Friday, October 30, 2009

Stumbling on Shame

The details are not important, but this week I had a schadenfreude moment. A person I do not care for was in a awkward position that he would have a hard time explaining to himself except to wonder whether his status was as high as he things. In my office while smiling to myself -- only slightly -- I also realized that this feeling of happiness at his misfortune was not such a good thing. I also realized that I finally understood what shame is. It is not taking pleasure from having felt pleasure about something else. If it comes into play when you can control what you do -- stealing a piece of candy, telling a lie -- you may not do whatever it is. (When people lack it we may put them in jail.) In the case of schadenfreude where the good feeling is more or less trust upon you, I am not sure what happens. You feel the shame but you can hardly undo your initial sensation or even change whether you will feel it again.

If I think only about the controllable actions and the role of shame it seems obvious the lack of joy one feels about having felt joy is unequally distributed. (Note that joy here is describe more in absolute terms in that joy may just lowering the level of unhappiness.) Not feeling it at all gives one enormous freedom. This blog is typically about the elite and their sense of entitlement. It seems likely if not dead on true that a sense of entitlement is closely related to the inability to sense that you should not feel joy even though you do.

This a long wind up for noting that many law professors are shameless. Those that are, take all joy at face value. This comes with that sense of entitlement. All joy is deserved to these people. Let give some examples.

This week is the annual AALS beauty contest at which generally privileged people decide which younger, generally privileged people will get to be law teachers. Committees attending the conference pass over hundreds of incredible talented people who are distinguished only by names of the schools they attended. In short, the committees make choices that have more to do with justifying their own status than a serious assessment of the impact on students and others who pay for legal education. This will feel "right" and "good" and this sense of accomplishment will go unquestioned as in "have I taken pleasure in something that is actually quite selfish, even lazy."

Similarly this applies to the all out pursuit of self interest one often sees on law faculties (and maybe others as far as I know). People have to teach only certain days and certain courses and not too many students and at certain times. All of these come without any sense that the outcome may be negative for others. Thus, the shame button, even if it exists for these people, is not pushed.

The "if it gives me pleasure it must be right" mentality explains a great deal of lying or reshaping reality. For example, suppose you feel an obligation to reciprocate when someone has had you to dinner. Not really wanting to have her over, you invite her for a Saturday night when you have a strong hunch she cannot come. You might do this but also feel you are a bit of a louse for experiencing the sense of relief you feel. You feel shame.

Far scarier are the people who do this and feel no shame. A friend tells me this story. At her University two or three professors from each college are given awards based on the Dean's recommendation. There are only two awards. The dean can rank as many people as she likes but only the top two or three will receive the awards. He rated her last of ten and, of course, she did not get the award. Maybe the outcome was the right one maybe it was not. That is not the point. In any case, when they spoke about it later his version of the story was "I recommended your for the award." He forgot to add that he also knew she could not come to dinner that night.

It's clearly one thing to know you are doing something wrong, even if you do it and another to feel no shame at all.

Based on what I have seen in law teaching, the capacity to feel shame is comparable to a disability. It can hold a person back unfairly.

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