The Name Of The Game Is Shame

Tupac Shakur notwithstanding, the notion of shame is beginning to make a comeback in this country. Hallelujah, Hester Prynne. A moderate Democrat think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, issued an important report last week arguing that President Clinton's anti-teen-pregnancy campaign (slated to begin early next year) must unequivocally state that it is ""morally wrong'' for unmarried teens to bear children, ""must cast single motherhood as a selfish act'' and ""must resurrect the notion that it is dishonorable for a man to father a child he does not support.'' This might sound to many Americans like saying the sky is blue. Of course that behavior is wrong. But if, as expected, Clinton adopts this view as policy, it represents nothing short of an armistice. The war is over. The libertines lost. Anything goes doesn't go anymore.

Or does it? Listen to the voices of the coming backlash, the New Reactionaries. You're making them feel guilty. You're blaming the victim. Who are you to judge someone else's choices? As the welfare debate heats up, a certain segment of liberal thinking, still kicking, will try to turn back the clock and win just one more for the old moral relativism. Their targets will be not just Gingrich Republicans but also Clinton Democrats, who long before the recent election offered a series of value judgments about out-of-wedlock birth. In defending the status quo, the New Reactionaries derive their authority from the bone-chilling statistics of modern America: 30.5 percent of babies born out of wedlock, the highest in the world (22 percent for whites, 68 percent for blacks). Look, they say. This is the real America. And besides, it's not their fault.

Fair enough. The author of the PPI report, Kathleen Sylvester, argues that moral relativism must be ended without ""castigating'' the teen mothers themselves. Many have in fact been coerced into sex. That takes care of not hating the sinner. But how about the sin itself? The fact remains: every threat to the fabric of this country -- from poverty to crime to homelessness -- is connected to out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy. This scourge was not caused by economics; Calcutta's families are wretched but largely intact. It was caused by American cultural changes in the last two decades -- aided by an irresponsible entertainment industry -- that have lifted the stigma off both black and white communities. When the moral judgment of society is restored -- in law and in everyday life -- the numbers can be reduced over time. This will be worse for the ""self-esteem'' of the young mothers and fathers, but better for the younger siblings and friends who might learn from their shame.

It's easy to feel guilty about making others feel guilty, especially when so many single mothers heroically raise fine kids. But the temptation must be resisted. ""We've gotten to the point where to be "compassionate' is to refrain from judgment,'' says David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values in New York. ""That's antithetical to our whole moral tradition.'' Blankenhorn is puzzled by the unevenness of society's reluctance to judge. Not all deviancy has been defined down, to use Pat Moynihan's formulation. ""We are a society that doesn't mind making people feel bad about certain behavior: smoking, drugs, racially denigrating language,'' Blankenhorn notes. ""But on sexuality and procreation -- the heart of the social crisis -- there's a reluctance to judge.''

Some black leaders have given up on shame in favor of more radical ideas. Mayor-elect Marion Barry told The Washington Post recently that he now favors offering teenage mothers this choice: if they want welfare benefits, they must have Norplant to keep them from having another baby for the next five years. As White House aide Bruce Reed says, ""Norplant is a debate on what you do in the absence of shame.''

Reed wants to try shame first. It's there somewhere -- in every community. Shame doesn't mean someone calling your baby a bastard. It means being forced to live with your parents instead of using welfare to get your own apartment. Instead of the young mother getting to leave school after getting pregnant, she should have to go to more school. Shame means beefing up enforcement of the often-ignored requirement that every birth certificate contain the social-security number of the father. Instead of the unwed father being seen in the neighborhood as a big man for spreading his seed, he should become a figure of pity, watching his wages withheld for child support. Like the threat of a shotgun marriage in years past, this might not shrink the libido, but it does concentrate the mind.

Amitai Etzioni, founder of the important ""communitarian'' movement, recommends the use of shame in many realms: publishing the names of men who solicit prostitutes; requiring drunk drivers to have labels on their license plates; even dunce caps for serious troublemakers: ""Like any other tool, it can be abused, but that doesn't make it wrong in principle,'' says Etzioni. ""Compared to jail, shame is a very benign tool.''

The Constitution bars punishment that is ""cruel and unusual.'' It says nothing about punishment that is merely unusual. The search for creative shame may sound sadistic or silly, but is it really worse than watching silently as boys are shipped to prison and girls to lives of poverty? The challenge is to combine shame and empathy, to shape the parents without rendering the babies ""illegitimate,'' to draw a line between right and wrong so bright it can be seen forever. Risk ridicule. Think anew.