Andrew Potter: There is a word for a shameless age
Donald Trump was only a symptom of our era, not its cause
When Michael Ignatieff posted a short video to his Twitter account last week of himself reading a section of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, while standing in front of an empty windswept Acropolis no less, my first inclination was to laugh. Because in many ways the video was vintage Ignatieff, not a little bit portentous and self-important. But beyond that, it seemed like there was an overcooked seriousness to the whole thing, a presumption about the wisdom of the ages and the virtues of sincerity that is totally out of step with the tenor of our age, which defaults to weaponized snark, belt-fed irony. The Greeks? Democracy?? How square can you get!
It’s a pretty amateur video, to boot. It’s cloudy and windy, and Ignatieff’s voice gets distorted by the wind overdriving the microphone a few times. But for some reason, I found myself watching the video a second time, and then again, and then a fourth and fifth. And with each viewing, I was drawn deeper into it, pulled in by the sheer profundity of the words and unobtrusively poetic rhythm of Thucydides’ writing.
I was also struck by the passage Ignatieff chose to read. It’s the famous third paragraph (in most translations), the one where Pericles praises Athenian democracy for permitting men to advance through merit, not social standing; for ensuring equality before the law; and for allowing people to live their lives within the law without being subject to the prying eyes and judgment of the state or their fellow citizens. But the kicker is the last part of the passage where he says look, all of this privacy and equality doesn’t mean anarchy; we are kept in line by fear, which makes us obedient to whomever happens to be in power. But there’s a deeper fear that guides our behaviour, stemming not from the threat of legal consequences, but rather from “those laws which, though unwritten, carry the sanction of public disgrace.”
What follows is Ignatieff’s version of a mic drop — a slow pan of the barren steps of the Parthenon while the last words, “public disgrace,” drop onto your mind like a pebble on a pond, sending ripples of recognition across its surface.
Because what Pericles understood was just how much of our social order relies on people, especially public officials, following unwritten rules of conduct. It is more than manners, and it’s more than just proper behaviour. It’s an internalized sense of what is appropriate that goes beyond the law, and touches on the very nature of human organization as something based ultimately on trust, honourable action, and good faith. And like the constitutional conventions that govern how the prime minister ought to act, these rules aren’t enforced by the courts or backed up by any explicit legislation. Instead, they make up a code of public decency that governs all social interaction, whose only sanction is shame and the fear of disgrace.
More than almost anyone else in our society it is politicians who feel the weight of mass opinion, the pride that comes with public esteem, or the shame that follows public disgrace. There’s a tendency to roll our eyes when a politician starts going on about his or her legacy, but that’s because we forget just how effective the threat of shame and disgrace can be at keeping our leaders in line. To a large extent, the only thing a politician takes with them when they leave office is their standing, which is why so many former politicians spend so much of their time burnishing their reputations and popping up from time to time to act all statesman-like. For some, it ends up being the work of a lifetime.
The problem is, we live in a shameless age. It’s customary to place the blame for this on Donald Trump. As the editors of Spy magazine realized almost 30 years ago, the key to understanding Donald Trump is that he is quite possibly the most vulgar human being alive. Trump is obviously incapable of feeling shame, and he has no use for the restrictions on behaviour that shame underwrites. And because he doesn’t accept any restrictions on his own behaviour, he is implicitly giving permission to his followers to pretty much do as they please. It’s for good reason that Trump has been widely blamed for normalizing a culture of extreme social deviance and moral nihilism.
But Trump himself is largely just a symptom of our culture, not a cause of it. The decline of the feeling of shame as a moderating and motivating force in public life is just as absent here in Canada as it is in the United States, and that absence cuts across the political spectrum.
Hang on you say, aren’t Canadians always apologizing? Hasn’t Justin Trudeau turned the role of the prime minister into little more than the national apologizer-in-chief?
Yes, but there’s a difference between being contrite and feeling shame. Contrition is just the feeling of remorse, the knowledge that you have behaved badly and need to say something. But it carries with it no deeper self-judgment, and no expectation of a change in behaviour. Justin Trudeau is obviously very good at being contrite — contrition is the defining moral tone of his government. But no one who had a capacity for genuine shame would be as quick as Trudeau to paint anti-vaxxers as racist and misogynists, given his own manifest failures in government and his own rather problematic past. Nor would such a person be so keen to label an airborne group of partying instagrammers “idiots”.
The public disgrace that Pericles is going on about is something far more profound, which cannot be washed away with a carefully worded public apology or a tearful press conference. It is about the loss of standing and esteem in the eyes of the public and your peers, followed by a deeply negative evaluation of your self, a sense of failure to live up to standards and expectations that get to the absolute core of your identity and sense of worth. These hang together of course: we are social beings, and who you are is for the most part a function of how others see you.
Or at least, that’s how it was until quite recently. We live now in an age in which disgrace has no purchase, where shame has no bite. There is what the law explicitly forbids, and there is what is permitted; the technical term for this is nihilism.
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