One can interpret John Steinbeck's novels at very many levels. In his 1937 "Of Mice and Men," Steinbeck told the story of two migrant workers - George Milton and Lennie Small - who are an "odd couple."
George is small, uneducated but intelligent; Lennie is brawny but with limited intelligence. Steinbeck derived the name of his story from a poem by Scottish bard Robert Burns, who wrote about a mouse’s plan that went awry unexpectedly. The initial title of the book was simply “Something That Happened,” to show how chance and uncontrollable conditions can interfere with man’s dreams, ambitions and the best-laid plans.
George and Lennie are the best of friends. Because Lennie is mentally handicapped, George is protective of him. But George, like others characters, sometimes abuses Lennie for his own amusement. Both share a dream of owning their own farm so they can enjoy the simple freedom to leave work for a baseball game whenever they want to.
Lennie, with his large hands, loves to pet soft things. But he accidentally kills a puppy and the wife of another range hand. The puppy dies as Lennie pets him lovingly, but too hard. The woman flirtatiously invites Lennie to touch her hair. When she screams because Lennie is too rough, he tries to stop her from screaming, and accidentally breaks her neck. George, in the end, has to kill Lennie to prevent him from being lynched by an angry mob.
Lennie character, even with his limited wit, does feel a sense of shame, as he lowers his head when he realises he has done something “bad”. Lennie’s heart is pure; he is incapable of any malice. Theoretically he cannot, should not, know shame because he has no sense of it. He only feels embarrassed after doing something “bad”, or if he thinks George may not approve or may get angry with him.
George, with all his shortcomings, is devoted to his friend to the end; he feels like a protector. He takes Lennie’s life as an act of mercy. Shame is absent as he shoots Lennie in the back of his head. It is for George, the right thing to do. Their dream of owning a farm is quashed by circumstances beyond their control.
Here in Thailand, in a “politically incorrect” audio clip purportedly between a self-proclaimed mouse and a man appointed a “lion” by the mouse, together they have plans that have yet to materialise. Listening to the clip, one cannot help but feel sadness and revulsion. But this is becoming the norm in our society; shame was absent from both characters in the leaked audio clip. The newly adopted attitude of the mighty and not-so-mighty characters on our national stage nowadays, when dishonorable deeds and wrongdoings are exposed, is “So what?”
Last weekend, Reuters reported that an estimated 750,000 tonnes of rice have been smuggled from Cambodia and Myanmar into Thailand each year since the government’s rice price-pledging scheme started. The straightforward explanation is that our neighbours’ rice, which is normally of inferior quality, is much cheaper and can benefit from the higher, non-market-based and arbitrarily set price by the Thai government, so “Why not?”
In this case, the government may consider calling its rice policy a foreign aid programme, since it is using our tax money to subsidise farmers in foreign lands.
Or could the smuggled rice also be meant to replenish silos that on paper are holding a certain amount of rice already paid for by the Thai government, but in fact have none, or far less? The corruption involved in the rice scheme is the most systematically intricate fraudulent conspiracy in history. The economic losses and other negative ramifications, such as losses in our world export market share, caused by this scheme have been mammoth, and we’re still counting. Meanwhile, like most populist policies, the scheme creates dangerous addiction. It is one of many sugar-coated poisons fed to unsuspecting citizens, all the while lining the pockets of many thieves dressed in regalia. They are laughing heartily with joy all the way to the bank.
But the attitude of those directly and indirectly involved in the fraud has been an unapologetic, in-your-face “So what?”
In 2009, the highly regarded former president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, committed suicide after being accused of involvement in bribery. “I am in debt to too many people,” his suicide note read. "Too many people have suffered because of me. And I cannot imagine the suffering they will go through in the future.” In life and in death, he was an honourable man, capable of suffering ignominy.
There are very thin dividing lines between embarrassment, guilt and shame. But none of them are pertinent in our society. The culture of shame is fast disappearing from our soil.
In “Of Mice and Men”, George calls Lennie a “bastard” and a “retard”. But even a retard like Lennie felt remorse.
What do we call people, with full mental capacity, who cannot care less about right and wrong and are incapable of shame?