Thought for the Day - Clifford Longley

Good morning.

We have been watching what happens when “naming and shaming” catches up with tabloid journalism. Good tabloid journalists - and I use the term “good” only descriptively - understand what it is that makes their readers indignant or angry. Paradoxically, because they exist to feed that appetite, that makes them experts on grassroots public morality. They probably know more about it than your average bishop.

Shame plays a central role in that morality. It conveys public disapproval, and the dishonour that comes with it. Note, though, that what people regard as shameful can vary over the years. Once upon a time, homosexuality, divorce, and what used to be called unmarried motherhood and illegitimacy, were all regarded as utterly shameful.

You could be excluded from polite society, and in some cases even sent to prison, for infringing one of these conventions. That is where we get the lingering idea that sex is dirty, which to some people is still half the fun. Permissiveness and prurience seem to go together, which is something else the tabloids instinctively understand. While celebrity romps with celebrity in their secret love-nest and both are duly named and shamed on page 2, some bold beauty bares her assets on page 3.

It is fashionable to blame all this hypocrisy on religion in general, but it is more likely to be a hangover from a particularly Victorian puritanism. Their morals were based largely on Christianity, certainly, but that is true of other societies that have been a lot less straight-laced about sex. God is not a self-righteous puritan.

It is a striking fact that, judging by things like teenage pregnancy rates, sexual transgressions are more common in the god-fearing Southern American Bible Belt than in, say, relatively godless - but still puritanical - Massachusetts.

Shame is also to do with social control. The powers-that-be saw that defence of the established political order was closely bound up with keeping people in line in their private lives. They feared that sexual anarchy could lead to anarchy per se. Indeed, political revolutions are often followed by a period of shameless sexual licentiousness, as if the revolutionaries have said to themselves: “We’ve broken one set of rules so might as well break the rest.”

At its best, shame reinforces social pressures like stigma and taboo to protect and preserve what is precious in family life. It supports unwritten moral and social conventions - discouraging one partner from being unfaithful to the other, for instance, and warning third parties not to intrude into private family business. Shame, stigma and taboo are the horizontal cultural pressures keeping us in line, correcting us when we deviate. Far better that than a set of rules written by Government, and imposed from above, vertically, by police or judges. Shame works. In recent weeks we’ve seen it doing so. I hope they remember that when they reform media regulation.

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