Shame presupposes that we ought to know better but flout the rules regardless. This is precisely Plato’s point about moral knowledge: we already possess it, we already know the right way to live a just and fulfilling life, but are constantly diverted from that noble aim. For Plato, then, shame is a force that helps us resist the urge to conform when we know it’s wrong to do so. Shame helps us be true to ourselves, to endure Socrates’ needling, and to heed the moral knowledge within. A man without shame, Plato says, is a slave to desire – for material goods, power, fame, respect. Such desire is tyrannical because, by its nature, it cannot be satisfied.That isn't the end of it, the author argues, as an apparently shameless society -- he is thinking of our own -- is really wrapped up in self-censorship instead.
Visibility is a trap,’ wrote the French philosopher Michel Foucault... What he meant was that allowing oneself to be watched, and learning to watch others, is both seductive and dangerous. He drew upon Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century plans for a ‘Panopticon’, a prison in which inmates are observed from a central tower manned by an invisible occupant, his watchful eye seeing but unseen. The idea was that the prisoners would internalise the presence of the spectral watchman, whether or not anyone was actually inside, and behave of their own accord. ‘Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burthens lightened,’ Bentham enthused.If that is right, it's noteworthy that the self-censorship tends to run exactly counter to what Bentham thought would happen (which is generally true with Bentham). People participating on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere certainly do try to present a prettier version of their lives than they really live. But they don't try to hide their sexual longings, say, or their unpopular political opinions.
According to Foucault, the dynamics of the Panopticon bore an uncanny resemblance to how people self-monitor in society at large. In the presence of ever-watchful witnesses, he said, physical coercion is no longer necessary. People police themselves. They do not know what the observers are registering at any given moment, what they are looking for, exactly, or what the punishments are for disobedience. But the imagination keeps them pliant....
So what would Foucault make of the current digital media landscape? In many ways, the modern surveillance state – enabled and expanded thanks to new technologies – is a shining example of the Panopticon.... Foucault’s central claim is that such monitoring is worrisome, not just because of what corporations and states might do with our data, but because the act of watching is itself a devastating exercise of power. It has the capacity to influence behaviour and compel conformity and complicity, without our fully realising it.
But perhaps -- the author suggests -- they are engaged in confession. By confessing themselves of the things they would once have been ashamed of, they find online a community of people who endorse their views and desires. Shame is a social process, and discovering that there is a community that will approve of the things you were ashamed of really is liberating in the sense that it destroys the reason for feeling ashamed. The desires will be endorsed, they will be approved, if not by everyone by a large enough community that you can feel like you've found 'your people.'
That leaves one genuinely shameless. Does it also, then, leave one a slave to desire -- as Plato feared? Liberation from one thing means slavery to another, is that it? Or is there a road of genuine freedom to be found here?