? Sneer. Inhumane treatment of children at the border? Snarl.

Hush-money payoffs to a porn-star and centerfold mistresses? Stud!

Stephens is the NY Times's house conservative (and one that I do agree with on (rare) occasion), so it is instructive when he blames conservatives:

It was once the useful role of conservatives to resist these sorts of trends — to stand athwart declining moral standards, yelling Stop. They lost whatever right they had to play that role when they got behind Trump, not only acquiescing in the culture of shamelessness but also savoring its fruits. Among them: Never being beholden to what they said or wrote yesterday. Never holding themselves to the standards they demand of others. Never having to say they are sorry.

However, he is wrong on two counts: First, conservatives lost this right long before Trump — when they embraced Sarah Palin as John McCain’s VP pick. I’m not going to waste time and space detailing her total lack of shame; for one thing, a Daily Kos contributor, Jon Perr, did a good job of that back in 2009: A Look Back at the Sarah Palin Hall of Shame. Whatever influence shame may have had on the GOP, it died back then. (Stephens never mentions Palin, by the way.)

But Stephens misses (or at least chose not to mention in this column) the other problem: the death of guilt. Shame and guilt are two of the main tools society uses to assert control. In Japan, shame is still a powerful tools; though they no longer (usually) commit seppuku to expiate shame, even prime ministers and CEOs have been known to step down because of shame. In most of the West, guilt is the way we keep people in line.

Shame enforces morality; guilt enforces law. Shame is useful in a homogeneous society (like Japan or the New England Puritans), which are essentially large villages, and shame — which also includes ostracism — works best when people would rather die than be separated from the group. Guilt is necessary when a group grows larger and needs more formal means — law — of keeping things from getting out of hand.

Trump’s problem is not that he feels no shame (though he doesn’t); it’s that he feels no guilt.