*It would all be behind him in no time, the middle-aged businessman was telling the reporter on a network TV morning show.
According to him, the whole thing–the accusations of his adultery with a former friend’s wife; his alleged embezzlement of his company’s funds, that unsavory rumor regarding weekend swingers parties in the basement of his suburban home while his kids slept upstairs–all of it was simply a misunderstanding, unfortunate and unfair. Sitting with his legs crossed and impeccably dressed in a tailored dark blue suit, he looked healthy, fit and rested.
And there was no shame.
Nowhere on the man’s face, in his solemn, commanding voice or in his assured body language was there any indication of regret, compunction or remorse for his assorted despicable deeds. Even after being exposed for the carpet bagger he is, the mess of a man continued to strut in the public eye as if he’d done nothing for which he should be the slightest self conscious.
The daily news is filled with people like him: brain dead politicians, drugged out actresses, sexed up actors, bold mistresses of powerful men, delusional stage mothers and infamous CEOs, among others, all of them acting out an assortment of sensational circumstance on the stage of life.
And those are only the rich and the famous. In everyday life, “normal” men and women of all ages, backgrounds and persuasions do battle with their own demons. What many of those famous folk and private citizens have in common is that none appear to give a rat’s booty what anyone thinks about their shenanigans.
Welcome to the age of the shameless.
It is an era where someone commits an injustice and sues YOU for simply being in their path the moment they lost all common sense. This is where people possess the remarkable capacity for ignoring the painfully obvious; where half the truth will do. In the age of the shameless, the Emperor, naked as a jaybird, is praised for how good he looks in Armani.
Indulge me as I reminiscence back to a time when there was a thing called shame. Not the ’70s disco hit by Evelyn “Champagne” King and not self-loathing or wallowing in guilt, but that thing human beings used to feel and exude when they were discovered to have done something wrong or socially unacceptable.
Remember the good ol’ days, when people actually got embarrassed about stuff? There’d be an apology, a seemingly wholehearted hanging of the head and the obligatory laying of the low until the weight of what they’d done was somehow diminished by sincere contrition, the passing of time or until their misconduct was overshadowed by someone else’s misconduct.
Students used to be ashamed of not having their homework done; generally, people used to be regretful of hurting another’s feelings. We used to be embarrassed for knowingly not doing the right thing.
Today, a person commits a misdeed and is applauded for having the impudence to say, “So what?” Rude and reckless conduct is branded as wit and spunk and even courage.
I’m no doctor, but it seems to me that much of our nasty behavior can traced back to something as uncomplicated as the lack of old fashioned home training.
I don’t remember the moment I learned most of the life lessons my parents taught me. Like a bird that instinctively flies for the first time or salmon that somehow knows it’s supposed to swim upstream, one day I just knew.
While being programmed basic etiquette and consideration for others, I was also instilled with the concept of personal responsibility. It was important to do the right thing–whatever that was in a given instance–and there was a price to be paid for doing otherwise.
Of course, knowing right from wrong didn’t mean I always chose the right thing, back then or now. And parents aren’t always to blame when their child grows up to act a fool (just as the offspring of lousy parents don’t have to end up like them). However, in learning the difference, I also came to know that wrong wasn’t something to be proud of. Sometimes, the consequence of shame is enough to keep one out of trouble.
Not everyone feels this way. Today, not only is imbecility often given a pass, it can be rewarded. In a society driven by self-importance–an all-about-me perspective fueled by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube–nothing promotes shamelessness like Reality TV. A medium narcissistic by design, in Reality TV the prerequisite for stardom is the unmitigated willingness to (appear to) let it all hang out for the camera. Never say the Kardashians are “famous simply for being famous.” They do in fact possess a distinct talent: an extraordinary propensity for being shameless enough to have shamelessness be their chief skill.
But then, as a culture, in our shamelessness we are irreparably entrenched. When the authenticity of a fast food chain’s beef was recently called into question, the company fired back. There is, too, meat in our “beef,” the chain insisted–not 100% meat, but enough to legally be defined as “beef.”
To deem that kind of language a defense, even if the government doesn’t require what is called beef to be totally beef, takes a certain audacity. It’s the same strain of gall required for the pop star who isn’t much of a performer, singer or musician but who proudly calls themselves an “entertainer.” In both cases we have to ask, where is the beef? The self-respect?
Am I the only one asking how in the world can anything Senator John McCain says—anything–be taken seriously, after he put Sarah Palin in the universe? There is absolutely no shame in this man’s game.
But as a society, we have less and less room to complain. That’s because increasingly our compliance alters what is and isn’t okay. We stand idly by as politicians seek to rewrite American history; as posers decide what is art. More and more, the line between fact and fiction becomes impossibly blurred. Yet, nobody’s embarrassed or mortified or red in the face. And that’s not merely a shame. That’s a damn shame.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].