“I am no longer good through deliberate intent, but by long habit have reached a point where I am not only able to do right, but am unable to do anything but what is right.” — Seneca, 65
Every day, I’m amazed at how many people view the world in absolutes.
We have so much information at our fingertips, accessible through a few swipes or clicks on supercomputers we hold in our hands.
Gone are the days that required a trek to the local library, thumbing through the card catalog, where thousands of cards held the secrets of our collective knowledge, held in a warm embrace by shiny oak drawers and cold a metal spindle.
No longer do we need an understanding of the Dewey Decimal System.
And yet, with the ability to connect to individuals and information anywhere across the globe in the blink of an eye, we seem more clueless than ever.
Social media, once the promised land of digital discourse and avowed “public square” of conversation, has devolved into shouting matches, untamed trolls who no longer live only beneath bridges, and personal attacks that range from merely cruel to outright dangerous and even illegal.
In the digital world, familiarity—passing or otherwise—does indeed breed contempt. This is unfortunate, as it ought to breed empathy, with our awareness that there are billions of individual stories and perspectives out there, each with its own set of struggles.
But it’s simply easier to sort and categorize in one of two buckets. Pro or con. Good or evil. My side or your side.
Somewhere out there, we need to be seeking common ground.
This week, President Biden tried to find common ground in a speech on voting rights that are supposed to be afforded to us all under the Constitution (and under subsequent legislation). In doing so, he appealed to the better angels of those who seek to restrict voting by asking,
“Have you no shame?”
That phrase stood out to me.
It is reminiscent of the phrase used by Joseph Welch, a Boston lawyer representing the Army at the McCarthy hearings in the Senate. On June 9, 1954 Welch stood up to the bullying senator live on national television, saying, “At long last, have you no sense of decency?”
Whether asking about shame or decency, it is an arresting question. It pierces the veil of any argument and asks us to consider the dignity of our fellow citizens.
Here’s the thing about shame: it requires you to have a conscience—to feel as if you are breaking a code, whether it’s personal or collective.
“It is not for outward show that the soul is to play its part, but for ourselves within, where no eyes can pierce but our own; there she defends us from the fear of death, of pain, of shame itself” — Michel de Montaigne, 1580
A sense of shame is the mirror image of a sense of honor. If you fall short of your ideal (or the ideal of a community), you feel shame.
If you have a sense of virtue or integrity, that is.
When Horace wrote the third of his Odes in 23 BC, he made it clear that our better angels should triumph over our impulses:
“Virtue, repudiating all base repulse, shines in taintless honors, nor takes nor leaves dignity at the mere will of the vulgar.”
In an ideal world, achieving that level of inner victory would be easy.
In reality, when it comes to our moral responsibility—to our family, our employees, or even our country—there will always be competing forces that require us to make choices.
Choosing to place a family member in childcare (or eldercare) versus keeping them at home is not an easy choice: it involves a financial commitment for the sake of a career or better medical attention than we can provide. Many people struggle with this decision.
Similarly, the decision to lay off a significant portion of employees in order to save an insolvent company is a gut-wrenching one for any CEO (one with a soul, at least). Do they put a percentage of people out of work, or do they prolong the dying breaths of the company until everyone is affected? Either way, there’s pain involved.
As difficult and nuanced as these decisions are, at their core they represent certain dichotomies:
Duty or desire.
Honor or shame.
Virtue or vulgarity.
Accountability or blame.
After the appropriate amount of soul-searching, you’ll need to choose.
And then you should be ready to answer whether or not you have shame.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.