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Ari Halbkram is an entertainment and business brand consultant, A&R manager, podcaster, filmmaker, and writer. Visit his site to learn more.

The Age of Shame and Reason

Originally published on Medium:

It’s been a really tough week, but I can’t imagine what you’re going through…,”

Many of my most caring friends have shared this thought with me as this week continues to drag out with swastikas and arm-salutes on every TV and screen. I’m not sure if it’s due to my Judaism, my deep passion for the morality of our species, or some combination of the two.

My response tends to be this kind of unengaged, “Yeah…,” and then we exchange a news item, and then we move on to other topics.

I don’t mean to sound disinterested or disingenuous, because I’m not either of those things, but I’m numb from the billion microemotions I’m having in my head lately, and I can’t seem to reorganize them into a thought. Also…hatred is just boring. It’s played out. It’s easy, and effortless; it turns the mind to mush, and it dulls the edges of everything with a vignette of murk and sludge.

Mostly, I’m just not surprised. It’s not new to me. I wrote a piece earlier this year about the life of a Jew in America, and I re-read it the other day because I was curious to see if it felt more relevant after the white nationalist-centric murder of a woman two years my junior who was trying to lend a voice to the downtrodden. Re-reading it this time felt terrifying. It turns out that I’ve carried some anger about the hatred and violence I’ve faced as a Jew in America and this was another stark reminder.

I was scanning Twitter about a month ago and came across a re-tweeted item where the original poster had written about a politician whom she’d found lacking, calling him a degenerate and saying that all of Twitter should SHAME HIM! Somewhere in my mind, a glass broke.

Shame him? We’re embracing shame now? Shame — that emotion we all ran away from in our school-aged youth, and have run from ever since? 
Shame — the emotion that has pushed mine and future generations to hide behind devices and separate from the real world at even the hint of uncertainty, desperation, eagerness, and fear of rejection?

Shame is the emotion that, as children, guided our moral compass and proved our maturation. When a less evolved classmate attempted to shame a member of your cohort, you found out which kids were made of real stuff by the group that stepped forward and used their voices to decimate the shamer. The act of shaming a person has only one mirror image: the act of kindness. Which side of that equation do you want to be on?

Today, it seems, shame is a more insidious weapon. Once the glass broke, I heard and read and saw shame EVERYWHERE. And the funny thing is that the more you encounter it, the more you realize how archaic and outdated it is. Just like hatred, shame is boring. It’s old. We don’t need it anymore. Shame! is a word you associate with tarring and feathering. Shame! feels parochial, and moth-bally, and stale. Sure, sometime a kid would defend their friend from a bully by bullying back, but that only proved that the protector hadn't yet reached their potential.

More importantly, shame creates a victim, and victims feel disenfranchised, regardless of their moral superiority or on which side of history they fall. Disenfranchisement is a devious and dangerous thing in an age of rage-voting, retweeting and a loss of objectivity in the media we consume. No act of violence was ever committed by a person who felt included.

I am, in no way, trying to excuse or defend violent people — nationalist and others — nor am I letting them off the hook. I’m simply saying that each side believes they are in the right, and it’s worth it to point out that the greatest villains believed themselves to be the heroes of their own stories. Villains don’t know they’re villains until it’s too late; that’s the very hubris of villany. And while so many people seem to be fighting a battle of moral relativism these days, we must remember that shame is a doomsday device that guarantees mutually assured destruction.

Never before in the entire history of humanity have we had as much access to information, yet it’s become so overloaded that we’ve started doubting science, history, news, and each other. Every one of us, who at one time was given information by a source that was trained to cultivate it, now exists in an echo chamber; dark, all-encompassing, and impervious to outside ideas. Our social media feeds are bogged down by our selection of friends, family, outlets and opinions, which in even the most liberal circles means that pluralism is never on the menu. Everything is biased to match our biases, and when one truth collides with another, the result is name calling, rudeness, soundbyte regurgitation and vulgarity. And that’s how we treat the folks we actually know! To the celebrities and politicians and public figures we consume through a limited word count, we dole out a heaping helping of Shame!

What if we doled out a helping of perspective? What if, instead of vommiting headlines, and memes, and media devoid of context or subtlety or nuance, in a futile attempt to “win” a morally empty sense of moral superiority, we engage in the art of conversation — about our cultures, and experiences, and histories, and peoples? Conversations that aren't full of irony, or self-importance, or ego; or jokes that kinda, sorta toe the line of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, but it’s cool ‘cause I’m not racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or terrified of Muslims. Let’s step outside, rub our eyes, and remember what it’s like to have civil discussions in broad daylight, with people who don’t necessarily share our beliefs. Let’s remember that our civilization is supposed to have the dimension of plurality, not the separateness of division.

I know we’re all angry and outraged, this much is clear. We take the most angry and frustrated and inconvenienced parts of our days and rush to devices to complain about them all the time. I know that it’s exhausting to have seen so many people suffer the hardship of the high road, and it’s excruciating to those who’ve walked the high road themselves. We’re furious, and tired, and sick of this nonsense. This can be a powerful recipe for action and activism, and it should be. I’m also suggesting we incorporate some action and activism of reason, discussion, healthy debate, and kindness. Instead of jumping to Shame! or a total rejection of different opinions, what if we sought reason and commonality and mutual respect for our differences?

Should outdated statues come down? Perhaps. I’m inclined to say, yes. But rather than swiftly eliminate them all-together, let’s first talk about why we’re taking them down, if for no other reason than we have a new generation to teach. Let’s remember that it’s not actually possible to rewrite history — that’s how history works. Let’s quote books, and art, and literature. Let’s ask our elders to tell us their stories, not because we can get a headline out of it or use it as a viral video to spread our echo, but because when we’re face-to-face with living history, we truly learn things about ourselves.

We better learn these things quickly, because we have children watching — if we can’t speak with each other, we will doom them to fight battles of bloodlines and nationalism and superiority with no end in sight.

If that is to be our legacy, then we truly are the the shameful ones. Wouldn’t it be something really incredible — wouldn’t it actually prove superiority — if we engaged more in pluralism and held ourselves individually accountable to learn, teach, and grow? Remember that humans had never traveled past the speed of sound until we pushed to break a limit.

Reject the echo and embrace the sonic boom.