Monday, November 27, 2006

The role of shame

I didn't weigh in on the O.J. book and television show situation a while back because I tend to avoid sensationalist news. But today the Washington Post has published an article about it that I think you ought to see. It's entitled "Abandoned O.J. Project Shows Shame Still Packs a Punishing Punch".

The whole project was pure shamelessness. A controversial former football star, who many believe got off scot-free after killing two people, writes a book about how he might have committed the murders. It was an end zone dance in the worst possible taste. Everyone was outraged but had to concede that O.J. Simpson, once acquitted, was beyond the reach of the law.

But Simpson and his publisher, Judith Regan, were within reach of another powerful tool that is not much used in American society: shame. Facing growing outrage and scorn, News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch canceled the book project last week.

For Stephanos Bibas, a law professor and former prosecutor, the saga was grounds for celebration, because it showed that shame remains a powerful tool in America.
in the past decade or two, a number of scholars have become interested in the uses of shame, especially in the criminal justice system. Bibas and others think the steady erosion of shame in U.S. courts and society has proved financially costly to the country, deprived victims of a sense of vindication and kept wrongdoers from feeling remorseful.

"I was very pleasantly surprised to see shame, and the shaming of Rupert Murdoch, triumph over O.J.'s shamelessness," Bibas said. "There are, apparently, some things that still go too far."

Let me say here what I'm NOT suggesting. I don't believe children should be shamed as a form of punishment. Made to apologize for wrongdoing, yes, but not shamed. In critical stages of a child's development that can be internalized and result in chronic self-loathing or, at the very least, low self-esteem. But I do think society needs to send the clear message that there are social consequences to unacceptable behavior. And I'm very glad that O.J.'s shamelessness did not go unpunished.

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