The value of shame in protecting a healthy society…

…or, “strangeness in Franklin’s email yesterday.”

So. My Web site generates rather a lot of email, some of which tells me I’m going to hell, some of which is incoherent and relentlessy bizarre, but most of which is quite positive.

And then there’s this one, that just arrived:

Came across your website (, and had a strong reaction. I hope you might be interested. This is not your ordinary “you will burn in hell” flame mail.

You have revealed a great deal of yourself online–far more than any properly modest person would do (but you do not regard modesty as a virtue)–and my reaction to that is to analyze and critique what you have revealed. I’m embarrassed, even mortified for you. If ever you actually find a little more wisdom, I think you will look back at your online missives with utter horror for the rest of your life. But of course, stubborn fools die all the time.

The fact that you do not understand how mortifying it is to have so much of yourself, and of your friends, on display is very indicative to me. Once upon a time was nearly as self-revealing as you are, and so I’m motivated to offer you some unsolicited advice.

Your openness about yourself shows more clearly than anything else could that you believe that you are morally “in the clear.” That there’s nothing wrong with you or the way you live. For someone as arrogant as you are, I know that moralizing will not impress or help you in the slightest. The only thing that has a chance of helping you, actually, is a combination of intelligent criticism and real, liberal education (not just reading a lot of books).

You’re perfectly aware of your self-confidence. Among your other writings is a revealing section called “Three easy steps to self-confidence.” Self-confidence is in general, of course, a very good thing. But it seems you have confused positive self-confidence with the capacity to turn off your natural feelings of conscience, i.e., the ability to quell healthy and natural self-doubt. In this way, sociopaths are made, cults are born, and civilizations are ruined.

Every page on your webpage also conveys the message that you think you have it all figured out: you’ve thought it all through, and this is how it’s done. Your Polyamory FAQ is a perfect example. You’ve got it all covered. If you answer all the critical questions cleverly, that shows that polyamory as you approach it is morally OK. The trouble, of course, is that your FAQ proves no such thing. Your FAQ is absolutely full of elementary errors of reasoning and fundamental assumptions, which any sufficiently well-educated person could spot instantly. It is a statement of your personal dogma. The only thing it really proves is to me is that you are, underneath the facade you put on for yourself and others, a very confused person.

That’s why I recommend very strongly that you take some time out and get a real liberal education (from other, sane people–at a university) and learn the habit and virtue of self-examination. It’s quite evident both that you really have not learned that habit and that you think you have learned it. You are evidently reflective, and you pride yourself inordinately on that reflective habit. But you must not confuse a habit for reflection and introspection (i.e., self-indulgent navel-gazing, which any teenage girl can do) with a habit for well-informed, critical self-examination. The latter requires wisdom and critical thinking, which requires liberal education. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and you’re an excellent example of why this is so.

Feel free to share this mail with your friends; amuse yourselves with it.”

Now, this is a very interesting piece of email, for a number of reasons. It’s not completely incoherent, but at the same time, I’m having a very difficult time understanding what this guy is saying, aside from the fact that he doesn’t much cotton to folks like me.

He seems to be saying, if I’m reading him correctly, that a deep and abiding sense of personal shame is the only thing that keeps society healthy, and that this deep sense of shame is the result of a proper education. I get the sense that for him, education, privacy, shame, and morality are all connected, and that for him, anyone who is not private both lacks shame and is “confused.”

I also get the sense that there’s a subtext here which suggests that this sense of shame is the only thing which prevents people from behaving unethically. He seems to feel that it’s lack of shame which characterizes a sociopath. (Most psychologists would say that a sociopath is characterized by a lack of empathy and emotional connection with other human beings; I wonder if this person feels that shame and empathy are the same thing, or that one can not connect with others emotionally if one is not shameful.)

An irony here is that he seems to feel a “liberal education” would fix my problems. This is ironic in no small part because I have sex [EDIT: Six! Six years’ worth! Aargh!] years’ worth of college education behind me, much of it a liberal arts education. It’s also ironic because, generally speaking, there is often an inverse correlation between degree of schooling and tendency to adopt socially and religiously conservative views; those who have a liberal education are, statistically speaking, more likely to talk about, and live, in unconventional ways.

Y’know, sometimes I just don’t get the way people think.