Newsletter 117: The Horrifying Power of Shamelessness

I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is one from July 2018. The thing that most staggers me about this current moment is the utter disingenuousness going on, people just blatantly lying and cheating and plowing forward, having no shame or fear of retribution whatsoever. There just is no shame: All there is is winning. We have always had our political disagreements, but this strikes me as an entirely Trumpian phenomenon, and I wonder if it’s the most lasting stain — of so many stains — that he will leave on us. Everything happening today is because being publicly shamed for being a bad-faith actor no longer matters to large swaths of human beings. Which is staggering, and terrifying.

About 13 years ago, when I briefly lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, I needed to rent a car. Manhattan is a terrible place to need a rental car. There aren’t enough locations, there are too many people, they’re inevitably understaffed, it’s … well, it’s Manhattan. So I walked into my local Avis outlet, opened the door and saw the most imposing, ominous queue I have ever seen.

This Avis outlet was far too small to handle any sort of line, and this was no ordinary line. There had to be at least 50 people, all jammed up next to one another in a room the size of a studio apartment, with families corralling screaming kids, bored complaining teenagers in an age before smartphones, cranky old men grousing about how it didn’t used to be like this, it absolutely did not used to be like this at all. It was the dead of summer, and if the room had an air conditioner, it wasn’t nearly up to the task of cooling off all this humanity. One poor soul stood behind the counter, rattled and upset but doing her best despite 50 sets of eyes glaring at her every move. Someone must have called in sick, because it was a job that required five people, at least, rather than just one. At the rate she was processing reservations, I estimated I would be in that Avis line for roughly six years.

But whaddya gonna do? You have a reservation. You have to get somewhere. You need the car.

I’d been in line for about 20 minutes when The Guy walked in. He looked to be in his early 40s, white, well-groomed, shoulders back, absolutely certain that he’s the most important person in every room. My guess was that he was a Wall Street sort, but he could be any kind of wealthy white man who has convinced himself that his success is the result of a combination of provenance and self-confidence that he, uniquely, carries with him in every situation, wherever he goes. He wore his entitlement like a jacket.

The Guy wasn’t any more pleased to see the line than the rest of us were, but he had a weapon in his arsenal that the rest of us didn’t. He did not slump his shoulders and shuffle to the end of the queue like the rest of us. Instead, his eyes went wide, getting into character, and he rushed to the front and got the attention of the harried woman behind the counter. I, from the end of the line, watched him go to work.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry about this, but this is an emergency,” he said. He placed a bag that by all accounts appeared to be full of beach equipment on the ground and turned to the person closing his reservation, the person behind her in line, and the Avis employee. “My grandfather has had a heart attack, and I have to get to him immediately,” he said. “It’s an emergency, I have to get there right now.”

The Guy, it should be noted here, was wearing a light blue polo short, khaki shorts and sandals. He was carrying the aforementioned beach bag. He had golf clubs with him, for crissakes. There wasn’t a single person in that room who believed he was in a rush to see his grandfather. He seemed to understand this. But he wasn’t going to let that stand in his way.

“I’m sorry, sir, we have a lot of people eager to get where they’re going,” the woman mumbled, not looking at him,, as the first few people in line glanced away, hoping this situation would just resolve itself without them having to get involved.

“I know, I know, and I am so sorry about this,” he said, not looking particularly sorry but definitely looking insistent: This was going to be a thing. “But I have to get there. It’s an emergency. It’s my grandfather.” You started to hear some grumblings up front, but not much more than that. If you’d waited through the whole line, yoou’d been there for at least an hour, probably more. How much energy do you have for anything at that point?

“Please, miss, please,” he said, as the Avis employee wrapped up the customer she’d been working with. “I’m sorry, I really have to get my reservation immediately. I have to insist. This is an emergency.”

She turned to The Guy and frowned. She then looked to the person whose turn it was next in line. They knew this guy was lying. They knew he was just trying to cut in line because he’s a selfish jerk who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. They knew he surely does this stuff all the time.

But what can you do? Who wants to spend their time fighting a guy like this? A guy who makes the rule not apply to him not because he is special, but because he lacks the basic human quality of shame. It’s easier just to give him his stupid reservation, get him out of here and try to forget he ever existed. He’s not leaving. It’s the only way to get him out of here.

The next person in line, their shoulders shrugged. What can you do with a guy like this? The Avis employee turned back to The Guy and sighed. “OK. What name is your reservation under?” He gave her his ID and a big thick credit card. She went to grab his keys … faster, I noticed, that she did for everybody else. You heard some “hey, what the heck”s from farther back in the line, but nothing that led to any sort of revolution. We’re all just trying to get our cars and get on with our day. What can you do with a guy like this?

She gave him his keys. He grabbed them and his credit card and turned away, without a thank you or any sort of acknowledgment, and walked out the door. He picked up his phone and I heard him talking as he headed to his car, “Yo, I’m on my way, I’ll be there two hours. Have a beer ready for me.”

We all looked down at our feet. What could you do? He’s gone now. The rest of us can all get back to our previously scheduled line. I was there for about two hours before I got my car. They were out of the type I had reserved by that point. When I left, the line extended farther than it had been when I got in it. The Avis woman remained, plugging away. She could still be there for all I know.

One of most difficult aspects of dealing with the way the world is at this specific moment is that the Shame has lost its power. We have a series of laws, and rules, and regulations, that hopefully govern the way we as human beings behave ourselves, and how we comport ourselves with other people. But they can only do so much. We, as people, have to govern behavior ourselves, and one of the ways that we do that is with Shame. When you handle yourself poorly, when you break rules that we all agree are there to keep society functioning solely for your personal gain, when you make life for the world worse just to make life for yourself better, we lose the right to be a part of polite society. You are Shamed.

But if the last three years of public discourse have taught us anything, it is that nothing is more powerful than the person who does not feel Shame. If you are unable to feel basic repulsion for your own cynicism and corruption, if there isn’t even a small part of you that struggles to look at yourself in the mirror, you are, for all intents and purposes, invincible. They can’t touch you. If you do not care about debasing yourself for your own personal gain, if you are able to convince yourself that then only thing that matters is your personal gain, you cannot be stopped. We used to call these people sociopaths. But now we just shrug. What can you do? Their lack of Shame has been weaponized. Now they have seen that this lack of Shame works. Which is just encouraging more people, people who otherwise might have had the self-respect to restrain themselves, people who might have even once been considered Good, to ignore Shame. To push it down deep. To pretend they can still look in the mirror. And now they’re bringing all of us down with them.

If you lack Shame, you can do whatever you want. You used to just be able to sniff at these people, murmur “Asshole” under your breath and have faith that karma would have its way down the line, that someday, they’ll have to face account and answer for their crimes. It is a lot more difficult to have that sort of faith today. That day of reckoning might not be coming after all.

This is the thing, though. I couldn’t have stopped that guy from cutting in that Avis line. The woman behind the counter couldn’t. But all 50 of us could have. We just didn’t. We were too busy with our own problems. We were too caught up in our own worries. We had to stick to our own schedule. Life’s hard, you know? Who has the time? Someone will take care of them eventually. Except no one ever did. They just do what they want, without Shame, cynical and self-serving, getting away with it all, because they can.

Which means, I figure, it’s probably time to stop shrugging. It’s time to stop them ourselves. There are more of us than there are of them. Enough is enough.

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