One of the turning points of McCarthyism in America was a famous phrase uttered by the chief counsel of the United States army, Joseph Welch, during the Army-McCarthy hearings. Frustrated with Joseph McCarthy’s vicious attacks casting aspersion on a young lawyer working for Welch, he made an iconic statement that would later be seen as a turning point in the history of McCarthyism. Interrupting McCarthy’s renewed attack, he said, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
These biting words effectively ended McCarthy’s career. While he was addressing McCarthy, Welch was, in fact, speaking to the entire American public. How you no sense of decency? How far would the nation allow the national witch hunt for Communist sympathizers to go?
Appealing to the nation’s shame, Welch struck a chord that ten years of protests against McCarthy did not. Overnight, McCarthy’s popularity plummeted and he was ostracized by his own party. He died three years later, only 48 yrs old.
I was reminded of this incident recently when reading a news story about a 32 year old man drowning in a lake as a group of teenagers laughed while filming him. As the disabled father of two shouted for help, the teenagers taunted him until he finally drowned. As he disappeared under the water, they erupted with glee, “He just died.”
Have you no sense of decency?
No one argues that “decency” is a bad thing. It is universally accepted as a positive character trait. But what many people gloss over and ignore is that the very concept of decency exists, by necessity, in tandem with the concept of shame. One can not exist without the other. And while everyone accepts that decency is a good concept, modern society negatively characterizes shame.
A few decades after the famous Welch-McCarthy incident, the American author and de-facto theologian John Bradshaw wrote a book that began the modern demonization of shame. Titled Healing the Shame That Binds You, the book unexpectedly took its place as a historic bestseller. The core message many people took from this book was simple: shame is bad. Shame should be avoided. A new cardinal sin of modern society emerged: making someone feel ashamed of themselves. Rather than push people to a moral standard of decency, a new ethos was formed. Be authentic. Be yourself. Don’t change for anyone or anything. Don’t let anything make you feel ashamed of who you are. And since shame and decency exist in tandem, an expected side effect emerged. By letting go of shame, we also let go of decency.
Shame is not pleasant. It is painful. It is nauseating. It is repulsive and it is distressing.
And it is necessary.
There is an interesting human disease caused by a mutation in a sodium channel found in your cell’s plasma membrane called SCN9A. People with this mutation are unable to experience pain. They maintain their ability to feel the sensation of touch but are physically incapable of feeling pain. This sounds like an amazing ability but in reality, it is considered an extremely dangerous condition. Most people born with this disease, called congenital analgesia, never make it past childhood.
Why is congenital analgesia considered a dangerous disease and not a real-world superpower? The answer is that just like shame, pain is necessary. It is not pleasant. It can be distressing. It can be troubling. It can be bitter. But it is necessary to experience physical pain in order to mature. Children with congenital analgesia have trouble learning how to chew, often biting off their tongue because they feel no pain when they chew incorrectly. They break their bones and then carry on, never realizing the bone is fractured and healing improperly. They let infections fester, not being bothered by the typical signs of sickness that other children suffer from. They never develop the instinct of jerking away from hot objects, resulting in numerous burn injuries.
Shame is the same. Someone growing up in a society without shame is growing up with the equivalent of a dangerous disease. Physical pain is important not because it teaches us that we need to numb ourselves from pain, but because it teaches us that we need to live a life where we avoid doing things that cause physical pain. Similarly, shame is important because it teaches us that we need to live a life where we avoid doing those things that cause us shame. If that feeling is missing, a person can do anything and everything without any hesitation. A mutation in our spiritual SCN9A if you will.
Shame exists in the gap between who you are and who Allah ﷻ has ordered you to be. That disparity drives you to be a better person.
You should feel ashamed when a needy person walks in front of you and you turn the other away.
You should feel ashamed when you stay up so late at night that you miss Fajr the next day.
You should feel ashamed when the tight clothes you wear attract the attention of your female coworkers.
You should feel ashamed when you look longingly at a bottle of beer.
You should feel ashamed when you flirt back with a girl in your college class.
You should feel ashamed when you quietly look the other way as a Muslim sister is harassed for her hijab.
Shame is spiritual pain. Shame occurs when something you do conflicts with a moral or ethical standard you hold yourself to. You don’t need to come to terms with who you are. You don’t need to learn to accept yourself. The opposite, in fact. Shame will propel you to change your behavior, to change your habits, to even change your identity, until it is in accordance with your values. Take away shame and the opposite will inevitably happen. You will change your values until they are in accordance with your behavior, habits, and identity. It will always be one or the other. The constant tension between your actions and your standards will eventually cause a resolution. Either you will begin to close the gap by changing your actions until they are in conformity with your values or you will begin to disparage the values until you no longer feel they are worth being a standard to live up to.
All of this is summed up by the Prophet ﷺ in an eloquent sentence:
إنَّ مِمَّا أَدْرَكَ النَّاسُ مِنْ كَلَامِ النُّبُوَّةِ الْأُولَى: إذَا لَمْ تَسْتَحِ فَاصْنَعْ مَا شِئْت
“Verily, that which has reached the people from the sayings of early prophethood is this: if you feel no shame, then do whatever you wish.” (Bukhari)
We ask Allah ﷻ to make us men who have shame and decency.