As a boy growing up in NC during the 1950’s, I learned the power of a few biting phrases or words used by my mother and other adults. A single mother of six, Flora A. Barbee knew how to use a privet switch, but her words offered a stronger correction for bad behavior. Her use of the word “shame” carried force. “Shame on you”, was used to draw attention to a transgression involving deeds or words. Another rebuke was that probing question, “Have you no shame?” which placed all the responsibility for a misstep where it belonged—on my young shoulders. My mother, like so many other adults of that era, had a good command of what was called “The King’s English” which carried power without being vulgar.
The shame I am writing of is that of the noun, not the verb. The verb form, as any one knows who has had that frightful dream of being naked in a crowd, is of no use in changing behavior as is the noun. To be shamed serves, in my view, little worth except to emphasize inequalities. That type of shame is external. The internal shame is what changes behavior.
I have been thinking of shame recently, especially when I read the report concerning Davidson College’s graduate Greg Murphy, who is a U.S. Representative, and his comments concerning Senator Kamala Harris. During the Vice-Presidential debate on October 7, Murphy tweeted: [Kamala Harris] “is a walking disaster…she was only picked for her color and her race. Is that how we pick our leaders now in America?”
Other graduates of Davidson asked that the college issue comments concerning Murphy who has been honored by Davidson and served on its board of trustees. Obviously, the college, a non-profit, is prohibited from commenting on a political candidate, which Murphy is.
I appreciate the position of Davidson concerning the racist, cowardly rant of one of its graduates. But what can it do in such a situation except issue a standard-bearing comment like the one its president did? I suggest, however, that the college can take a powerful stand against such beliefs by refusing to accept donations from Murphy, not naming him to any board, and continuing to speak out for justice by its actions. When a small, private college refuses funds, that sends a statement much like the question of my mother: “Have you no shame?” It is asking the wannabe Wildcat (Davidson’s mascot) to self-examine his or her words and acts. It is a question that is almost the worse act against a member of the tribe—exile. It is an act forcing the offender to go away for a while and ponder his action. It requires responsibility beyond deleting words from screens.
Words carry weight by what they represent and acts they cause. Yet, our ears are assaulted by vulgar words in print, on screen, and on television. Our shame is non-existent and its lack enables the cowardly a place to hide and do their evil.