From the Age of Fear to the Age of Shame

From the Age of Fear to the Age of Shame

If the twentieth century was the age of fear, the twenty-first is the age of shame. This is the most succinct way to describe how the dominant form of repression has changed. The twentieth cen-tury was full of terrible events and fearless heroes. The twenty-first century has not yet lasted long enough to exclude the possibility of similar tragedies and resultant challenges for the brave, but so far it seems to be a time of ordinary stories and ordinary people. As in the previous century, we live in a mass society, but the dominant emotion is no longer fear, but shame. Shame, unlike fear, is an emo-tion that can be hidden, and that is the entire point. It arises from a sense of inferiority. Fear does not necessarily violate dignity. In the twentieth century, fascist and communist totalitarian regimes perpe-trated terrible crimes, but they ultimately failed because they could not effectively control people’s identities. Too many individuals were able to maintain their inner freedom and dignity. Fear did not humble them.

Shame and Capitalism

While capitalism was once fear-inducing, today, in much of the world, it engenders shame. Having to pee into a diaper while working at a supermarket is not something we’re afraid of, but something of which we are ashamed. It won’t kill us, but it strikes at our dignity. We aren’t afraid that we’ll die of cold, but we are often ashamed that we can’t afford to buy something. True, capitalism can still have the power to frighten, but generally in those places and situations where the prevailing form of capital-ism is that of the twentieth-century type, not of the twenty-first. Heretofore a woman could encounter rape—or its milder form, mobbing—but today she is increasingly unafraid to give up her body, as long as it finds itself in better clothes.

Shame and Fanaticism

In the twenty-first century, totalitarian ideas no longer arise or gain significant popularity. Maybe this means that we have learned the lessons of the twentieth century, or maybe we are simply different. We no longer take any ideas quite so seriously. Whoever is not ashamed of doing so is automatically branded an ideologue. Maybe this is why we are no longer able to engage to the degree that we once did. We have become distant. Of course, this does not apply to everyone everywhere. There are, for instance, religious fanatics who do not exhibit this distance. The discourse of one single truth can still achieve mass engagement among at least part of the population in almost every liberal democracy. Indeed, we read and hear about its rebirth. This represents the resurrection of a God who is adept at combining political strength—or even predominance—with the language of sacrifice and—unlike be-fore the death heralded by Nietzsche—is perfectly capable of using scientific arguments.

Poland’s Catholic majority, living in the country with the most conservative...