"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Shame on You!

Health professionals working in Africa on HIV/AIDS programs, especially those focusing on prevention and positive behavior change have been faced with resistance to condom use.  No matter what these experts tried, few people seem to pay attention and ignore pleas to practice safe sex for their health and for that of their partners. There is no way to tell if a potential partner is infected with HIV, they argued, so the only way to avoid the disease is through safe and secure protection. 

Promotional campaigns highlighted the positive aspects of safe sex - condoms are cool, especially the colored, ribbed ones; or putting on a condom is a sexy part of foreplay. Models were chosen for their hipness, attractiveness, and allure.  Other campaigns took a more sober tone – death was lurking just around the corner; there was no cure for the disease, and infection meant a life of misery, suffering, and penury. Still other campaigns attempted to normalize condom use, that is, make it an unremarkable part of everyday life. 

Men were shown dressing for work, slapping on the aftershave, and putting a condom in their pocket.  Women winked at the camera and slipped one into their purse.

These campaigns, however, were mechanistic, mechanical, and missing the real point. They were focusing on condom use and correlating it with health, but despite the upbeat, youthful messages, were treating this dangerous epidemic as if it were cholera or measles. No one was talking about the moral, ethical, or social implications of promiscuous sex. A person who carried the HIV virus, didn’t know it (which was very likely in high-incidence areas with little testing available), and practiced unprotected sex was complicit in a morally reprehensible act; and if he infected his partner she died of AIDS, then he was to blame for her death. In fact, he would be responsible for many deaths in the community as the undetected virus made its way from one unprotected partner to another.

Having unprotected sex was a morally wrong and reprehensible thing to do.  Abstaining from sex or having only safe sex was the only right thing. 

The injunction against promiscuous should not stop with moral and ethical considerations, but religious ones as well. Were there not many Biblical injunctions against murder, betrayal, infidelity, and duplicity? Shouldn’t the message ring loud and clear from the pulpit that promiscuous, unprotected, premature sex  was wrong because of its moral delinquency?

Pleas for the inclusion of such references to morality, ethics, and religion were rejected out of hand as unnecessarily harsh and outmoded , too Old Testament and Mosaic, not modern enough to appeal to a new generation of diverse cultural relativists. The opprobrium of the liberal establishment was boundless.  Who were these 'foreign' experts, they roared, to force their beliefs on others.  Let them take the fact that condoms prevent AIDS and integrate it into their own belief system.  Individual choice, not coercion, was the rule, and any messages of right and wrong, moral responsibility, divine injunction, or social integrity were out of place.

In essence, foreign advisers were being too Christian, imposing an a priori religious conviction on others of many faiths. What many reasonable observers thought was a reasonable conclusion – that a condom focus had diverted attention from the wider consequences of irresponsible personal behavior – was dismissed by those who seemed to value cultural relativity and diversity over fundamental human traits.  The issue here was not just using a condom, but considering the welfare and well-being of partner, family, and community. 

One should start from a position of moral rectitude, principle, and authority and proceed to the practical, mechanical means of carrying it out. Not the other way around.

The issue of moral values was just as relevant in America.  Why were we not hearing more of these moral injunctions against dysfunctional, anti-social behavior in America?  Surely concerns about cultural diversity and legitimacy were irrelevant and misguided when it came to social issues here.  Why were teenage pregnancies tolerated and accepted when they often caused pain and hardship for both mother and child and relied on other people’s taxpayer dollars for the public assistance they funded. 

Why was the indifference, arrogance, and blatant, defiant disrespect of black inner-city youth not called out as reprobate, immoral, and social reprehensible?  After decades of liberal tolerance for street creds, leniency in the name of compassion and historical antecedent, and millions of dollars investment in programs to increase educational performance and reduce crime, drugs, and mayhem; the streets of Anacostia (DC ) are still violent, more than half of the area’s black men are either locked up or out on parole, the schools are reformatories and detention centers, and sexual promiscuity and paternal irresponsibility are still rampant.

A program of dedicated, persistent, concerned, and loud messages of individual responsibility, morality, and Christianity has been lacking and much needed.  If leaders of inner-city communities were to unequivocally condemn anti-social behavior as immoral and wrong; to preach adherence to the same majority norms which have characterized all successful societies; and to shame, shun, and marginalize those who fail to conform, even the most irremediable citizens might pay attention.

Which brings one necessarily to the issue of shame.  One cannot initiate a program of moral rectitude and principle without it.  Those African teenagers who did not behave properly within universally acceptable moral boundaries should be shamed into doing so.  The ghetto youth who steal, intimidate, and injure should be spared no shame or assessment of guilt.  The black community should be outraged and condemning; the white community should stop its relativistic coddling and indifference and be adamantly accusatory. 

Richard V. Reeves, writing in the New York Times (3.16.13) feels that it is time that liberals get off their high horse of cultural relativism and be more honest.  There is no doubt that the same liberals who tout universal respect have their own set of moral values – the code by which the operate – and it is hypocritical of them to assume that others should be spared their censure:
Liberals should think twice: shame is an essential ingredient of a healthy society, particularly a liberal one. It acts as a form of moral regulation, or social “nudge,” encouraging good behavior while guarding individual freedom.
Libertarians might want a world without moral judgments, in which teen pregnancy carries no stigma at all. And paternalists might want the state to enshrine judgments in law — perhaps by raising the age of sexual consent or mandating contraception. True liberals, though, believe we can hold one another to moral account without coercion. We must not shy away from shame.
On a more practical level, shame works wonders in modifying simple social norms.  A few decades ago dog owners were indifferent about cleaning up after their animals.  It is organic fertilizer, they argued, good for the neighbor’s lawn, no harm done, just watch out and pick your feet up when you walk.  Then came a city ordinance which made it an offense to befoul the city’s neighborhoods with dog shit.  Obviously there would be little or no police enforcement of this law, so few people thought it would make a difference.  However, with the force of law behind them, homeowners started to yell at dog-walkers and shame them into changing their behavior.  “Dog shit is disgusting”, they shouted, “and you have no respect for others”.  No law could have been so effective as social opprobrium and shame.  Within a few years, dog-walkers religiously cleaned up after their dogs.

There have been programs started to use shaming against bullies, and students have been asked to speak up in defense of their bullied peers.  Shaming has been one of the techniques used.  “Keep away from her, you neutered, frustrated, impotent freak”, the defender would shout…or some such thing….at bullies.  In other words, bullies were called out for what they were – insecure, sexually incompetent, nerds.  The ‘Be More Than A Bystander’ campaign has been successful in mobilizing youth to join together as peers to confront bullies and defend the bullied.  In other words, students have understood that bullying in not just a one-on-one aggressive act, but an erosion of a fundamental moral principle of respect for others.  Those who break the moral and social code deserve to be ostracized.

The progressive decline in the number of smokers in the United States has been due to a number of factors – more and more stringent laws, higher taxes on cigarettes, public education, and shaming.  Once the anti-smoking gained momentum and non-smokers felt empowered to speak out, they let smokers know that they were being socially and morally irresponsible.  Their smoke was not only injuring themselves but others.  There diseases were adding to the overall burden of health care and on government resources.  They were being morally irresponsible when they smoked. 
Shame can also regulate behavior that is legal, but unwise. It has, for example, become an important ingredient in antismoking campaigns. Smokers have become virtual pariahs, constantly reminded that they are bad parents with bad skin and bad breath. Smoking is bad, smokers have been made to feel bad — and smoking rates have plummeted.
Shame is being adopted as the essential ingredient in a new New York City campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy:
NEW YORK is deploying a powerful weapon to reduce teen pregnancy: shame. New advertisements around the city dramatize the truncated life chances of children born to teenagers; in one, a tear-stained toddler stares out, declaring: “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.”
Reeves cites the moral philosopher Hume and his disquisition on moral disapprobation.  Although an action may not be unlawful, he says, it still may be wrong and deserving or moral and social censure:
Teenage pregnancy qualifies for some “moral disapprobation.” It is a bad choice, for the parents, children and society. The principal solutions to teen pregnancy lie in traditional policy areas: better sex education and greater availability of contraception. New York has made good progress on these fronts. But unless the social norm attached to teen pregnancy is a negative one, no amount of classes or contraception will work.
Shaming, says Reeves, has some momentum.  In other words, liberals in particular are relenting a bit on their cultural relativity. Maybe some actions are simply dead wrong, they are beginning to say, so let’s call out the perpetrators.  Shaming, therefore, is not just a mechanistic trick in bag of behavior change agents.  It signifies a much more significant shift towards a recognition of moral certainty. 

Every civilization since the Greeks and certainly long before that have taught that certain principles are essential for the cohesiveness and ultimate survival of society – respect, tolerance, honor, fairness, justice, courage, and compassion.  Cato the Elder codified these principles in his educational primers for Roman aristocrats who were eventually to lead.  Plato and Aristotle provided the early foundations for principled moral thought.  Britain’s public school and university system adopted these very principles, educating as it was, the country’s future leaders. 

Americans have strayed from this distinctly narrow but proper moral path in our educational system and have, in the interests of ‘diversity’ and inclusivity been reluctant to challenge basic fundamental social principles.  Shame and moral rectitude come with great difficulty if you are brought up believing that there is no one right way to behave.
A society purged of shame might sound good in theory. But it would be terrible in practice. We need a sense of shame to live well together. For those with liberal instincts, this is necessarily hard. But it is also necessary.

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