Shame, Political Accountability, and the Ethical Life of Politics: Critical Exchange on Jill Locke’s Democracy and the Death of Shame and Mark E. Button’s Political Vices

Published date01 June 2019
Date01 June 2019
Subject MatterCritical Exchange
Political Theory
2019, Vol. 47(3) 391 –408
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591718762402
Critical Exchange
Shame, Political
Accountability, and the
Ethical Life of Politics:
Critical Exchange on Jill
Locke’s Democracy and
the Death of Shame and
Mark E. Button’s Political
Democracy and the Death of Shame:
Political Equality and Social Disturbance
by Jill Locke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Mark E. Button
University of Utah
Jill Locke’s thought-proving book is dedicated to understanding the meaning and
political significance of the familiar lamentation that “shame is dead.” Shame, of
course, is not dead (or capable of dying); instead, as Locke persuasively argues,
public outcries about the death of shame “functions as ideology, speech act, and
shaming practice all at once” (21). As Locke shows over the course of chapters
ranging from Ancient Athens, to revolutionary France, to America in both the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “the lament that shame is dead” (or “The
Lament,” for short) has characterized a great deal of moral and political discourse
over the centuries. The cross-temporal persistence of “The Lament” provides
intriguing historical testimony concerning both the enduring allure of shame as a
weapon in political battle and to the contested ethical standards and codes of
conduct that shame is otherwise supposed to secure through threats of exposure,
stigma, and public humiliation. Shame is a hard thing to love, and Locke’s pen-
etrating critique of the political history of shaming practices makes it even harder
to have positive feelings for this negative moral emotion.
Locke defines shame as a “felt ethic of obligation and regulation that
involves an actual or internalized audience that judges one’s thoughts and acts
in terms of their relationship to norms or standards that one shares (or is
expected to share) with others” (19; emphasis in the original). Given this defi-
nition, our reflective (second-order) judgments about the value and propriety
762402PTXXXX10.1177/0090591718762402Political TheoryCritical Exchange
392 Political Theory 47(3)
of shame will hinge on the ethical and political status of the norms and stan-
dards that shame regulates (a point I will return to below). Locke’s central
argument is that when we critically probe the lament that shame is dead and
examine the targets of the shaming practices that the lament mobilizes, we
find that shame is often directed at people seeking moral equality and political
standing within historic conditions marked by domination, exclusion, and
marginalization along lines of gender, class, race, and sexuality. “The Lament”
is indeed a dirge, but properly or politically understood, it is the noisy and self-
serving soundtrack that elites routinely play as they lose—after extensive
social and political struggle—some of their controlling power over the lives of
others. Accordingly, on Locke’s telling, nostalgic arias about the death of
shame should be revalued as the joyful sounds that accompany “unashamed
citizens” striving to build a world of substantive political equality. This his-
torical account translates into a forceful normative argument for the present
day: political theorists and political actors who are committed to advancing
democracy and human equality should stop enlisting shame in these endeav-
ors. In the domain of politics, we should largely eschew our moral hand-
wringing about shame because it is at once a tainted tool of the powerful
against egalitarian causes, over-determined by fantasies of moral certainty and
consensus, and guilty of confusing a dream of moral awakening with the
actual work of political struggle.
Democracy and the Death of Shame repays careful reading as a contribu-
tion to both intellectual history and normative democratic theory. Locke
examines the use and abuse of shame as a disciplinary technique of power
within historical moments otherwise marked by efforts to expand the mean-
ing and scope of democracy: during the French Revolution, the Jacksonian
period in American history, and the US civil rights movement. Locke also
dedicates a chapter to Diogenes the Cynic—a kind of early performative art-
ist of “shamelessness”—in a chapter that melds historical investigation and
critical discussion of the modern reception of the ancient Cynics with the
normative defense of a model of political activism that does not bow to pre-
established configurations of citizenship, virtue, or manners. Where other
scholars have sought to align Socrates with the spirit of democracy against
the judgments of his contemporaries, Locke seeks to redeem Diogenes for the
embodied practice of democracy against a long list of his detractors, both
ancient (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero) and contemporary (Raymond Geuss and
Peter Euben). For Locke, Diogenes—a “Socrates gone mad”—is an exem-
plar of “unashamed citizenship” or “good” shamelessness: someone whose
experience of shaming practices by others motivates (among other things) an
agonistic democratic politics that is critical of existing social and economic

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