Shame should be liberated, not legislated for
Some things are illegal. Some things are immoral. There is sometimes a difference between the two. That doesn't mean that politicians and commentators should restrict themselves to comment on the former and leave the latter wholly to personal judgment. Nor does it mean they should always transform the immoral into the illegal at the earliest possible opportunity. On a myriad of pressing, modern problems - from tax avoidance to obesity - society needs to judge more and legislate less.
Take the example of Jimmy Carr. Here's a man who has done nothing illegal. He used a loophole - complicated but legal - to avoid paying tax on a huge proportion of the wealth he earns from trotting out snazzy one-liners. Should we, as so many on the Left urge us to, legislate the loophole away? No. It's there for a reason - to encourage investment in film-making in the UK. So should we, instead, do as many on the Right urge and leave this alone? No. What Jimmy Carr did went against the spirit of the tax system . It was an act of callous disregard for the wider community of which he is a member and for our collective will, driven by greed. It was, to use the Prime Minister's own words, 'immoral'.
There is a solution. And in Jimmy Carr's case it worked remarkably well. We shame those who fail to live up to our common expectations of virtue. And then, overwhelmingly, they correct their behaviour to meet the demands of decency. Splashed across the front page, called-out by the Prime Minister, decried in print and in pubs up and down the country, Jimmy Carr saw the error of his ways and repented. And so have an army of celebs who now, wandering into meetings with their spiv accountants and advisers, will have the image of Jimmy Carr to help guide their cheque-writing hands.
It's not just matters of money that demand moral, rather than legal, response. The modern world is full of behaviour that is unpleasant but that only the most authoritarian would seek to 'ban'. Obesity is undoubtedly a growing problem for many Western economies. The knee-jerk reaction of many politicians, Left and Right alike, is to draw up long lists of products to ban or tax. This inclination to proscription and economic pre-punishment is the product of our collective abandonment of notions of morality, judgment and shame. It seeks to use the cold levers of the state where, our communal distaste ought to be enough. We don't need legislation we need liberation. .
A final example illustrates why the time for shame has come. Remember Liam Stacey? He was the deeply unpleasant young man who responded to the (temporary) death of Fabrice Muamba with an outpouring of insensitivity and racially tinged abuse. Mr. Stacey was pounced upon by his fellow Twitter-users, mocked and condemned, written about in national newspapers; he was shamed. The community, revolted by his behaviour and his bigotry, responded. Which would have made for a rather touching tale of the potential for shame to be used to cut down the ugly, the hateful and the hurtful. Except the state couldn't leave it at that. How much better would it have been politicians had restricted themselves to joining the chorus of distaste rather than seeking means to appropriate it?
Which leads us back to why shame should be liberated and not legislated for. The more that Government attempts to crystalise our contempt for the immoral but ultimately harmless - be it tax avoidance, over-eating or casual unpleasantness - the more it undermines our capacity and confidence to take it upon ourselves to call out those who do wrong.