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George Will on the Inability to Blush

"No One Blushes Anymore", Washington Post (Sep 15, 1985), p. D7.

Rock music has become a plague of messages about sexual promiscuity, bisexuality, incest, sado-masochism, satanism, drug use, alcohol abuse and constantly, misogyny. The lyrics regarding these things are celebratory, encouraging or at least desensitizing. By making these subjects the common currency of popular entertainment, the lyrics drain the subjects of their power to shock – their power to make people blush. The concern is less that children will emulate the frenzied behavior described in porn rock than that they will succumb to the lassitude of the demoralized – literally, the de-moralized.

As people become older they become less given to blushing. This is, in part, because they lose that sweet softness of youthful character that is called innocence and makes one’s sensibilities subject to shock. People blush for various reasons. Sometimes it is because we suddenly have embarrassing attention called to ourselves. Sometimes we blush when utterly alone, when we think of something about ourselves that is shaming – such as the fact that almost nothing causes us to blush.

Walter Berns, the political philosopher, asks: What if, contrary to Freud and much conventional wisdom, shame is natural and shamelessness is acquired? If so, the acquisition of shamelessness through the shedding of “hang-ups” is an important political event. There is a connection between self-restraint and shame. An individual incapable of shame and embarrassment is probably incapable of the governance of the self. A public incapable of shame and embarrassment about public vulgarity is unsuited to self-government.