The Return Of Shame

One step on america's long road back from irresponsibility:

A 16-year-old Maryland boy who is serving time in a juvenile-detention center for sexually molesting his 9-year-old sister wants to go home. But before Montgomery County court officials will release him, the boy must convince his family that he feels an emotion that for decades has been either scorned as destructive to self-esteem or dismissed as hopelessly old-fashioned. He must prove that he feels a sense of shame.

In this case, showing that he is ashamed means not just admitting his crime and apologizing to his sister, but literally getting down on his knees. The kneeling is only one part of a lengthy rehabilitation process, but if the boy doesn't comply in a heartfelt way, he can't go home and the case will be sent back to county authorities. "They need to understand that what they did was so bad that they must get into a body posture that says "repentance' -- the words are not enough," says Cloe Madanes, director of the Family Therapy Institute in Rockville, Md. Her colleague James Keim adds: "In our society, we use the same words -- "I'm sorry' -- to apologize for raping your daughter as we do for spilling milk. It's the physical gesture that makes the difference."

Juvenile proceedings in Maryland are confidential, but the boy's family has agreed to let the session be videotaped as a teaching tool. As the second therapy session begins, the therapist tells the boy that he must prove "whether you're going to live the rest of your life as a man or as a criminal rapist." At first, he looks stunned. When he realizes that his freedom depends on apologizing, he cocks his head in his sister's direction and says, "Sorry, Sarah" [not her real name]. But everyone in the room rejects the apology as insincere. Despite pleas and threats from his family, the boy holds firm in typical uncommunicative adolescent style. "I won't do that," he says over and over. "Tell the court, forget it." Even after other family members get down on their knees to apologize to the sister for not seeing the signs of abuse, the boy refuses and is returned to detention.

After another week away from his family, he changes his mind. The room is still. He drops to his knees and says: "Sarah, I'm sorry for taking advantage of you. I'm sorry for sexually molesting you. I'm sorry for getting on top of you. I'm sorry for blaming it on you. And I'm sorry for not apologizing last time." Tears all around.

Of the 65 similar offenders that county officials have tracked for at least two years, 97 percent have never been brought back for a repeat offense, including this case. Child abuse has a relatively low recidivism rate. Even so, this is an astonishing result.

Shame -- that's something they have over in Japan, isn't it? Our country's about shamelessness. Here we have TV shows where people tell the world about bestiality inside their bedroom -- and the world yawns. O. J. Simpson's attorneys brazenly bend the rules to make their case; their client gets a million dollars for his "candid" book. Marion Barry, former crackhead, runs for mayor of Washington, D.C. He wins. Richard Nixon, whose refusal to show any shame after Watergate helped bury the concept, is himself buried a hero.

And how many Americans now have their own experience with shamelessness? Maybe it was the unapologetic kid playing loud music upstairs at 7 a.m. Or maybe it was murder. "You go to court and the guy is looking at you, like, "What's your problem? So what if I killed your son?"' says Virginia Irick, whose teenage son was murdered last year in Philadelphia. Wanda Henry-Jenkins, who runs a program that counsels survivors like Irick, says that of the 1,200 families the grief-assistance program has met with in the last three years, only 10 have seen some kind of remorse from the person who killed their loved one. That's less than 1 percent.

But just when shame seems as dead as Cotton Mather, red faces have begun to shove themselves back into our late-20th-century consciousness. One belongs to us; it represents our anger -- over crime, welfare, politicians. The other is the red face we'd like to see on the guilty -- a face of remorse, even mortification. The very complaints about shame's absence testify to its new strength. Colin Powell has mentioned it movingly in nearly every speech. President Bill Clinton, after some welcome humility in his State of the Union address, renewed his call for a "New Covenant" of mutual responsibility. He argued that deadbeat parents should lose their driver's licenses. He even tried to shame members of Congress into giving up their free golf trips from lobbyists.

In fact, the whole country has traveled some distance on moral issues in the last few years. If Dan Quayle gave his "Murphy Brown" speech today, it would be far less controversial. Even Warren Beatty says he agrees with the point. Demi Moore plays Hester Prynne in the upcoming movie version of "The Scarlet Letter." (Though it's now a bodice-ripper with a happy ending.) Oprah Winfrey is moving away from shows that exploit dysfunction toward more affirmative stories with a strong sense of right and wrong. (Her competitors haven't yet.) The proposition that teenage pregnancy is morally wrong is now widely accepted. Even divorce, though viewed as shameful by only a small minority of Americans in a Newsweek Poll, is receiving new scrutiny. In 27 cities, clergy have agreed to require at least four months' counseling before they will marry couples. Many states are considering legislation that would make it harder for couples with children to get a quickie divorce.

Obviously shame can't be legislated. It must arise from what UCLA public-policy professor James Q. Wilson calls the "moral sense" that exists in all humans. The theologian Richard John Neuhaus thinks that shame faded away not in the moral relativism of the 1960s, as is usually argued, but in the Pollyannaish 1950s, when spiritual leaders like Norman Vincent Peale argued that "you could have the positive side without the negative, which is philosophically and practically impossible." After all, adds Neuhaus, "we should dislike much about ourselves, because there is much about ourselves that is not only profoundly dislikable but odious. It's not for nothing that the Ten Commandments are put in the negative."

Properly calibrated, shame falls somewhere between mild embarrassment and cruel humiliation. The goal is not mere retribution but conformity -- good conformity, the kind that makes it easier for peopleto form communities. Somewhere along the line shame picked up a priggish, finger-wagging connotation that has lingered in our moral attics. But now the pendulum seems to be swinging again, this time away from making people feel good when they do bad. I'm OK, You're Not.

In the wrong hands, shame is the nitroglycerin of emotions. Historians convincingly argue that World War II was largely the result of the gratuitous humiliation of Germany after World War I. Many psychiatrists see shame as the root of myriad emotional problems. (Though they no doubt employ it from time to time with their own children.) Politicians, wary of adopting an Old Testament tone of judgment, resist the word. "The reason I started on welfare reform was not to induce shame in a recipient but rather to inculcate responsibility," says Wisconsin GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Whatever name it goes by, many people who work with troubled youths consider the whole idea of shame a major step backward. "It only produces a negative stigma that cannot have any redemptive quality at all," says the Rev. Timothy McDonald of the First Iconia Baptist Church in Atlanta. Certainly no one can seriously favor a return to the days when out-of-wedlock children were called bastards. And even the biggest advocates of shame agree that in many confrontational situations the goal should be to let the other side back down without losing face or feeling ashamed.

But if the means of provoking shame are rooted in hardheaded compassion, the results can indeed be redemptive. The kneeling technique and others that show signs of success depend not on imposing shame but imposing punishment -- then giving the person a choice of feeling shame as a way back to the fold.

So shame must be road-tested in different circumstances. In New Jersey, "Megan's Law" now strikes some as an invitation to vigilantism (box). Elsewhere, shame is proving more effective:

A minister in Wisconsin persuaded a man who burglarized his church to stand up before the entire congregation to apologize, then to help repair the church.

A Memphis judge sometimes sentences thieves to probation with the condition that they permit their victims to come into their homes, in front of all the neighbors, and take something they want.

A federal judge ordered a defendant convicted of tax evasion to purchase computers and teach parolees. (The court noted that by dealing with street criminals the cheat would be "constantly reminded that his conduct was legally and socially wrong.")

Some sanctions go too far; others not far enough. Depriving prisoners of exercise equipment, a bigmovement among the get-tough crowd in state legislatures, merely prevents inmates from working off energy. (Banning TVs in favor of contemplation makes more sense.) At the same time, certain states are bowing to budget cuts and legal challenges and moving away from the brightly colored license plates identifying convicted drunk drivers, which unquestionably help keep the roads safer. Trying to shame 14-year-old criminals with harsh jail time often just makes them worse. But many states allow students thrown out of school for violence to feel no stigma at all. (State law sometimes requires teachers to visit the homes of the suspended students for personal -- and extremely expensive to taxpayers -- instruction.) Requiring a father who is not paying child support to stand outside the courthouse with a sign stating need job to support children may have been "a throwback to the days of the stockades," as an Indiana court said. But agencies that help people collect child support say that one of the most effective and little-used techniques available is for the wife to carry a sign denouncing her ex-husband outside his office.

The public doubts that shame will work for criminals. Respondents to the Newsweek Poll don't have much faith in alternative sentencing, even though it has barely been tried. Make the kids wash off graffiti, yes. But for anything more serious, the consensus has moved past shame and well into vengeance: more jail time, more capital punishment.

Although the Maryland on-your-knees programhas shown success, it's still too early to know if shame works in most other areas. (Not enough studies yet.) In the meantime, many experts agree with Walter Dickey, a former commissioner of corrections in Wisconsin, who says that public humiliation "tends toharden people." Even the Memphis judge who uses shame in his sentencing cautions that its usefulness against crime is limited. "Bringing back a stigma is not going to work for people for whom it was never there to begin with," says Judge Joe E. Brown. "You can't scare someone who doesn't care about his life."

But whether it works or not, the public is game for a little humiliation. David C. Anderson, author of the forthcoming "Crime and the Politics of Hysteria," calls this "expressive justice." The punishment is about the public as much as it is about the criminal. "Unlike deterrence and rehabilitation, retribution has the advantage that you don't have to prove it works," says James Lynch, a sociologist at American University.

Welfare is where shame is getting its most serious test. "We need to say that it's shameful to bring a child into the world and not be able to support, love and care for it," says Kathleen Sylvester of the Progressive Policy Institute, articulating the centrist Democratic position. "But shame should be equally felt by men and women." (The fathers in many cases of teen pregnancy are guilty of statutory rape that has gone unprosecuted.) The goal here is to avoid ostracizing the mother or her children through harsh stigma, but also to make clear exactly how society views the act. Love the sinner, hate the sin.

The GOP is pushing major stigma: no welfare for teenagers. Period. And both the GOP and the Democratic plans would make it impossible for teenage recipients to get their own apartments or drop out of school and still receive benefits. Some of the state experimentation is instructive. In Wisconsin, where Learnfare docks welfare payments if children of recipients ditch school, truancy may actually be up. Ohio has a similar program aimed at teenage welfare recipients. In addition to losing benefits for truancy, the teens get increased benefits for staying in school. Truancy is down. The sticks work better in combination with carrots. Wisconsin is learning that, too. A new program, Bridefare, increases benefits to recipients who get married.

Parts of Wisconsin and New Jersey now refuse to expand welfare payments every time a new baby is born. Their explanation is that no wage earner automatically gets a raise every time he or she has a child, so why should welfare recipients? In both states, caseloads are down, but it's hard to tell how much of that is due to the improved economy.

One currently popular argument is that the culture of the underclass is so different and isolated that it will not respond to the same incentives as the rest of society. The black critic Stanley Crouch finds that view patronizing. Blacks aren't "genetically programmed" to have lots of babies when they are teenagers, he says. These teenagers, and their parents, might not respond to the moral stigma of the white community, but they will respond economically, as all humans do. As welfare dries up, says Crouch, girls will have fewer children. And once the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancy recedes some, it will be easier for the beleaguered black church to fill the void and begin the long task of re-establishing the stigma.

"A stronger sense of shame about illegitimacy and divorce would do more than any tax cut, or any new government program, to improve the life circumstances of children," says David Blankenhorn, author of an important new book called "Fatherless America." "Compassion doesn't mean accepting whatever other people do. And judgment doesn't mean being hard-hearted." Blankenhorn's point is to move beyond stigmatizing only teenage mothers toward an understanding of the terrible message sent by all of us when we minimize the importance of fathers or contribute to the breakup of families.

This raises the larger problem with shame: it's so much easier to judge others than it is to judge ourselves. Child abuse and drunk driving are easy. But single-parenthood and divorce strike close to home. Broad swaths of the middle class -- not to mention role models at the top of entertainment, business, government, media -- have themselves been divorced or have neglected their children. A little hypocrisy does not disqualify them from participating in a moral recovery. If hypocrisy were a barrier, nothing would ever change -- anywhere. But it does slow down the process. Republicans who preach family values to black teenagers have not owned up to the shame they might feel for the plague of divorce in their ranks. Democrats who preach equality have not owned up to the shame they might feel for isolating themselves in segregated neighborhoods and placing their children in private schools. Is it really plausible to say that the poor should get married when they have children but the rich don't have to? Can the media really talk about other people's acting more responsibly when they don't change what they put on the screen?

Restoring shame requires being judgmental. That makes people uncomfortable. But in "The Spirit of Community," sociologist Amitai Etzioni, who even supports dunce caps for schoolyard miscreants ("More humane than jail"), writes that it is better to "err on the side of self-righteousness" than be "immobilized by a fear of being considered prudish." Indeed, breaking through to a clearer sense of shame may require nothing short of intolerance, a word that has received a bad rap in recent years. Shame means being intolerant of certain types of behavior that are either illegal or simply destructive to the social contract, on Wall Street or Bourbon Street. While Americans have been plenty intolerant of behavior like smoking in public, wearing fur or passing out condoms, the bigger subjects where the social consequences are higher -- sex and the family -- are still sometimes seen as off-limits to outside judgment.

In other words, restoring a sense of shame is only partly about today's miscreants. It's more about tomorrow's -- the ones who might grow up in a world where the moral boundaries are clearer. And it's ultimately about the law-abiding as much as the lawbreakers -- the moral compass of a nation. Shaming and punishing those who misbehave makes those who don't feel better -- "expressive justice." There's a catharsis. If the public believes that those who transgress will be called to account, its cynicism may ease a bit. That could make a little more finger-pointing worthwhile.

62% think most people would feel shame if it were known they'd had an extramarital affair.

73% think most people would feel shame if it were known they'd hit a child in anger.

69% think most people would feel shame if it were known theyd'd been convicted of drunk driving.

23% think bringing more public shame on criminals is an effictive addition to fine and jail sentences

64% think brining more public shame on criminals is not effective because most criminals have no sense of shame.

50% think men convicted of soliciting prostitutes should have their names and pictures in the paper so everyone would know

45% think this is not a good idea

47% think our society has become more tolerant of those who don't follow the rules of acceptable behavior

28% think we have become less tolerant

21% don't see much change either way.