Mark Twain once said that, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” In our age, though, people still have reason to blush, but don’t seem to remember how. As Christine Rosen notes, we now live in a post-embarressment era:
What ever happened to embarrassment? Why are an increasing number of us comfortable bringing our private activities – from personal hygiene to intimate conversation – into public view? Bernstein and others place some of the blame on the desensitization wrought by reality television and social networking sites like Facebook, both of which traffic in personal revelation. To be sure, television and Internet video sites such as YouTube have made all of us more comfortable in the role of everyday voyeurs. We watch others cook, work, shop, argue, sing, dance, stumble, and fall – all from a safe remove. The motley denizens of reality television regularly put themselves into questionable and embarrassing situations so that they can later discuss, for our viewing enjoyment, how questionable and embarrassing their conduct was. If we are less easily embarrassed, it must be in part from vicariously experiencing so much manufactured embarrassment on the screen.
Many people see the decline of embarrassment as a good thing. “Why shouldn’t I be able to do X?” people often say after having done something outrageous or transgressive. But this misunderstands the distinction between embarrassment – a mild but necessary correction of inappropriate behavior – and shame, which is a stronger emotional response usually involving feelings of guilt about more serious breaches of conduct.
Today, what used to cause embarrassment now elicits little more than a collective shrug. In our eagerness to broadcast our authentic experiences and have our individuality endorsed, we reject embarrassment as if it were some fusty trapping of a bygone age. But we haven’t eliminated embarrassment; we have only upped the ante. “Your slip is showing” used to be the most embarrassing sartorial faux pas a lady could commit. Now we regularly witness “nip slip” from female celebrities whose shirts mysteriously migrate south during public appearances – or during Super Bowl halftime shows. As the boundary between public and private has dissolved, so too has our ability to distinguish between embarrassing and appropriate public behavior. The result is a society often bewildered by attempts to impose any standards at all.