The social value of shame and dishonour

The social value of shame and dishonour

Friday, January 03, 2020

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Dear Editor,

There is a view held by some ethicists that moral revolutions occur in societies only when large numbers of people feel that they are shamed and dishonoured by some practice — slavery, duelling, foot-binding, discriminatory laws, and so on. They then rise up and pressure the political leadership to do something about them.

Historical examples, such as the abolition of slavery, duelling, and some discriminatory laws in some countries, suggest that these bottom-up rather than top-down approaches to social change can sometimes be successful.

Perhaps this view should be borne in mind in any approach to Jamaica's horrendous crime problem, which is surely a major contributor to its 'confounding' underdevelopment — to borrow an apt term from Orlando Patterson.

If many Jamaicans feel that they and their country are shamed and dishonoured by their nation's growing reputation for heinous murders and other social evils they will be more likely to press for changes to them. How much of this kind of shame exists, or if one of our poets is right that “shame trees don't grow here” is a question that has been on my mind.

The recent outcry by civil society against the Government's apparent prioritisation of suppression over social intervention in the areas most affected by crime and violence is seen by Horace Levy in his writings, as the first step in a possible breakthrough in the country's struggle against violence. This is an example of the kind of bottom-up approach to social evils that I have in mind.

Social research has shown that shame is not always a negative thing. It can lead to positive social results. Much is said about Jamaican pride, but it is surely an error to be too proud to be ashamed of the things that are degrading our society.

Earl McKenzie

Former lecturer in philosophy, The UWI, Mona

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