Americans, it is often said, are divided along numerous lines: Ideological, economic, and religious — to name a few. We wring our hands over racial disparities and income disparities, and we talk endlessly about gender gaps, generation gaps, and technology gaps.
But there is another important “gap” that has gone relatively unnoticed. Call it the Dignity Gap.
Put simply, the Dignity Gap is the divide between those who behave like exhibitionists and those who demonstrate self-control and self-respect.
It is the divide between those who willingly publicize the most intimate details of their private lives for popularity, fame, status, or money, and those who believe that private lives should remain just that — private.
It is the divide between those who believe it is their “right” to be vulgar without anyone rendering judgment, and those who understand that raunchy behavior will (and should) inevitably lead to a bad reputation.
It is the divide between those who believe that “anything goes”, and those who believe that there should be limits to socially acceptable behavior.
Examples from the celebrity world abound: Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Honey Boo Boo and family, Kim Kardashian, and Kanye West are just some of the many celebrities famous for their classless behavior.
And yet, for all of the celebrities that lack dignity, there are others who exude it. Paul Newman had dignity. Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington have it. Taylor Swift has thus far comported her young life with dignity. (Whether she continues to do so remains to be seen).
Of course, to say that some people have dignity is not to say that they have led perfect lives. Everyone makes mistakes. But those with dignity do not propagandize their failings or their most intimate moments like players in a circus side show.
To be clear, the Dignity Gap is not just a Hollywood thing.
It is present on the political stage as well. We can all agree that Anthony Weiner lacks dignity. In my view, Sarah Palin lost hers when she became a reality TV star, and Bristol Palin lost hers when she repeatedly sought to profit from her mother’s celebrity.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are both paragons of personal dignity — although Obama has been known to publicly praise rappers Lil Wayne and Eminem, both of whom intentionally contribute to the coarsening of our culture. (Indeed, one of the great failures of his presidency is that, rather than use the bully pulpit to promote the personal morality and dignity that he and his family symbolize, Obama has used his position to promote his own “coolness.”)
Closer to home, the Dignity Gap can be found in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and in our workplaces among people who reject the notions of personal responsibility and self-restraint.
The Dignity Gap cuts across racial, ethnic, economic, gender, and party lines. Why? Because dignity is a choice.
Unfortunately, it is a choice that, these days, is harder and harder to make.
Our culture has become so saturated with cheap and classless behavior that it is almost impossible to shelter our children from vulgarity. At the same time, we are lectured about the supposed evil of “judgmentalism” and told that self-respect means never having to feel shame.
This is wrong. Some things we do should cause us embarrassment. There is nothing wrong with shame if it is used as a vehicle for redemption and growth, rather than as a form of punishment.
This is the real culture war. Of the many lines along which Americans are divided, the Dignity Gap may be the most revealing of all.
Jennifer C. Braceras is a lawyer and political commentator.
Originally appeared in the June 24, 2014 print edition of the Boston Herald.