Sunday, August 27, 2006

Civil War Cultures: Shame and Guilt

A friend who occasionally comments here as “akafred” lent me a book on Civil War letters and diaries. For Cause and Comrades by James M. McPherson is turning out to be more thought-provoking than expected. I was looking for flavor of the era, with perhaps some poignancy and stray memorable bits of information. But McPherson is a Princeton historian with a specific interest: he wants to know why the men on both sides fought. Why did they enlist, why did they stay, why go back into combat?

He references the ideas of duty and honor in the words of the old final exams “Compare and contrast.” There is some overlap with the negative concepts of guilt and shame which has been discussed in some detail in the psychosphere, particularly by Dr. Sanity. Those who live in shame cultures are concerned with how their morality looks from the outside. These are often clan or extended-family based societies. Guilt cultures stress the internal motivations for moral acts – what the morality actually is rather than merely appears – and tend to be societies which stress the nuclear family and individual actions more strongly. Some of you may also have run into the concept as external versus internal locus of control. In recent discussions, Arab societies have been described as shame-cultures and western societies as guilt-cultures.

McPherson identifies duty with internal motivation, and honor with external reputation as the motivating force. He is quick to point out that the terms were sometimes used interchangeably and are not an infallible guide to identifying motivation. Yet the contrast can often be seen in the context of the rest of the writings in each diary or letter, with words like “reputation” associated more often with honor, and “responsibility” with duty. The Confederate soldiers reference honor, heritage, reputation, shame, and local opinion more frequently; those from the Union write more often of duty, rightness, guilt, and living family members.

To keep my readers from the losing end of the War of Northern Aggression from getting too annoyed, McPherson is quick again to point out that both values appeared on both sides of the divide. He does not cite sources, but speaks as if this contrast is generally accepted among Civil War historians. When he compares those attitudes to those of the soldiers of WWII, he finds that honor and reputation have not died out as motives, but have receded in favor of duty and responsibility.

The regional difference may stem from founding cultures. The American South had been settled primarily by the more Celtic and Briton west of England from Scotland through Wessex and including Ireland. These societies were more clan-based and hierarchical. The American North had been settled from the Congregationalist East and Quaker Midlands of England. These regions had more Norse and continental European influences and were more egalitarian and structured on individual and nuclear family models. These regional strains in England persisted long after settlement in the colonies, and one can still find echoes of it today.

I bring all this up to stress the mixed nature of the internal/external, guilt/shame, duty/honor divide, to keep us from oversimplifying. While America and the west are more guilt-cultures, and the Arab and Persian cultures we are in conflict with are more shame-based, the division is neither pure nor universal. There are plenty of folks on our side of this conflict who operate from shame-pressures, and plenty on the other side who make moral decisions from internal motivations.

It does lead to the interesting speculation as to whether duty-based morality can survive on its own without honor-based morality to support it. Must shame be

1 comment:

Ben Wyman said...

This is an interesting flip-side to the internal-based/external-based debate about people in specific cultures. People mention that America is a self-oriented culture often whenever they're running it down, but the forget a key advantage of this:

When a person is convinced that the only morality that should be swaying him is his own, it becomes much harder to convince him that he needs to do something he doesn't want to do (fight a war, go on a suicide mission, vote Republican, etc.) because the only vote that really matters that much to him on these issues is his own. Other people's opinions do not override his opinion, they can only hope to sway it one way or another.

Of course, it takes a self-centered American to write off other cultures' intricacies so lightly.