02 July 2012
SHAME AS PUNISHMENT
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, frustrated over delays at the state capital over approving his proposals for automated speed cameras generating traffic tickets to enforce traffic speed limits, has an alternative plan ~ posting the cameras' data (speed recorded and a photo of the offending vehicle's license plate, thus the owner's name) publicly. His hope is that the prospect of public humiliation will remind drivers to travel more safely.
He might be onto something. Many scofflaws don't give a second thought to accumulating dozens of unpaid traffic tickets. It can even become a point of perverse pride. Other speeders may pay their fines and dismiss the episode, never giving up their disregard for traffic regulations. But imagine your photo, name, license plate image, and the date, time, and speed violation appearing in some public place ~ there could be consequences with your spouse, your employer, or simply with knowing that people are looking at you askance.
When I was growing up, I learned the hard way that shame can be as excruciating as physical or financial punishment. One day in first grade, I played too roughly with a classmate during recess. The principal took me into his office and had me sit in a chair. He never raised his voice, was not harsh in any way ~ but he was clear and firm that my behavior was unacceptable. During my exile, I had to endure the stares and whispered questions of classmates who came in on some errand or other, and I was too thunderstruck to reply, or even to lift my head. After 20 minutes he quietly sent me back to class, thoroughly ashamed of myself.
In seventh grade, like many teenage children, I began testing limits. One form this took was shoplifting a candy bar from a nearby supermarket during the lunch hour. I got away with it a few times, but fate was waiting for me. On my third attempt, a store employee saw me, and as I was walking out the front door, he called me back inside. In a back room, the manager scolded me, then demanded that I call my mother to tell her what I'd done. He thought I'd get a lecture and that would be the end of it, but he didn't know my mother. She hung up and drove to the store, apologized personally to the manager, then drove me back to school. Apparently word had gotten around, because a boy sitting in the seat beside me whispered the word "Thief!" ~ I was mortified. During the walk home at the end of the school day my dread mounted. Again, no physical punishment awaited, but a verbal lashing ensued. I felt lower than the belly of a rattlesnake's mother-in-law.
Did shame work on me? Mostly, yes. I continued to tested limits, but they were more intellectual than behavioral. With one notable exception. During the summer after my senior year in high school, with college on the horizon, one weekend evening I was hanging out with my best friend. We'd grown weary of dragging Main Street, so (with me at the wheel of my parents' car) we headed out on a darkened highway. On the return trip I felt the need for speed, and goosed the accelerator. We must have been doing 85 mph when we topped a slight rise to see, several hundred yards ahead, a semi truck pulling a flatbed trailer in the act of turning from a side road in our direction. The rest of this paragraph took less than five seconds to happen in real time. The driver, seeing us coming at high speed, changed his course to pull straight ahead, trying to get out of our way. I jammed on the brakes and the tires left a lo-o-ong trail of skid marks, but I could see he wouldn't clear our path in time. Acting instinctively, I swung my steering wheel hard to the right, hoping to veer onto the road the truck was vacating. No dice, my speed was too great. The car hit the left rear corner of his trailer with an indescribably loud BANG, spun 180 degrees and wrapped itself around a telephone pole. The g-force in decelerating from 60 to 0 in less than a second were tremendous, yet neither of us was injured ~ a fact made all the more remarkable when you consider that on my side, the point of impact with the trailer was at the door post just behind my head, and on my friend's side, the point of impact with the telephone pole was at the door post just behind his head. The force popped one lens from my eyeglasses without cracking the frame.
It took several moments for our heads and our hearing to clear. Both our fathers came when we phoned, as did the Highway Patrol. Neither driver was cited, though we both contributed to the accident. Apparently the truck driver had been drinking, and I was clearly speeding recklessly. The officer could see that I was deeply shaken, my dad's car totaled. (The only damage to the sturdy trailer was a broken tail light.) Looking back, one could not have choreographed the scene to assure survival any more precisely than the actual event. A fraction of a second either way, and I or my friend would have died, even wearing our lap-style seat belts. The thought still makes my blood run cold. As if that weren't enough karma looking out for us, if I'd somehow managed to miss the trailer, we would have plowed headfirst into that telephone pole, or else missed it and careened into the crowded bowling alley parking lot on the far side. The mind shudders.
And yes, I caught hell when I got home, deservedly. The insurance paid for a replacement car, and both my friend and I were able to attend college that fall. He remains my friend to this day, a saint when it comes to forgiveness. And even though I sometimes still push the speed limit, it's only by 3-5 mph, never by as egregious a speed as that night. An emphatic voice inside reminds me of how lucky I am to still be alive. No traffic fine, no weekend in jail, could have accomplished that. The horror and shame of knowing I nearly killed my best friend did.
Would seeing my name and photo in the newspaper after the accident have achieved the same result? Probably, but not nearly to the same degree.