Shame is not a feeling that is wholesome. It refers after all to a sense of humiliation caused by being conscious of having done wrong or having been foolish. Fear is not a wholesome attribute. It is after all associated with timidity and cowardice. Shamelessness is about lacking shame, about being barefaced and brazen. That’s not necessarily applauded. Fearlessness on the other hand is positive; the connotations are of bravery, courage and daring. Fearlessness, then, is admired; shamelessness ridiculed.
That said, the notions of shame (lajja) and fear (baya) in Sinhala culture have additional connotations of the moral kind, derived clearly from Buddhist philosophy. The commentary on
lajja are drawn for the most part from the Kanha Sutta, Sukka Sutta and the Hiri Ottappa or Care Sutta, all from the Book of Twos of the Anguttara Nikaya. The Abhidhamma defines the notion as ‘to be ashamed of what one ought to be ashamed of, to be ashamed of performing evil and unwholesome deeds.’
Moral shame is often paired with moral fear, the scriptures explain. The two are the preconditions for a functional and wholesome society, they elaborate. So those who are wary of unwholesome bodily and verbal conduct have lajja or moral shame and baya or moral fear is about being wary of such misconduct. Moral shame persuades the rejection of wrongdoing on account of value placed on dignity; it arises, then, of self-respect. Moral fear arises from being concerned about social consequences.
It’s all explained in the Devadharma Jathaka thus: [hiriotappa sampanna - sukkadhammasamahita; sunto sappura loke - devadhammati vuccareti]
“The wise and good consider as the godly nature the condition of being true to the doctrine of goodness and being fearful of wrongdoing.”
All of the above have come to the fore of political discussion following claims that appearance at a Commission of Inquiry is itself an act of fearlessness. The reasoning is that those who came before shied away from such encounters using all manner of political subterfuge to do so. All questions were answered and this too is praised.
A witness cannot answer questions that have not been asked. It is not the witness’ fault if the questions were veritable full tosses asking to be smacked out of the park. Such eventualities can only be attributed to the incompetence or the shamelessness of the individual tasked to inquire.
When the witness says ‘I inquired and was assured all was above board,’ it is a legitimate response. When the witness is not asked why the witness in effect applauded by rewarding those either suspected or guilty of wrongdoing thereafter, it is not the witnesses’ fault. Perhaps the silence is obtained from fear, i.e. general and not moral fear as per the Abhidhamma, but incompetence if not shamelessness is evidenced.
What is disturbing is that this lajja-less and baya-less phenomenon is not the preserve of the protagonists referred to above. It is part and parcel of the political culture of this country. In other words, social consequences do not worry people enough and therefore they can be ‘fearless.’ Dignity is seen as something that is guaranteed by power and office and therefore it’s possible loss is calculated in terms of political fortunes.
How else could a newly elected president indulge in nepotism even before the euphoria of election has died down? How else could the basic tenets of good governance so much a part of pre-election rhetoric be thrown to the winds and those rejected at the polls be brought into Parliament through the national lists, a facility illegally wrought by a former president with the connivance of the then Chief Justice and maintained thereafter by subsequent judges as so clearly pointed out by public interest lawyer Nagananda Kodituwakku?
How else, can we also ask, can a Member of Parliament who was also a member of the Committee on Public Enterprises investigating the bond scam explain phone calls with the primary suspect as a means to obtain information for a book’ when the said book was published long before the phone calls? How else can a COPE member representing someone accused of wrongdoing investigated by COPE raise issues of ‘conflict of interest’? How else can those in the Opposition take issue with conduct by the Government that mimics its own conduct while in power?
If there was lajja and baya none of this would have come to pass. If lajja and baya were remembered at any point even late in the day we would now be witnessing a spew of resignations, not just of politicians but of those in the Attorney General’s Department, other officials and judges as well.
What we have are wrongdoing sanctioned by a political culture of which the people, i.e. the voters, are participants on account of electing and re-electing known wrongdoers. The people have given the license to do wrong and therefore the people cannot complain when the wrongdoers they’ve elected operate without lajja or baya. The moral authority to do so, in other words, has been conferred upon them by the people themselves.
If we are in fact for the most part a lajja-less and a baya-less nation, then we are a sorry nation indeed. However, if we are to pull ourselves out of the rut that corrupt, incompetent and deceitful politicians have with our permission got us into, then we need to recover first and foremost some semblance of lajja and baya. Until such time the people begin to place some value on dignity and therefore persuaded by ‘moral shame’ to eschew wrongdoing, and until such time the people become concerned about social consequences, they cannot expect the kind of lajja and baya that makes for true yahapalanaya.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.
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