A sense of sincere shame or chagrin may be a deterrent to boorish behavior and a blessing in disguise when heeded. Yet rationalization often replaces remorse in a society that sees more and more relinquishing of responsibility for dirty deeds - starting at the top.
At an April 30 press conference, President Clinton said "I can't" or "I won't" at least a dozen times while responding to questions about his alleged relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Washington Post columnist David Broder called his evasive bobbing and weaving on this and so many other occasions a "corroding effect caused by his systematic evasion of responsibility."Godfrey Sperling of the Christian Science Monitor, writing about the same event, compared Clinton with escape-artist Harry Houdini, whom he had seen as a boy. "But whereas I had been delightfully entertained by the real Houdini, I was saddened at that press conference by Clinton's unwillingness to answer questions that related directly to his truthfulness - and credibility."
You would think at some point, as evidence of personal misdeeds piles higher than windows in the Lincoln Bedroom, a blushing Clinton would depart Washington quietly in the middle of the night for Little Rock or points south. But he and his merry band play on through at last count seven investigations by special prosecutors, seemingly oblivious to worldwide scorn they spin in their favor.
Perhaps only Saddam Hussein's administration is currently operating under a darker moral cloud.
As many have pointed out with incredulity, the worse things get for the president, the higher his approval rating rises. The more shameless you are, the more people like you - and the more talk-show bookings you land. Do he and others like him have no semblance of self-respect?
Though an innocent occurrence in retrospect, especially by today's standards, my first taste of public humiliation is still vivid but led to changed conduct. One wonders if such incidents, large or small, still deter bad behavior in today's desensitized society?
Our kindergarten class was buzzing with excitement. The teacher had made life-size Raggedy Ann and Andy stuffed dolls to help students learn some sort of socialization skills. They had bright-red hair of yarn, blue eyes, huge happy smiles and were larger than we were.
Several of us were seated at a table with the doll couple, when a boyish instinct to show off inexplicably took over. It certainly was an abnormality, a blip on an otherwise clean screen of sterling citizenship.
Jumping up, I grabbed Andy by the hair and started skipping around the room, dragging him roughly along. A livid Mrs. Stevenson (Stephenson, Steffensen?) quickly restored order.
"Michael Cannon, you put him down right now before I grab you by the hair (still possible then) and drag you around the classroom," she snarled.
It wasn't just what was said, but how she said it. She was truly ticked off, red-faced with bulging neck veins. A dedicated teacher obviously had put in hours creating Ann and Andy, and now some little twerp was dragging her handiwork around the room mocking it. Bad move.
The other kids, who had of course been laughing, bailed out in a hurry and suddenly stared at me like I had a bad case of head lice. Red faced, humiliated and blinking back tears, I gently returned Andy to his place and slinked back to the table. It was a mortifying moment.
To her credit, after she calmed down, Mrs. Stevenson later let me know we were still pals. She sent me to the kitchen to pick up milk for the class in a show of detente. But hers was a stinging rebuke still vividly remembered. A public flogging could not have gotten the message through with greater clarity.
Watching youths and adults some 35 years later, I wonder how many have become calloused to such public pressure to behave. You see many kids without conscience and disgraced leaders without remorse "talking back" literally and figuratively to those who would correct them.
Chicago Bulls' Dennis Rodman makes millions through profane performances on and off the court while people pack arenas to see his shtick. Other "bad boys" - and girls - who attract widespread attention and big bucks through bizarre behavior are too numerous to mention.
Now we have Oregon's Bob Packwood, the comeback kid, promising to run for that state's Legislature in the year 2000. After resigning in disgrace three years ago over accusations of sexual misconduct and efforts to cover them up, he feels a new lease on political life in today's carefree climate where anything goes.
At this moment, a cadre of lecherous lawyers (not the majority) is preparing litigation strategy for the Year 2000 computer problem in anticipation of multimilliondollar damage lawsuits. Some attorneys involved fear the lack of human victims will make it difficult to glean huge settlements from juries and judges. But there is broad agreement that no matter how severe Y2K glitches are, a sizable gaggle of lawyers will find reason to sue. Noted one, "There's too big of a jackpot here" to miss out on.
No sense of shame there. In government, business, entertainment and on the street, outrageous is in. The more disgraceful the deed, the better it seems to play - and the greater audience it attracts and dollars it reaps.
We have come a long way collectively from our mortification over careless dancing with dolls 35 years ago. Sinking standards of behavior, integrity and language - particularly among political leaders and other public figures - should induce a collective sense of embarrassment that leaves us all red-faced.