24 October 2008

Third-Party Shame

It's a phrase that has been popping up around Me with increasing frequency: vergüenza ajena. It means "shame for/over/about another person," but for conciseness, I'll translate it as "third-party shame."

Over the past few months, vergüenza ajena has gone from rare and seldom used, like tarragon, to conversational salt, added often and for the right reasons. The people who have used it range from strangers (to Me) off the street to broadcasters, from the unenlightened (the broadcaster) to the erudite. And every time it pops up, it makes sense, combining as it does a humanistic empathy with the recognition that what We are watching is a human train wreck.

Third-party shame is a concept that defies trends, specifically two widely-accepted ones: (1) That We are increasingly uncaring (for whatever economic, social, spiritual and/or technological reasons) and that (2) We are more intent on tearing down a person than building them up. Support for the concepts of these two trends abounds, from media use of "Me Generation" and "social strife" to the explosion of "hero bashing" and "tabloid journalism." And these trends are often visible in My Island. But vergüenza ajena is the opposite of these trends, for it says "I identify with that person, want them to do well, but they are failing and I feel embarrassed by that failure."

The physical manifestation of vergüenza ajena is cringing, the bodily turning away from the disaster one is seeing. Examples of these third-party shame moments are:

--Palin trying to answer any serious question.

--A rapper trying to host a debate with gubernatorial candidates.

--A beauty pageant contestant stuttering and stumbling her way to an inane answer. (This one applies to Palin as well.)

--The murderous moron acting like "global cowboy" when he's perceived by said globe as much more akin to a cowflop.

You know these moments, when what your eyes take in causes your neck to stiffen, your body arching back and even a diffuse pain runs through you as you try to accept what's happening, hoping it isn't, but ultimately slumping mentally as you are forced to accept that--yes--this is happening. Dammit.

Maybe it speaks well of Us, this empathetic expression of vergüenza ajena. Maybe it says that We are more alike than different, that We can look upon others and recognize the shared humanity despite gender, racial and social differences. But then again, is it a good thing to feel more vergüenza ajena as time goes by? Or would it ultimately be better to feel less?

The Jenius Has Spoken.

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