July 20, 2004

Embarrassment (from the Armchair)

Ted Barlow blogs The Adversary, the true story of a man who

missed an important exam at the end of his second year of medical school, but never rescheduled it. Impulsively, he told his parents that he had passed.

Several murders later,

On the stand, the judge asked him why he didnít just reschedule the exam, and he wasnít able to answer. ďThatís the question Iíve asked myself every day for eighteen years,Ē he said.

In comments, Ophelia Benson (governess of the State of Extreme Annoyance says,

Whatís interesting (she said, pointing out the obvious) is the solipsism of it all. He doesnít want to be embarrassed so all these other people have to be killed, so that he wonít be embarrassed.... Bizarre way to think - and yet probably quite common.

From the armchair, I say--it may be even more common than the story makes it seem. I think a lot of moral behavior may come from a desire not to embarrass yourself--not to be called out in front of others.

But embarrassment as a force for Good can turn into a force for Evil. I'm much more likely to put off something I ought to be doing after I think I'm embarrassingly late doing it. I mean, a friend of mine is. Worser, think of the Millgram experiments; the subjects may have (so they thought) tortured someone to death because they didn't want to make a scene in front of the scientist who seemed to know what was going on. Perhaps this has something to do with why the people you-know-where who weren't actively sadistic for the most part didn't do much to stop what was going on. And Joseph Darby, the hero who blew the whistle, turns out to have had reason to fear being shunned.

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 20, 2004 03:48 PM
Comments

"I'm much more likely to put off something I ought to be doing after I think I'm embarrassingly late doing it. I mean, a friend of mine is."

He must mean me.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein at July 20, 2004 04:16 PM