Zuma, Trump and the absence of shame

Shame isn’t a lekke’ emotion to feel. It indicates that you have fallen short of your own standards. Alternatively, feeling shame can also indicate that you recognise you are falling short of social standards.

A man called in to my radio show the other day, his voice heavy with shame. He had cheated on his partner, and had just found out that the woman he had cheated with is now pregnant. He had left work a short while earlier, drenched in guilt, driving around aimlessly, listening to the radio, and in desperation called our resident shrink, Dr Helgo Schomer, for advice.

This man recognised that he fell short of social standards of decency. He cheated and he is now caught in a complex web of lies, deceit and heartache.

He was ashamed of himself. He knew there was a gap between his better self and his disappointing self.

Shame is an emotion many of us feel and display. It is all too human. Pallo Jordan went into self-imposed exile after being busted for pretending to have a doctoral degree when, in fact, he has no formal tertiary qualifications. His moral sins were multiplied when he tried to bury the truth by attempting, unsuccessfully, to corrupt the journalist who exposed the whole sordid scandal.

Jordan was, I hope, ashamed of himself and that occasioned the self-imposed temporary exile from the public space.

Our lives are filled with examples of gigantic shame and small shame, from the revered freedom fighter who turns out to have been a compromised collaborator with the apartheid state now wallowing in shame after the complicity came to light to the mundane, such as a friend discovering you spoke ill of them when they entrusted their secrets to you, rendering you naked in your exposed shameful behaviour.

One should not be embarrassed about feeling shame. Shame is an important moral emotion that shows that you are a functioning moral agent. It is good that you have the capacity to feel shame, and that it is an emotion you can feel and exhibit.

If you are not capable of feeling shame, it means that you are less likely to be trusted as a reliable member of the moral community. There is something amoral and functionally dangerous about people who are not capable of feeling shame.

No one is expected to be virtuous every moment of their life. That would be utterly dull and frankly impossible. Life is messy, humans are imperfect — and over the course of a full life you will have exhibited a mix of praiseworthy behaviour and shameful behaviour.

Feeling shame doesn’t mean, of course, you should be let off the hook for messing up. But it is a starting point in a process of self-correcting unacceptable behaviour. That is the core functional value of shame.

I have been thinking about this as I pondered a hysterical response to my previous column on these pages. I had dared to compare South African President Jacob Zuma with United States President Donald Trump. Although there are differences between these lacklustre figures, I argued for the view that both are devious demagogues who are worse than liars.

The South African presidency responded with an incoherent rant, the gist of which was that it is “grotesque” and insulting to compare Zuma with Trump.

No doubt Trump hasn’t heard of Zuma. If he has or when he does, I am sure he too would consider the comparison grotesque and insulting.

Grotesque birds of a feather flock together. Soon, these two birds will spend time together now that Trump has impaired the more traditional friendships the US has until recently enjoyed.

But actually, on reflection, my comparison was indeed thin. The similarities between Trump and Zuma in fact run deeper than I had argued last week. Which brings me to shame, that all-important moral emotion.

Does Trump feel shame? Does Zuma feel shame? Are they capable of self-correction? What goes on in their heads when they are skewered for falling short of standards of decency? Are they capable of recognising that they fall short of the standards of their better selves?

Indeed, do Trump and Zuma even have better selves that can look shamefully on their disappointing selves?

I think not. Whereas that cheating husband could recognise the moral mess he had created, Trump doesn’t see the moral mess of his xenophobic, racist, misogynistic ways. Zuma doesn’t see the moral mess of his looting, wily, misogynistic and securocratic ways.

Jordan could not but run away from judgmental eyes in the public arena, knowing that he has messed up, but Trump and Zuma do not fear judgmental eyes because they do not feel shame.

You cannot do self-imposed exile if you do not recognise when you are falling short of standards of decency. So you stick around, shamelessly, instead.

We are worse off than I thought. Not only do we have in Trump and Zuma two men who do not value truth and who lie with gay abandon, we have two men who are shameless.

Trump and Zuma do not have sleepless nights. That would require a capacity for feeling shame.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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