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The death of embarrassment

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.

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