Pride and Shame

To discern the higher emotions from the lower, let us make a comparison between a human being and a lesser-developed animal such as a chimpanzee. It is fair to say that emotions and brain-functions that can be associated with humans alone are higher than those that can be felt or performed by both the human and the chimp. As such it may be said that emotions such as lust, envy, greed, and anger are lower emotions, since the chimp can feel these as easily as any human. However, there is no evidence that emotions such as pride and shame are felt by the lower classes of beings in any way. These exclusively human impulses shall be referred to as higher emotions. They are what separates us from other animals and what allows us to operate and maintain a civilized society.

It is also important to note that this classification can be applied to actions and brain-functions as well. Much has been made over the years of studies in which scientists have been able to produce humanlike behavior in monkeys (stacking blocks, recognizing the “value” of colored poker chips, and so on). Many have suggested this as evidence that monkeys possess nearly-human intelligence, but I disagree with this assessment. Rather, it should be looked at as evidence that certain actions are instinctual to varying degrees in the animal kingdom as a means of survival. If the monkey must learn to operate a machine in order to receive food, it will learn to operate the machine (or, failing that, will steal from a monkey who has mastered the machine). Similarly, most of us will without questioning it take a breakfast or brunch at some point during the morning in order to have the energy necessary to go about our daily tasks. The point here is that no human needs to be taught these basic actions, although they can be reinforced by example. We should not complete our day without ever rising above this routine level of existence.

What a human should aspire to are the actions and emotions that are common to humans alone. For example, any animal can fight with another animal over its mate, but only a human can write a love sonnet to his beloved. Obviously, the monkeys’ lack of a written language has inhibited their intellectual development, but since we have progressed past that point ourselves, we can safely leave the problem to the monkeys. More important to us are the emotions which humans, alone among earthly creatures, experience in any noticeable way. The two most important for our purposes, as I have mentioned, are pride and shame. I have linked the two because it is impossible to have one in the absence of the other.

Let us now define these terms for future reference. To go back to the forest analogy, this will give us our hiking boots, allowing us to maintain a firm footing no matter what terrain we may encounter. Remembering the role that these emotions play will prevent us from slipping on rocks of frustration as we forge into the more confusing parts of the wilderness. With that said, let us define shame as the acute realization and acknowledgment that one has done something morally wrong. This does not necessarily need to be on a conscious level; such common responses as flushing or a “sinking feeling” are also demonstrations of shame. It is important not to confuse shame with guilt, as is so often done in our times. Shame does not involve dwelling on an offense; it should be a brief but very definite emotion.

The common complaint of modern “desensitization” arises from this. It is not that people are desensitized per se, but rather that they do not feel an appropriate level of shame. When hearing about daytime talk shows that border on pornography, I cannot help flushing for those involved with the shows. I was shocked, disappointed and ashamed the day that I learned of the sad case of Scott Amedure. Amedure was a gay man who was very much in love with one of his coworkers. One of the talk shows got wind of this and invited the coworker, who was a definite heterosexual, onto an episode about secret admirers. Please note that the other couples “united” on the show were heterosexual. The host introduced the coworker and prepared him to meet his secret admirer. When the coworker, who was almost certainly visualizing a beautiful woman, was introduced to Amedure, he went into a fit of rage and stormed off of the set. Later, after the taping, he hunted down Amedure and fatally shot him. The show made various shameful remonstrances afterward, but this is irrelevant because it never should have happened. Even a simple question, posed to the coworker, along the lines of, “Your secret admirer is a man. Does this make you feel uncomfortable?” could have prevented this senseless tragedy, but it appears these concerns were forsaken in pursuit of one of the basest emotions: greed. A society where materialistic concerns and greed replace shame has a very basic and very grave problem.

The lack of shame in our society dovetails with the near-disappearance of another strictly human emotion, pride. Here we are not referring to pride in the biblical sense, but rather we will define pride as the sense of self-worth and responsibility that arises from the realization that one has done something morally right. In simpler terms, pride is the emotion that results from having a “good reputation.” As opposed to shame, pride should hopefully be a more permanent feeling which leads those who have it not to do things that are morally wrong. It is commonly said that such people “respect themselves too much” to do wrong. Please note that this is not merely conscience. A conscience can be taught, but only by life experience will one gain the pride to apply it regularly. To return again to the wilderness analogy, conscience is the moral compass that is often invoked, but one will not bother with his compass unless he recognizes the danger of becoming lost. This is the role of pride.

In his article “The Power of a Good Name,” Armstrong Williams considers this issue from his perspective as a young black man growing up in South Carolina, but his thoughts and opinions can be applied to anyone in modern society. Williams writes:

  • “I thought about the power of a good name when I heard Gen. Colin Powell say that we need to restore a sense of shame in our neighborhoods. He’s right. If pride in a good name keeps families and neighborhoods straight, a sense of shame is the reverse side of that coin.
  • “Doing drugs, abusing alcohol, stealing, getting a young woman pregnant out of wedlock – today, none of these behaviors are the deep embarrassment they should be… Many [children born out of wedlock] will grow up without the security and guidance of a caring father and mother committed to each other.
  • “Once the social ties and mutual obligations of the family disintegrate, communities fall apart…
  • “Cultural influences such as television and movies portray mostly a world in which respect goes to the most violent. Life is considered cheap.
  • “Meanwhile, the small signs of civility and respect that sustain civilization are vanishing from schools, stores, and streets…[E]ncouraged by the pervasive profanity on television and music, kids don’t think twice about aggressive or vulgar language. Many of today’s kids have failed because their sense of shame has failed.

Williams cites several staggering statistics which make painfully clear that society, particularly American society, has a huge problem. More than 30 percent of American births occur out of wedlock, and this statistic does not include pregnant women out of wedlock who receive abortions. Violent crime has increased by 550 percent since 1960. As Williams puts it, “No neighborhood is immune. In Wake County, North Carolina, police arrested 73 students from 12 high schools for dealing drugs, some of them right in the classroom.” (Italics supplied.)

Williams traces the problem to the fact that children no longer worry about maintaining a positive self-image. As Williams says, “They were born into families with poor reputations, not caring about keeping a good name.” His statement indicates that the root cause of this sad situation is the breakdown of the family structure as it once was and of parenting in general. In this, he is exactly correct. The national loss of pride and shame is in truth the effect in this. The roots lie in the decline in quality parenting. In the next section of this essay, we will look at this decline in detail.

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