Friday, August 06, 2021

Post 8000 - Shame Culture Vs Guilt Culture

Missionaries have to learn that most cultures of the world are shame cultures instead of guilt cultures. Things are wrong according to the shame they bring on you or your family. People motivated instead by guilt will feel bad about having done something wrong, even if they are undiscovered and nothing shameful attaches to them or the family. The 3D Gospel explains a fair bit of this.

This concept of guilt rather than shame for sin is primarily, but not entirely Western. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explained the difference almost a decade ago. The difference is not usually clear to either culture. People from guilt cultures believe that "everyone else is like this, really." People from shame cultures do not quite understand what those from guilt cultures are even saying. The idea of offending against the universe in some way is present in Eastern thought, but it does not tend to penetrate social and personal moral behavior. Westerners who adopt Buddhism (few actually adopt Hindu beliefs, though they may adopt practices) are not quite the same as those who grow up with it, and I think they unconsciously bring guilt culture with them.  My knowledge of this is mostly limited to the many psychologists I have know who have adopted Buddhism.  They attribute virtues to that understanding that they may be unconsciously bringing.

If you follow these things, this is common knowledge in the West.  What is less common is the recognition that not everyone in guilt cultures is motivated in that (frankly more advanced) way. I won't hazard a guess at percentages, but I encounter Americans, Canadians, and Brits - the groups that should be the core of guilt culture thinking - who seem entirely shame focused. While these are rarer at church, I see them there as well. It is likely that none of us is 100% guilt culture. When I consider my regrets in life, an uncomfortable number are those in which I said something stupid and embarrassing rather than did something sinful. Some of the latter make the list, and when I apply intentionality, I acknowledge that the embarrassments are merely that, and it is the real selfishness, vengefulness, and entitlement that should make my Top Ten List of Regrets.

I have read nonwestern people who seem to have a more guilt culture orientation, but something of it is not quite the same.  It is more theoretical, abstract.  I don't see it translating into behavior or even everyday conversation.  As most of the non-Westerners I know are doctors or churchgoers, one would expect the numbers to be higher. Perhaps I do not see them clearly and there are subtleties I miss.

I wonder what the numbers are really?  Is the moral advance of the West merely that 10% of the people rise above shame culture 10% of the time, and smaller percentages filter back through the population?


Grim said...

“Westerners who adopt Buddhism (few actually adopt Hindu beliefs, though they may adopt practices) are not.”

Are not what?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thanks. I interrupted to finish the parenthetical remark, then never went back to finish the sentence. Fixed.

james said...

A little leaven leavens the whole lump?

David Foster said...

A Leonard Cohen song includes the lines:

When you're not feeling holy
Your loneliness tells you you've sinned

stevo said...

This is hard to wrap my head around. Are guilt and shame cultures our only options? I have read some interesting stuff about honor cultures, which seems like a nicer name for a shame culture. The main idea (I think) is whether people are motivated more by social pressure or by personal morality. I think in any culture the majority will be the former and only a few will be the latter.

Grim said...

I have read some interesting stuff about honor cultures, which seems like a nicer name for a shame culture.

Thank you for that insight, which is is the point at which the weave unravels. I've written extensively about honor and moral philosophy, and you've hit upon a crucial point. Just as the other side of shame is honor, and the two inextricably linked, the other side of guilt is pride. Now guilt might be categorically better than shame, as AVI suggests, but it is definitely not true that pride is better than honor. Yet if you shift the focus from shame to guilt, you also run the risk of shifting from honor to pride.

Let me note, however, that all cultures are honor cultures. It's a universal human value; we cannot do without it. In our culture, we've just spent several years fighting over the question of whether first the Confederates and subsequently the Founders deserve honor. Is it possible to honor someone for the good they did, while shaming them for the bad parts? ("Epic Rap Battles of History" explored this idea with its Jefferson/Douglass battle. It's absolutely crucial to what kind of society we are going to be, this question of whom and what we honor and whom and what we shame.

Note, too, that pride and guilt only operate on living beings -- another reason honor and shame are indispensable. Jefferson can no longer be motivated by guilt (or pride); we have to operate from the outside, using the mechanisms of honor or shame on him (or Robert E. Lee, or whomever).

To return to the central point, though, pride is the corresponding aspect of this to guilt. The interior sense of superiority it brings encourages unethical conduct often enough that Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins -- and the worst of them, according to Medieval commentators. Sometimes people talk about the dark side of honor, although usually they really mean the dark side of shame (e.g., honor killings are not really about honoring anyone; they're a response to a sense of being shamed). Honor is not a sin, and indeed is not the kind of thing that could be a sin because it is externally granted rather than an internal quality. Sin is always internal, because sin is of the will.

So be careful here. I won't presume to refute that guilt offers advantages over shame, but I would suggest that there's a greater risk to the shift than those who have written about it have considered. A great man whose community honors him is a part of that community, and obtains his greatness in part from their recognition of his virtuous acts. It is proper to honor virtue; and by honoring him, they put him in a position to use his great internal qualities to the common benefit. A proud man, by contrast, is a danger to everyone else even if he is legitimately great. And perhaps he is not; perhaps he is merely rich, or lucky, and unable to tell that his pride arises from an error rather than from his virtue.

james said...

Is the other side of guilt really pride? Perhaps it's too extreme an example, but consider a dog--it can know when it is guilty of something, but its condition when it isn't guilty doesn't seem to be pride.

I think (borrowing a division from the 3D gospel book--thanks for the tip AVI) that the guilt/shame/powerlessness all involve awareness of yourself in that situation, but their opposites have less self-awareness. If you have gout, you think about your stride a great deal, but if you don't you don't think about walking at all. If you have no defect in your innocence or honor or defenses against evil why would you think about them?

When you are thinking about how innocent you are, or how honorable or powerful you are, pride comes in. But that pride is a perversion of the proper state.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That would be very CS Lewis (and John Milton and many others): because it can rise higher it can also fall lower.