July 01, 2015

Shame and Integrity


"Men cannot live without Shame. A sense of Shame is beginning of Integrity. "
- Mencius(Chinese Philosopher)

"The Downfall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden" by Michelangelo

I recently attended a course on Ethics conducted by a top bureaucrat with close to four decades of field-experience. Among many things that we expatiated on, we spoke about the behavior of Terrorists. 'How to deal with Terrorists' is a question that most Governments and bureaucrats grapple with. Terrorists have no sense of their own lives and are ready to give up their lives for some cause that they believe in (let us not get into the merits or demerits of the cause). When a person is not afraid of his own life, which means that the person would hardly be interested in money or anything else either, then dealing with that person is an extremely tough proposition. It is a negotiation nightmare. No wonder some countries have a strict no-negotiation-policy with terrorists and have a clear and well-defined tit-for-tat strategy!

Post the course I was intrigued by this brief conversation and drew some parallels to how some have to face other forms of challenges in the cities that we live in. In the comforts of our houses we hardly think about the changing societal structures and the values that are being espoused. The increasing attitude of shamelessness has caught my attention and it is incredible how this simple value of 'shame' has far-reaching consequences. 

Somewhere along our evolution and the society's progress we seem to have stumbled on a notion that being shameless is 'cool'. Off late, being shameless is conceived as the new 'cool' and the very thought of this sends the chill across my spine. 

'Shame' is a moral emotion. This is not hereditary (not passed on by genes), but an acquired emotion. You acquire these emotional values by looking around those who are close to you. Parents, friends, relatives, teachers, supervisors and culture - all are integral in building up this important virtue.

Parents, being closest to the children, hence have to espouse highest levels of integrity by inculcating good values and ethics in their children. If you lie and cheat in front of children, it is but natural that the child also sees the action, and grows with it. And it is invariably true that the child also forgets that he/she has a conscience and goes berserk on the society.

Shame and Guilt see the Self as an object of evaluation and makes the self conscious of its own actions. Both Shame and Guilt are extremely potent motivators and powerful inhibitors. These acquired emotions can make you do things that you were otherwise were not planning to do; and it can also make you think and not do certain acts for the repercussions of the act. Like the way fear and greed go hand in hand, Shame and Guilt go hand-in-hand with Integrity. For, a person with highest levels of Integrity will be extremely sensitive to shame and guilt and hence will not do any acts which will cause him/her a downfall. People with Shame and Guilt are extremely sensitive to their Conscience.

So, how does one deal with a person who has no concept of shame or guilt, and hence no Integrity? The best thing is not to deal with them. If they want to make you play their nasty game, do not play the game - walk away. Stay away from them at all costs and do not let them interfere with your lives. 

It is but natural that it is not easy as it sounds to not to play the game or ignore, for sometimes, one cannot easily walk away. In such cases, be nice and always nice to them.  Be compassionate; ignoring them is one of the best strategies and having enough safeguards in your life to not let the others affect your happiness -- is one of the most critical. Do not sacrifice your value-systems and ethics for the shameless and the cheats.

“My father had taught me to be nice first, because you can always be mean later, but once you've been mean to someone, they won't believe the nice anymore.
So be nice, be nice, until it's time to stop being nice, then destroy them.”
-- Laurell K. Hamilton, A Stroke of Midnight
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