Nov. 12, 1997 Writer: Steve Orlando
Source: James B. Twitchell, (352) 392-6650
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- What led people as recently as the 1960s to hang their heads -- divorce, children born out of wedlock, failure to pay off debts -- has given way to shame ‘90s style: wearing furs, smoking in public, eating red meat and failing to recycle, a University of Florida professor writes in a new book.
Shame still exists in American culture, but the things people get red-faced about have changed considerably during the past generation, said James B. Twitchell, a UF English professor and author of "For Shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture," which is scheduled to arrive in bookstores this week. One major culprit, he says: the advertising industry.
"I was teaching a class in advertising, and I began to notice that through the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s shame was used to sell a whole strange variety of things -- house paint, cough drops, gasoline," he said. "Then I noticed that in the past 15 years there's been a change. People don't sell that way anymore."
Twitchell, who also wrote the 1995 book "Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture," says companies now must try to woo consumers who can simply click the remote if what they're watching makes them feel bad about themselves.
Twitchell also points a finger at what he calls "shamelebrities" -- people with a history suitable for a spot in the hall of shame but who instead earn a book deal and a spot on the talk show circuit.
Among the more well-known shamelebrities he cites are Watergate co-conspirator-turned-radio-personality G. Gordon Liddy, John Wayne Bobbitt of severed-member fame, Iran-Contra figure Oliver North, former presidential adviser Dick Morris, figure skater Tonya Harding and Long Island auto repairman Joey Buttafuoco.
At the other end of the spectrum are the shamelebrity wanna-bes -- what Twitchell describes as "the barely literate trailer-park types who come forward [on afternoon talk shows] to recount their own tales of egregious behavior."
"We love to watch shameless people," he said. "Shameless people are entertaining."
The change in the nature of American shame has had far-reaching consequences, he said, not the least of which has been the decline of the nuclear family. "One of the things that keeps men in the family is the shame of departure, and that has virtually evaporated," Twitchell said.
One thing that has helped people avoid at least one type of shame is technology, specifically the Internet, said Dan Kahan, a law professor at the University of Chicago who also studies shame and has written several articles on the subject.
For instance, he said, pornography not only is abundant -- and frequently free -- on the World Wide Web, it also allows people to avoid the risk of being seen buying it in public.
On the other hand, Kahan said, technology is a double-edged sword that can be useful in areas such as criminal justice and law enforcement. He cited the example of a Midwestern city that recently began posting on the Web the names of men convicted of trying to pick up prostitutes.
"Shame is all around us," he said, "and what's more, it's a resource we can exploit."
While the changing nature of shame so far seems to be peculiarly American, Twitchell says it likely will spread to other nations, surfing on the wake of popular American culture.
"I think wherever television goes, which is all over the world, the reshifting of shame will soon follow," Twitchell said. "I don't see this as necessarily nefarious. I see this as the inevitable result of a commercial culture whose central focus is feeling good."
The irony that he is a member of the postwar generation he holds partly responsible for the decline of shame isn't lost on Twitchell.
"When it comes to shame," he writes in the book's preface, "I confess that I have become a graybeard, a bluestocking ... As a baby boomer, I know I should be ashamed of this, and oddly enough, to a degree, I am."
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