Public Shame and the Moral Authority of Forgiveness
“You should be ashamed of yourself.” It’s been a while since I’ve heard these words but they still sting. Today, public shame and embarrassment does more than simply hurt. All too often the consequences are devastating.
Recently, while in the stall of a school bathroom, a young high school student was observed engaging in an act of self-gratification. The act was surreptitiously recorded on a cell phone by a fellow classmate and posted on social media. The student was ridiculed by his peers so relentlessly that he eventually committed suicide.
At one time we could hide our dirty little secrets. And even if exposed we could start anew by moving to a new town where no one knew our name or our shame. Now, our most intimate activities are observed by orbs both human and inhuman. Our most guarded utterances are heard by listening devices that span the globe. Our most difficult challenges; our lowest moments are recorded by devices that are both conspicuous and invisible.
It matters little whether our sins are material or immaterial, innocent or culpable, deserved or unfair, each ill-considered act, every shame we know is spread across the universe at warp speed. Like Hester Pym’s “Scarlett Letter” these falls from grace, even if temporary exceptions to an otherwise sterling existence are never forgotten and seldom forgiven. All that matters is that they are exploitable, to be used to marginalize and destroy.
So how do those who have stumbled surmount our public shame and humiliations? How do we deal with the worst of our moments and the social stigmatization attached thereto?
Some are simply shamelessness. Our most successful politicians and social leaders are adept at stacking lies on top of lies, deflecting responsibility, feigning remorse and apologizing in ways that are anything but apologetic. They could be busted with a satchel of stolen money, three bags of cocaine and two ladies of the evening and still not experience shame.
Others exploit their disgrace in ways that are disgraceful. There exists for example a certain family, the most famous of whom shot to fame after releasing a scandalous video. Their gifts to the world are marginal. They just look good and this after sufficient professional help. Yet, they adorn fashion magazines and photo shoots. They are invited to and attend the best parties and premiers. And they reportedly earn tens of millions of dollars each year merely for being famous.
But while these strategies work reasonably well for the well-connected, the rich and the famous, they are less effective for the average person. I know of two men who illustrate the point.
These individuals are very similar yet completely different. Both have endured hell albeit for different reason. Both have been branded as untouchable but for different causes. One spent 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The other spent no time in prison for an offense of which he is guilty. The one who served time was wronged against, while the other wronged himself. But what really separates these two men is how they have dealt with their dishonor.
The formerly incarcerated person has converted his disgrace into a cause greater than himself; larger than his shame. Recently exonerated, he is part of an organization that assists others who also known the blight of a criminal conviction and imprisonment. The one who was not incarcerated has yet to find a greater purpose.
Moreover, one has taken the most important step of all. He has forgiven himself and those who wronged him. And even though he was unfairly convicted and imprisoned, this small, unassuming man takes full responsibility for putting himself in a position to be persecuted.
The other realizes his culpability and is deeply remorseful. Yet, he has yet to devote himself to a higher purpose. And more importantly, he seems not to have made peace with himself and with others.
It might help if he realized that there is not one among us, whether pauper or king, Pope or sinner, who has not done something of which he or she is ashamed. We have all had sexual encounters we should not have had, said that which should not have been said, taken something which was not ours to take or hurt someone who should have never been hurt.
So we pray that we are not caught in the midst of our “flagrante delictos” (blazing offenses) and hope that our transgressions do not come to light. We promise the Fates that we will never do it again, we beseech them to cover us one more time and then proceed to do precisely what we promised not to do or that which is equally stupid. It occurs to the best of us; it happens to the worst of us. It is literally what it means to be human.
Forgiveness is also in society’s best interest, both morally and from a public policy perspective. We are well on the way to developing a permanent caste system with a relatively small number of privileged at the top, a shrinking middle class in the center and a broad, deep and ever-growing bottom composed of the social pariah. Inevitably these numbers will grow to the point of in-sustainability.
And it is simply wrong to forever punish someone for imperfections we all share; lapses of which we are all guilty. Accountability yes, but permanent scorn, no. As another once said, “[L]et he who is without sin cast the first stone”.
In conclusion, we do not pretend that forgiveness is either simple or easy. The wrong could be what someone did to you, what you did to yourself or the harm you inflicted upon another. It might involve a single moment in time, a string of incidents, the important, the trivial or the imaginary. The permutations are endless and the unfairness and uncertainty of life exacts a toll from us all. But while admittedly difficult, absolution is absolutely necessary.
We therefore offer this message of hope to all who struggle to forgive. No matter what you have endured; regardless the sorrow you have known, or the depths to which you have sunk, forgiveness is an act of courage and a sign of greatness.
Lincoln forgave the South and after the Civil War, welcomed it back into the union. Gandhi forgave the English who abused his people. King talked of former slaves and former slaveholders sitting together at the table of brotherhood. And Mandela forgave his jailers who imprisoned and tormented him for decades.
So forgive yourself even if others won’t. And know that the only difference between you and those who judge you so harshly is that their dirty little secrets have yet to be revealed. In the final analysis to forgive is to live.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum