As a dabbler of history, I’d like to dedicate this column to Charlie Sheen — the cocaine-overdosing, prostitute-juggling, hotel room-wrecking and rehab-hopping star of “Two and a Half Men” — for, if only by accident, setting a precedent in the history of our public sphere.
On Jan. 27, Sheen was rushed to a hospital for abdominal pains and has, upon leaving, volunteered to enter rehab. Soon, rumors attributed his pain to cocaine-enhanced weekend partying with porn stars; the press was not far behind. Finding the media frenzy over his recent train wreck insufferable, Sheen texted E! Online “BTW, two wars are in an endless state of sorrow. Egypt about burned to the ground, and all you people care about is my bullshit…?” and called the media “pathetic” for intruding on his personal life. “Shame shame shame,” he texted.
And his fans agree: according to a Hollywood Reporter survey of 700 Americans ages 13 to 59 years old taken last week, only 28 percent of men and 42 percent of women said CBS should remove Sheen from the show; 62 percent say the media should leave him alone and 26 percent view Sheen “much more” or “somewhat more” favorably after his recent scandal! “Two and a Half Men” is still CBS’s top-rated Monday program.
Writing a succinct historical narrative is notoriously difficult, with each account relying on a series of semi-arbitrary “levers” — key figures, events, trends — that are deemed significant transitions in history. We privilege the signing of the Declaration of Independence over the minutiae of colonial life because more abstract alternatives are insoluble in the public consciousness. This brings us to Charlie Sheen’s contribution to society; he has secured himself as the symbol of the twilight of shame — shame as a regulatory practice that governs and preens individual behavior — in America.
Less puritanical countries have already dropped the expectation of moral rectitude in their public figures; just compare the rueful apology of Eliot Spitzer to the aloof denial of Nicolas Sarkozy in their response to revelations of extramarital affairs. But America has always been slow on “social progress,” maintaining a public sphere where, up until recently, cultural luminaries apologized, if only with great awkwardness and insincerity, for private misbehavior (see: David Letterman, Tiger Woods). However, the Charlie Sheen fiasco has, with his fierce, obstinate denial of fault and America’s support therewith, inaugurated shame’s dusk in America. This is a man turning the tables on the media’s judgment of his drug-infused downward spiral who, at the same time, has the public’s support. It marks the end of an era.
Shame is also taking a blow in the academy. Martha Nussbaum, one of America’s pre-eminent philosophers, penned “Hiding from Humanity” in 2004, a book arguing that shame and disgust have no place influencing the legal norms of society, advocating their exclusion from the public sphere. For instance, Professor Nussbaum ponders “whether necrophilia ought, in fact, to be illegal”, even if there is “something unpleasant” to the act, because there is nothing “criminal” about it, more a “property violation.” Ironically, Nussbaum’s book came just when shame’s influence on society is beginning to recede.
One of the chief vices or shameful behaviors of today is the act of shaming others for their behavior; shaming is out, meta-shaming is in. “Judgmental” and “intolerant” have become watchwords in the ’00s. Anything between “consenting adults” (such as Sheen’s adventure with drugs and porn stars) is becoming increasingly an inviolable space, argued to be free, in an ideal world, not only from legal regulations but also from judgment and shame.
For many, surely the majority of our generation, the recession of shame from our public and legal sphere constitutes a progressive step toward the civil libertarian utopia enjoyed by our brethrens in Europe, where the Portuguese freely enjoy cocaine and 39 percent of Spanish men have visited a prostitute at least once (really). However, if you believe that humanity is not completely rational but regulated by a myriad of sentiments, the decline of shame may mean a concomitant moral decay.
“We do not assent to our moral beliefs by admitting ‘this is true,’ but by feeling guilty if we fail to comply with them,” opines the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, for whom abiding by morality is “an act of questioning one’s own status in the cosmic order, … an anxiety following a transgression not of a law but of a taboo.” Of course, taboos and laws share a symbiotic relationship, each supporting the other. With the divorce of laws from taboos, rules that assign certain acts as shameful, and its corollary conception of some cosmic order, we lose the sense that our laws are bound by some sacred sense of things that our sentiment reveals to us.
This is dangerous because, as Kolakowski says, “When culture loses its sacred sense, it loses all sense. With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposes limits on the perfection that can be attained by secular society, one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization arises — the illusion that there are no limits to the changes we can undergo, that society is an endlessly flexible thing subject to the arbitrary whims of our creative capacities.” Then again, Kolakowski, a survivor of Soviet Poland, may just be a worrywart.
Whatever your beliefs, progressive or conservative, we should celebrate the iconoclasm of Charlie Sheen for revealing, for better or for worse, the state of shame in America. Here’s to you, Charlie Sheen.
Yichao Hao is a first-year economics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.