Guilt and Shame

Topics: Human Rights

The society of traditional Japan was long held to be a good example of one in which shame is the primary agent of social control. The first book to cogently[citation needed] explain the workings of the Japanese society for the Western reader was The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. This book was produced under less than ideal circumstances since it was written during the early years of World War II in an attempt to understand the people who had become such a powerful enemy of the West.

Under the conditions of war it was, of course, impossible to do field research in Japan.

Nevertheless, depending on the study of members of that culture who were available for interview and study in the West, namely war prisoners at detention centers, as well as literary and other such records pertaining to cultural features, Ruth Benedict drew what some regard[who? ] as a clear picture of the basic workings of Japanese society. Her study has been challenged and is not relied upon by anthropologists of Japan today.

Contemporary Western society uses shame as one modality of control, but its primary dependence rests on guilt, and, when that does not work, on the criminal justice system.

Paul Hiebert characterizes the shame society as follows: Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society.

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One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one. Personal desires are sunk in the collective expectation. Those who fail will often turn their aggression against themselves instead of using violence against others.

By punishing themselves they maintain their self-respect before others, for shame cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement. Shame is removed and honor restored only when a person does what the society expects of him or her in the situation, including committing suicide if necessary. (Hiebert 1985, 212) guilt society is one in which the primary method of social control is the inculcation of feelings of guilt for behaviors that the society defines as undesirable. It involves an implicit judgment on the being (rather than just the behavior) of the individual: “You are an evil person if you would do such-and-so. It also involves creating the expectation of punishment now (when the behavior fails to be kept secret) and/or in the hereafter. One of the interesting features of many such societies is that they inculcate feelings of guilt for feelings and/or impulses that the individual cannot help but feel. Where a shame societymight tell its members that sexual interactions are to be hidden from general view or knowledge, a guilt society may tell people that they are guilty or sinful for mere sexual desire.

A prominent feature of guilt societies is the provision of sanctioned releases from guilt for certain behaviors either before the fact, as when one condemns sexuality but permits it conditionally in the context of marriage, or after the fact. There is a clear opportunity in such cases for authority figures to derive power, monetary and/or other advantages, etc. by manipulating the conditions of guilt and the forgiveness of guilt. Paul Hiebert characterizes the guilt society as follows: Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience.

A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; shame cultures stress self-denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order. (Hiebert 1985, 213) GUILT, SHAME, and embarrassment are forms of social control.

Whether these are cast in evolutionary, psychological, or cultural terms, we should not lose sight of that basic function. These emotions may not always be portrayed in these terms, but that is how they have evolved and become embedded in our cultural beliefs and practices. It is in this context that we should raise the question: Are there shame cultures as opposed to guilt cultures, with corresponding differences in how people within them experience guilt and shame? In American culture (and Western cultures enerally), personal identity is conceived of as being independent and autonomous. Society is seen as a collection of self-contained individuals who are held responsible for their own behavior. One’s interests are best served by allowing maximum freedom and responsibility in choosing one’s objectives. Moral precepts are based on conceptions of justice. Even when these are tempered by interpersonal obligations, the focus remains on individuals who must balance their responsibilities between the self and significant others.

THE PRIMARY moral obligation is to avoid harming significant others. It is when you cause harm, or are unjust, that you feel guilty. Being responsive to the needs of others is desirable, but is not a moral duty. Individuals are free to follow their inclinations within the limits of the law and in consideration of the rights of others. Their obligations to others are defined in negative terms—what they should not do—rather than as positive duties of what they should do. Whereas the failure to uphold justice is a vice, the failure to be beneficent to others is only a lack of moral virtue.

By contrast, in Asian contexts, one’s identity is defined in relation to the group one belongs to, typically the family. Whereas in the West, a person would be known as Jane or John Doe, in the East, they would be identified as members of the Doe family. In her study of Indian Hindus, psychologist Joan Miller found that the primary basis of determining moral conduct was not justice but a person’s duties to significant others. Among Americans, moral duty is imposed on the individual to constrain that individual’s actions.

For Hindus, doing one’s duty meant both meeting one’s obligations as well as realizing one’s own nature. Therefore acting benevolently toward others was not an aim secondary to considerations of justice, nor was it a matter of acting above and beyond the call of duty—fulfilling one’s social duty was the primary purpose of moral conduct. These differences lead to contrasting ways of determining what is moral. For instance, if there is no other way to help a friend in need, it would be ethical for an Indian to steal but unethical for an American to do so even if it means failing to help the friend.

These differences are not absolute; nonetheless, twice as many Indians as Americans would give priority to interpersonal considerations over abstract ethical principles. Moreover, Indians were more prone than Americans to make contextual exceptions (where the morality of an action depends on the nature of the relationship and the circumstances of the case), whereas Americans took a more absolute view about an action being right or wrong, irrespective of other considerations. The moral objective in the West, as noted above, is to avoid doing wrong and is more objective; in the East, it is to do what is right and is more subjective.

Similar considerations apply in other Asian cultures. In China, the family is the “great self. ” One starts by literally owing one’s life to one’s parents. One’s primary obligation in life is to serve and protect social ties, not pursue personal goals. Similarly, while Americans place a high premium on self-reliance, the Japanese favor interdependence and harmonious integration within the group. Individuals in both groups are highly competitive, but in different ways. Americans want to get ahead of others; the Japanese are concerned with not falling behind; instead of pushing ahead, they line up sideways.

The personal boundaries of Americans have been compared to the hard shell of an egg; those of the Japanese, to an egg’s soft internal membrane. Erich Lessing/Art Resource This individualistic-versus-interdependent basis of moral judgment helps clarify the problematic distinctions between shame and guilt cultures. Instead of these designations explaining differences in such a way that makes one culture seem morally superior to another, they explain cultural differences as the outcome of serving different needs.

In the Western context of individualism, guilt, with its emphasis on autonomy, provides a better moral foundation for guiding individuals who are responsible for themselves. With a lesser sense of responsibility for others, there is less need for shame as a form of social control. By contrast, in the Asian cultural context, where maintaining harmony in relationships is most valued, shame is a more effective means of moral control. Since personal boundaries extend beyond the individual, it becomes more difficult to generate guilt. When someone does wrong, it is not only the person but everyone related to that person who shares in the guilt.

Therefore, shame in Asian cultures fulfills some of the same functions of social control that guilt does in the West and vice versa. These considerations are important to our understanding of differences in the ways guilt and shame are perceived in Western and Eastern religion. . . . For instance, the centrality of shame in Confucianism has led to the general impression that Confucian China is a shame society, and hence is ethically less developed. [Religion scholar] Mark Berkson [MA ’92, PhD ’00] has raised cogent arguments that this characterization is not valid.

Confucian ethics, far from being ethically less well developed, offers much to others to learn from. While generally framed in East/West terms, these differences between guilt and shame can also be seen within Western culture itself in historical perspective. Homeric heroes in ancient Greece were driven by the twin virtues honor and fame. In their warlike society such virtues were best manifested on the battlefield. The self-esteem of heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, and Oedipus depended on their standing in the eyes of their peers, with whom they were in fierce competition and often conflict.

Failure led to loss of face and shame. Consequently, shame has been generally assumed to be the predominant moral sentiment that motivated and restrained the ancient Greeks. Their shame culture was based on public esteem. What mattered was where one stood with respect to one’s peers, who constituted an honor-group. This view has been challenged by moral philosopher Bernard Williams, who argues that Greek conceptions of shame also included elements of guilt. The moral objective in the West is to avoid doing wrong; in the East, to do what is right. These cultural differences are embedded in various languages as well.

This makes translating terms like guilt and shame a common source of confusion. For example, when we look for synonyms for shame and guilt in Chinese, we do not find single terms that correspond to them. Rather, we find a number of terms that correspond to various types of shame, making distinctions that do not exist in English. In some contexts, even guilt may appear as a subsidiary form of shame. Even if the terms to designate them vary, are these emotions universal or culture specific? Do an American and an Indian experience guilt and shame the same way, whatever they call them?

There are no simple answers to this question. Some emotions appear to be more universal than others; for instance, it is hard to imagine a culture that does not recognize expressions of fear or anger. However, when it comes to complex emotions like guilt and shame, which are more subject to cultural variation, the picture becomes less clear. Even the fact that a culture has no word for an emotion does not mean that the emotion it represents is absent. Linguists point out that even if certain emotions are universal, their terminology is not.

For instance, there is no word for “disgust” in Polish. And in one Australian aboriginal language, “fear” and “shame” are expressed by the same word (associated with the impulse to retreat). The common error is to start with one’s own language and look for exact translations in other languages. Ultimately, it is not through specific terms like “guilt” or “shame” but throughmetalanguage—descriptions of the essential elements in emotional states— that we can test the universality of the emotions. For instance, the answer to “How do you feel when you have lost someone dear to you? would convey the idea of sadness better than would the answer to the question “Do you feel sad? ” How does the evolutionary view help us in dealing with guilt? This is not a matter explicitly addressed by evolutionary psychologists. . . . Nonetheless, the evolutionary basis of the capacity for altruism and the capacity to feel guilty provides us with a natural foundation for guilt, and hence the need for its acceptance and usefulness. If guilt is indeed part of our nature, and there are good reasons for it, it makes no sense to fight it or deny it.

Accepting guilt as a fact of life therefore makes it easier to approach it in a positive manner, and perhaps helps us to resolve it in more authentic and adaptive ways. HERANT KATCHADOURIAN, who came to Stanford in 1966, is an emeritus professor of psychiatry and human biology and former president of the Flora Family Foundation. He has received the Dinkelspiel and Lyman awards and has been selected seven times as Outstanding Professor and Class Day speaker. HONOR AND SHAME IN A MIDDLE EASTERN SETTING| Roland Muller Copyright 2000 All rights reserved. Sociologists have recognized that three social issues have existed since earliest times.

As civilizations formed, each of them grappled with the concept of fear, shame and guilt. These are, in essence the building blocks of society. Every society has its particular ways of dealing with these issues. And each of these issues have different importance, depending on the cultural makeup of that society. These three aspects make up the basic building blocks of worldview. It is similar to the three basic colors that an artist mixes to make all the colors of the universe. On my computer, I can mix the three primary colors to make up 64 million other colors. That’s the way it is with worldview.

There are many different kinds of worldview, but when carefully examined they can be better understood when looking at them in the light of man’s response to guilt, shame and fear. Sociologists have used terms like guilt-based cultures, and shame-based cultures for years now. We must be careful, however, not to try and fit each culture or worldview into one specific category such as fear based or shame based. As I stated, these building blocks are similar to an artist, creating thousands of colors from three basic primary colors. How much of each primary color is used, determines what the final color will be when the paint is mixed.

In the same way, all three building blocks are present in all cultures and worldviews, but how much of each one is present, determines the actual type of culture that emerges. Having determined this, one must also consider how people in a particular local culture react to the elements of the overall culture. As an example, when an Arab is shamed, he may react by taking revenge on the one who causes the shame, but when an oriental is shamed, he may react by committing suicide. So while individual cultures may react to sin in different way, in general terms there are great blocks of the world that have similar worldviews.

Where are the major blocks? Many western nations (Northern Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand) have cultures that contain mostly guilt-based cultural characteristics. On the other hand, much of the Middle East and Asia is made up shame-based cultures. Most of the primal religions and cultures of the world (such as tribes in the jungles of Africa, Asia, and South America) are structured around fear-based principles. The problem comes when we want to simply classify cultures into these three basic classifications. They do not easily fit, because they are made up of blends of all three.

Thus, when analyzing a culture, one must look for the primary cultural characteristics, and then the secondary ones. As an example, many North American Native cultures are made up of elements of both shame-based and fear-based cultures. On the other hand, much of North American culture has been made up almost exclusively of guilt-based principles, although this has changed in the last two decades. As cultures and worldviews developed over the millennia, they have gravitated towards one of these groups. This polarization has created three mega-trends in worldview.

While the majority of worldviews fits into these three classifications, many cultures draw equally from two or all three worldviews. This mixing of worldviews is especially noticeable in South America where jungle tribes with fear-based cultures come in contact with shame-based cultures originating out of southern Spain, and guilt-based cultures brought by western religion and western business. The goal of this paper is to simply introduce the idea of guilt, shame and fear based cultures, and then to examine how the Nabataean culture fit into this picture.

Along the way I will use illustrations drawn from many cultures of the world, including modern Muslim culture. Guilt-Based Culture None of us lives in exactly the same culture. Culture varies from town to town, family to family and sometimes even from individual to individual. All of us are different. We are made up of different fabrics and formed by the different experiences that come into our lives on a day to day basis. Even those who try to define “American” or “Canadian” culture can only talk in vague generalizations. Americans come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and have all kinds of values.

Some live in middle class housing, some in cardboard boxes on the street, and some in large impressive mansions. It’s hard to place categorizations and descriptions on people who are so diverse. Despite this, however, there are some general characteristics or mega-traits that fit the majority of people in the western world. Certain basic fundamental beliefs have molded western civilization. These beliefs have laid the foundations upon which these nations are built, and from which the fabric of their society has been formed. One of these basic foundations is their belief in right versus wrong.

This understanding is so deeply ingrained in western culture, that westerners analyze almost everything from this perspective. Most western forms of entertainment are built upon ‘the good guys and the bad guys. ‘ It is so familiar to westerners that few of them question its validity. It is such an integral part of religion and society, that they often cannot imagine a world where ‘right versus wrong’ isn’t the accepted basic underlying principle. ‘Right versus wrong’ is the yardstick used in their culture to measure everything else with.

They talk about the rightness and wrongness of someone else’s actions. They talk about things being “right for me. ” They are obsessed with knowing their rights and exercising them. Many western societies spend countless hours and billions of dollars debating the wrongs of society. Is homosexuality right or wrong? Is spending billions on the military right or wrong? Is possession of drugs right or wrong? How about possession of nuclear bombs, or weapons of mass destruction? Almost every major issue the west struggles with involves an aspect of deciding whether something is right or wrong.

They arrive at this basic tension in life because almost everything in western culture is plotted on a guilt/innocence line. (Innocence being something defined as being right or righteousness). Guilt —————————- Innocence The pulls and demands of these two diametrically opposed forces dictate much of western human behavior. Guilt can plague and haunt people bringing fear and condemnation upon them. Many westerners do everything they can to avoid being guilty. Psychologists spend a great deal of their time helping people deal with all sorts of guilt complexes.

Evangelical Christians in particular, often live in circles that are governed by guilt principles based on the authority of the Bible. Outside of these circles, guilt is defined in many other ways. It can be a sense of public disapproval, being in trouble with the authorities, or not being politically correct. However guilt is defined, and to what extent it influences a culture varies widely from location to location. However, the understanding of right and wrong has been instrumental in forming much of western society. On the other end of the spectrum, is righteousness, or innocence.

This is the unspoken goal of much of western society. “I’m OK, you’re OK” is the most comfortable situation for many. Many westerners express their innocence with the statement that they are as good as the next person. If this is true, then they can get about their business of pursuing happiness and pleasure within the bounds of being OK and not guilty. Most westerners do what they can to avoid being guilty and at the same time exercise their rights. This guilt/innocence thinking is so ingrained in western society that most westerners have immediate reflexes to events that catch them off guard.

Being a westerner, I have often noticed some of the reflexes that we have developed. Have you ever noticed what happens in the swimming pool when the lifeguard blows his whistle? Almost all westerners will stop to see who is guilty, and when they realize they are innocent will resume swimming. This is a normal scenario from the western world, but it is not true in much of the eastern world. When we in the western world do something wrong, like unintentionally running a red light, we may feel guilty. This is also not necessarily true in the eastern world. Or, how about this scenario?

Imagine a classroom full of grade school kids. Suddenly, the intercom interrupts their class. Johnny is being called to the principle’s office. What is the immediate reaction of the other children? In the west the immediate reaction would almost always be: “What did you do wrong? ” Even western children almost always immediately assume guilt. Perhaps the school principal was going to hand out rewards, but much of western society conditions people to expect the worst, and they feel pangs of guilt. So much of western thinking is wrapped up in guilt. Wars are justified on the basis of establishing guilt.

During the opening days of the Gulf War, the American government spent many hours and millions of dollars determining if Saddam Hussein was guilty. Once they thought they had established that he was guilty of committing atrocities they had the right to take military action against him. Throughout the war, they continued to make statements about Mr. Hussein’s deranged mental state and irrational actions. All of this helped justify the war. In fact, all during the history of western civilizations, wars have had to be justified, and each side identifies the other as being the ‘bad guys. But some things are not easy to chart between right and wrong. Is a hungry child stealing food guilty? Should he be punished despite his hunger? These questions disturb us, because we feel that everything in life must fit somewhere between guilt and innocence. In fact, western association with guilt has gone so far as to provide an avenue for people to develop guilt complexes. They feel guilt for what they have done and also guilt for what they have not done. They even feel guilt for what others have done. People who struggle with a guilt complex can even be overcome with embarrassment and feelings of guilt from the actions of others.

The flip side of guilt is innocence, righteousness, and exercising rights. As I mentioned, “I’m OK, you’re OK” is an important philosophy in western culture. In order not to point a finger at people, western society continues to expand the limits of what is acceptable activity. By making homosexuality acceptable, they help thousands of people avoid feeling guilty. This alone is enough to convince many people in western society that it’s OK for people to be homosexual. In fact, almost anything is tolerated as long as it doesn’t hurt another person.

I have been surprised to discover that many people in our western world believe that our fixation with right and wrong is not only normal, but also the only correct way to think. They assume that anyone, who does not think in these terms, does not think rationally or logically. In order to understand guilt-based culture, we must go back to Greek and Roman times, and examine the origin of this pattern of thinking, and discover how this has had an impact on society and religion. The Roman Connection The Roman Empire has come and gone, leaving us with a few ruined cities, and a wealth of stories about conquest and heroism.

While most of what the Romans accomplished has disappeared, there is one facet of Roman life that has impacted the west, right down to the present. It is the Roman law, or the ‘pax romana’ (Roman peace) which was brought about by everyone obeying the Roman law. Roman law introduced the concept that the law was above everyone, even the lawmakers. This idea was not totally new. The Jews under Moses understood this. Greek politicians developed a similar plan with their city-state, but with laws that were man made, not divine. The Romans, however, perfected the system, and put it into widespread use.

They developed a type of democracy known as the republic. They put in place a complex legal system that required lawmakers, lawyers, and judges. This Roman system of law left a tremendous impact on western society. Even to this day, much of the western legal system is still built around the basic Roman code of law. Western civilization today is littered with references to the Roman Empire. Much of their coins, architecture, and language have Roman roots. Legal and economic theories are so filled with Romanisms that westerners no longer see them for what they are.

They have become so much a part of their mental furniture, that few people today question them. As an example, Roman law during the Roman Empire assumed that the individual’s rights were granted by the state (by government) and that lawmakers can make up laws. Under Roman law, the state was supreme, and rights were granted or erased whenever lawmakers decided. This philosophy is sometimes called ‘statism. ‘ Its basic premise is that there is no law higher than the government’s law. Roman politicians were not the first to invent statism but hey did such an effective job of applying it, that the Roman Empire has become the guiding star for politicians in the west. Statists see the “pax romana,” the period in which Rome dominated the Mediterranean world, as the golden days of statism. The known world was “unified” and controlled by one large government. This unification was symbolized in Roman times by something known as the fasces. This was a bundle of wooden rods bound together by red-colored bands. In ancient Rome the fasces was fixed to a wooden pole, with an ax at the top or side. This symbolized the unification of the people under a single government.

The ax suggested what would happen to anyone who didn’t obey the government. The Roman fasces became the origin of the word fascism. During Roman times, pax romana (the Roman peace) meant, “do as you are told, don’t make waves, or you will be hauled away in chains. ” Roman Law was supreme. In contrast to this, there was the old way of obeying the supreme ruler. Under this system, the word of the ruler was law. With the Republic, the Romans elevated law, so that it was above the ruler. Now everyone, even the emperor of Rome had to obey the law. The law, not the ruler determined if people were innocent or guilty.

It is interesting to note, that as the early Christian church developed and grew, Roman law also had an impact on Christian theology. Since Roman law interpreted everything in the terms of right versus wrong, early Christians were deeply influenced by this thinking. Early Church Theologians Tertullian, the early church father who first developed a code of systematic theology, was a lawyer steeped in Roman law. Using his understanding of law, and the need for justice, guilt, and redemption, he laid the basis for Christian systematic theology, as it would develop in the west.

Tertullian was born shortly before 160 AD, into the home of a Roman centurion on duty in Carthage. He was trained in both Greek and Latin, and was very much at home in the classics. He became a proficient Roman lawyer and taught public speaking and practiced law in Rome, where he was converted to Christianity. In the years that followed he became the outstanding apologist of the Western church and the first known author of Christian systematic theology. Basil the Great was born in 329 AD, and after completing his education in Athens he went on to practice law and teach rhetoric. In 370 AD, Basil, the awyer, became Basil the Bishop when he was elected bishop of Caesarea. During his time as Bishop he wrote many books in defense of the deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. Basil’s training in law and rhetoric gave him the tools he needed to speak out in defense of the church. Next came Augustine who was born in 354 AD into the home of a Roman official in the North African town of Tagaste. He received his early education in the local school, where he learned Latin to the accompaniment of many beatings. He hated studying the Greek language so much that he never learned to use it proficiently.

He was sent to school in nearby Madaura and from there went to Carthage to study rhetoric, a technique used in Roman law for debate. He then taught legal rhetoric in his hometown and Carthage until he went to Milan in 384 AD. He was converted in 386 and became a priest in 391. He returned to Africa and became a prolific writer and bishop. No other Christian after Paul has had such a wide and deep impact on the Christian world through his writings as Augustine. Ambrose was born around 340 AD, in Gaul. When his father, the prefect of Gaul, died, the family moved to Rome where Ambrose was educated for the legal profession.

Later, he was appointed civil governor over a large territory, being headquartered in Milan. Upon the death of the bishop of Milan in 374, the people unanimously wanted him to take that position. Believing this to be the call of God, he gave up his high political position, distributed his money to the poor, and became a bishop. In 374, Ambrose demonstrated his abili

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Guilt and Shame
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