City City Bang Bang, Columns

The evolution of shame

‘Raja has conquered Tihar jail’ reportedly read some slogans on T-shirts worn by his celebrating supporters on his return to Chennai after spending 15 months in jail. To see his return from detention on charges of massive corruption as the return of a conquering hero requires a special kind of ability, one that does not seem in short supply today. Increasingly, corruption charges do not seem to carry a social taint, and even criminals convicted of more heinous crimes, people like SPS Rathore (of the Ruchika case notoriety) or Manu Sharma carry themselves with a swagger when seen in public.

Shame, that social device that acted as a self-restraining agent, aligning our internal compass with external expectation, pushing us towards behaviour that was considering socially legitimate and rapping us on the knuckles, often quite decisively, when we stepped out of line, seems to be an increasing absence in many sections of society today. Today, it is easier for people to be punished than to be disgraced; it would seem that the letter of the law has overwhelmed the spirit of the social convention. The gradual fading of a shared moral code, an implicit belief in the way things should be, has led to a fundamental transfer of responsibility- from depending on the collective wisdom of a social group to the personal conscience of the individual.

But in a rapidly changing landscape, the individual finds it difficult to locate this conscience, having been set adrift in a world without maps that guide behaviour. If in an earlier age, one always knew, to the point of repressive certainty, what the expected behaviour in any situation was, today it is up to the individual to play the new games of the day , while simultaneously writing its rules, without having to worry too much about ‘what people will say’. The only outer boundaries are those imposed by the law, and these take on a technical rather than a moral hue. The law is seen as something that is malleable, an entity with which one can haggle, provided one has the means. If earlier social norms took on a regulatory responsibility today it is increasingly being seen as the job of the legal system to do so. When was the last time, for instance when we heard of any social pressure being brought to bear on a corrupt official or of a prospective match being cancelled because one party was deemed corrupt?

There is another side to this growing absence of shame too. As a device the idea of ‘knowing one’s place’ and ‘acting within limits’ was one that was used with great effect to maintain hierarchies and thwart discontinuous change. Gender, caste and class differences were enforced not only by external institutions, but by the victims of these inequalities themselves. The acceptance of inequality as legitimate was enabled by the idea of shame or ‘lajja’ or ‘ankh ki sharam’; these being homeostatic devices used by society to keep itself in check, in line with its dominant impulses. The gradual loosening of this implicit social contract is giving rise to a new breed of ‘shameless’ aspirers, people from different marginalities coming to the fore without being burdened by memory or expectations. As a reaction to this change, we see an attempt to foist shame from the outside, as formations like the khap panchayats and other forms of social policing use force in a desperate attempt to draw boundaries and stem the flow of change.

In line with the times, shame, as a device is taking on a new form; it is now located in the body, and in a larger sense, the self. In keeping with the centrality of the individual, and with the growing primacy of the market in our lives, we learn to think of ourselves as congenitally incomplete and imperfect and strive to correct this by filling ourselves up with acts of consumption. The self is pictured as a perpetual project, needing improvement from within and constant validation from without. Shame resides in the spaces between the wrong car and the right and a blemished skin of the wrong colour and the white glow that radiates from flawless youthfulness. Tradition is now a honeyed voice from the television, that tells us what is desirable and makes us act accordingly.

When individuals take charge of their own destinies, it is inevitable that codes of behaviour rooted in socially determined collectives will need to give way. The question is, what replaces the old laws, the old mechanisms that allowed society to govern itself without needing constant intervention? Tradition served as the magnetic pole which mysteriously aligned our action with some ideals through many devices, one of which was the self-imposed idea of shame. In the absence of such embedded self-knowledge, and self-regulatory devices, every action of the individual is full of moral import, something that is impossibly exhausting as an endeavour. The secular institutions of the state, have neither the power nor the nuance that is required when dealing with issues of moral order. The newer institutions of media and the market do impose sophisticated codes but these are designed to benefit themselves; there is no great allegiance to society as a whole.

Effectively, the vantage point called society is going unmanned; no one is looking out for its interests as a collective. There is an emerging vacuum as society finds itself unable to govern itself and finds no other institution that can fill in for it. It is as if society is losing a sense of its own self and does not know what values to uphold and what to proscribe. This does translate into more freedom for the individual, but in the absence of a larger moral code in which the individual is embedded, this freedom can end up as nothing more than an indiscriminate celebration of one’s narrow personal interests.