At this point I would be remiss to omit that this conversation is going to have, at the very least, social, political and/or moral implications to its appreciation. I will be doing my very best to remain neutral in this endeavor, (with humorous exceptions,) it is hoped that the reader will reciprocate this subscription. Whether or not we deserve to be ashamed is not the question, nor are the motives of those who claim we should be, (this will be apparent enough with awareness.) Rather it is hoped that through this essay one might find a little promise for the future by resisting the shame and acting when appropriate, rather than when programmed to.
What does it mean to feel guilty? How is that different than being ashamed? What about embarrassment? The differences between shame, guilt and embarrassment, on the level of the individual experience and without taking into account any cultural significance are confusing enough. This is partially because of the interchangeability of the words “feeling” and “being.” The easiest way to keep this clear in our heads, (although, it is a bit of a cheat,) is to remember ,“The essence of Guilt is culpability.” “The essence of Shame is Fallibility.” Guilty is something you are or are not as well as feel or feel not. If you feel ashamed, you're ashamed, if it's you, you're it, no choice.
Both experiential norms and social norms are the constituents of Paradigm which is a major subject matter of my forthcoming book, “Anti-Social Engineering.” If you are interested in exploring these ideas further, please go to www.anti-socialengineering.com For now, let's remember that in psychological terms you can think of a Paradigm as a mental model about any particular subject. It can be as broad or specific as you like. The constituents of Paradigm are associations, which can be any single idea you have or a complicated web of associations, which you may or not be aware of. These constituents are organized by experience and influence into either experiential norms or social norms. Experiential norms make up the associations you have built yourself, free of influence. Social norms are the associations you have absorbed entirely from influence. Thus, in terms of guilt vs. shame, you feel guilty if you feel you are guilty, this is experiential. This does not mean that you can not experience “your own” shame , but rather that your shame paradigm comes from outside sources and guilt without culpability is shame. Shame is put upon you, feeling guilty is not. One can be guilty and not feel guilty, but one cannot be shamed and not feel ashamed.
If I were attempting to quit smoking cigarettes and everyday, while at work, I was cheating, (having a smoke,) I might feel guilty, because I am culpable. I might also be ashamed of myself because I have let myself down. “I have let myself down,” is a strange statement and further helps us delineate guilt from shame. It seems within this statement that there are really two of us, “Me” and my “self.” If “I” have let my “self” down, who is doing the judging and who is being judged? Psychology provides the answer that I will overly simplify accurately enough for our purposes: You are your ego, made up of your experiences. Your superego is the expectations you have of yourself, the part that judges from outside the ego. If it makes it easier, think of your superego like it was your parents, setting the standards that your ego (you) must try to live up to. So if I'm cheating on my stop smoking program and I feel badly about doing so it is my superego judging my ego that is causing it. It's perfectly plausible that my ego might be able to reason with my superego in the very common practice of an internal argument. This, of course is where talk to yourself, hopefully silently: “You shouldn't be doing this.” “I know, but it's just this one and one is better than a whole pack, isn't it?” “Yes, I suppose it is, but still...” If it was the case that my superego was able to be satisfied by this logic, I might not feel ashamed at all. The superego foundation of shame is what makes it heteronomous as opposed to autonomous, (subject to external rules rather than internal rules.) For, even, if I am feeling shame for an internal rule that I created for myself, (such as “I'm not going to smoke anymore,”) I must judge myself from the superego, which is a product of social norms, or external forces. Thus, “I” am able to disparage my “self.” (This is probably the most controversial statement in this essay as it logically leads to the conclusion that, if the superego is heteronomous, there is actually no such thing as the autonomous self.)
If, however, I had made my intentions to quit smoking clear to others I will have let them down, if only in my own self-opinion. I might even be able to assuage my guilt with the same logic as before but it is unlikely that I'll be able to not be ashamed because now my shame is known. It's one thing to be able to convince your superego to shut up but something completely different to convince someone else of the same. This is where embarrassment comes into play. If someone knows my shame, it is embarrassing. There has been some question to whether or not shame and embarrassment are the same thing. They are not. Embarrassment can happen without being attached to shame and shame can occur without embarrassment. This is not to say they are mutually exclusive, it is completely acceptable to say that one can be embarrassed by one's shame, (provided it is known,) but to say that one is shamed by one's embarrassment is redundant. If one can be embarrassed by something that is considered not shameful, shame and embarrassment are not linear. For instance, even the most graceful dancer will occasionally trip over their own feet. If it were to happen during a performance it is likely that the dancer would be very embarrassed and ashamed. They may feel guilty of ruining the whole performance, even if no one noticed. However, if their tumble took place on a sidewalk for no apparent reason they might feel embarrassed but not feel ashamed. If they were drunk and slipped on some ice, even if they were seen by others who laughed mockingly at them, they might laugh right along with them, feeling no embarrassment at all. So here again, the definition of guilt is objective and shame is subjective. It has been said, quite correctly, that “you feel guilt about your actions, you feel shame about your person.” Embarrassment is actually irrelevant to this conversation because it is independent of guilt and shame, collectively or not, I only bring it up to point out this fact.
On a biological level, guilt is a necessity, shame, it seems, is not. Guilt is required for empathy, which is required for cooperation. Shame is humiliation based on a perceived flaw. While this is a very powerful emotion and tool it seems to me to be entirely constructionist and, at the least, as a social norm, may or may not be eudaemonic. On the level of mirror neurons, the domain of guilt and shame are at the forefront of recent Science. In fact, most of the research done for this essay, couldn't have been done previous to 2007. (I will offer links at the end.) I think that Mirror Neurons are one of the most exciting fields of study that promises real hope at beginning to understand consciousness. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of what is known and our own specialized goals in this conversation, I will have to again sum up the idea in a few sentences. Essentially, the idea is that we have empathetic brain neuron impulses that mimic actual events, when only thinking about those events. Of course it's much more convoluted and important than this, but it dumbs all the way down to a man saying “Ugh,” when he sees another man get kicked in the testicles. It is this exact process that stops us from ignoring a babies cries or forces us to perhaps interfere when someone is being treated poorly. For our intents and purposes, know that guilt is required by humans, shame may or may not be.
To sum up, feeling guilty is due to a perceived mistake or wrongdoing, you can make amends, Feeling ashamed is an internal admission to having something wrong with you, requiring repair.
So far, we have only really examined the similarities and differences of an individual's interpretations of either shame or guilt, but what of collective guilt and collective shame? It turns out that groups deal with collective guilt and shame much the same as individuals. This can best be summed up with the following quote, “In the case of guilt, people feel that wrongs committed by their ingroup implicate something about their own personal behavior (i.e. What they should and shouldn't have done,) whereas in the case of shame, they feel that wrongs committed by their ingroup implicate something about the very nature of who they are.” -"Collective Guilt – International Perspectives", edited by Nyla R. Branscombe and Berjan Doosje, Cambridge University Press.
When you feel collective guilt you are accepting that someone from the collective to which you belong, (your ingroup,) had (or has or will have) some level of control over the thing your feeling guilty about. Perhaps your great-grandfather, for instance, could have acted and didn't, or shouldn't have acted but did. At any rate, you have attached his culpability to yours. If it is collective shame you are feeling, then in our same scenario, you feel there was something wrong with your great-grandfather. His decision, whatever it was, was faulty and that fallibility reflects poorly upon you, because you are like him in this capacity, by relation. It might seem that you should be able to feel ashamed of your great-grandfathers' actions without feeling guilty of exhibiting the same behavior or “carrying it's potential” but if this is the case, you are not ashamed, you are embarrassed. Shame is flaw, as far as we're concerned, if you feel you don't share your great-grandfathers' fault, you can't be feeling shame. If you accept even partial blame and are able to attach yourself to the blameworthy group, or if you can recognize in yourself the same things that made your great-grandfather the magnificent bastard he was, guilt and shame can be all yours for the low, low price of doing nothing. Finally, remember that guilt leads into shame, even collectively, by a perceived flaw in one's self or one's group and that you aren't going to feel flawed, if you don't feel guilty of the commission or at least the ability to fall prey to the exemplification of the flaw. We will shortly begin to examine how it is that, from certain angles, we are all part of the Ingroup of our species and this is cause enough.
At this point we must leave the safe, albeit confusing, world of the self and branch out in our observations. What can we expect from guilt and shame, on as grand a scale as that of a human society? When we say that a culture is either shame based or guilt based we are differentiating between dichotomous perceived social consequences. In 1946 Ruth Benedict, an American Anthropologist wrote a book called “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” that attempted to define the difference between a guilt culture (represented by America) and a shame culture (represented by Japan.) Essentially the differences, as she saw them, are illustrated by this simple chart below.
Benedict was attempting to compare and contrast the differences between American and Japanese cultures. The possible propagandist reasons for producing such a study, nor even any relevant moral bias present in the work do not sully our investigations. In fact, in the spirit of the whole thing, I see it as Cowboy Culture vs. Samurai Culture. Both the Cowboy and the Samurai have honor. Both are powerful and mysterious and I should be able to exploit their metaphorical value without offending either represented parties, too much. It's quite plain to see the differences demonstrated by this chart: In a guilt culture our Cowboy protests his innocence, is concerned with justice, is honest and forthright. He also expects you to stand up to him and be as forthright as he is. The Samurai is honor bound and as honor (the opposite of shame,) is bestowed by others he is reliant upon you to make him what he is. Even the suggestion of transgression is too great a burden to bear. He will continue to hide any guilt, apparently without consequence, as long he can. So while the chart makes the Samurai look weak, needy and sneaky, with his reactions easily programmable by social norms, the Cowboy, justice bound, is democratic, free and responsible. What the chart doesn't address is how the Cowboy is selfish, how he, as someone who can be accused and not suffer, is spoiled. The Cowboy is left to his own devices while the Samurai is accountable to his culture. There are Anthropological reasons for this we can easily suss out by merely taking into account the geography, isolation and age of the Japanese culture. No one, however, is talking about how one of these things seems more altruistic than the other, or the threat this fact poses. Guilt Culture is: “Sit down. Shut up. Do as I say. Because I told you so. Shame culture says, “What is wrong with you? You must be some kind of idiot if you do or don't think “this” or “that” way. You end up, when you reduce it to the level of one's experience of it, in a game of either “I say” or “They say.” (Thus, selfishness vs. altruism.) It then becomes a question of “What do they say?” and therein lay dangers.
The problem with Ruth's argument is in the determination of “just what the hell is happening on this chart?” She is not measuring or defining anything by essentially asking, “How is it that a shame based culture feels differently about being guilty than a guilt based culture feels about feeling guilty.” Ruth's mistake is that she appears to be comparing and contrasting two different logical species. She is attempting to mash together two incongruent quantifications. It shouldn't be about being guilty and feeling ashamed, is should be about feeling guilty and feeling ashamed. Again, the confusion with “being” vs. “feeling.” Furthermore, these charts categorize our feelings of guilt in either a guilt based culture or shame based culture, and say nothing about the categorization of shame in both cultures. If one attempts to argue that Ruth is asking “Are we shamed by our guilt, dependent on culture type?” (which is what she seems to want to ask,) she is, by utilizing the above chart as an answer, actually only asking, “Is our guilt known?” which is to either mistake embarrassment for shame or guilt for shame.
I bring up Benedict's chart only to help differentiate how both cultures associate guilty feelings from shame feelings and vice versa. I'm certainly not here to pick a fight with Ruth Benedict's chart, especially considering that, despite her unscientific way of deliberating her theory, it is, at it's core, correct. The Cowboy does protest his innocence and the Samurai is honor bound. I have already stated that because embarrassment is independent of either shame or guilt, but further to that confusion; feeling guilty is only the product of either being guilty or perceiving yourself to be guilty, regardless of culture. If you don't think your guilty, you're not going to feel guilty. However, feeling ashamed can be either the product of being guilty or being perceived as guilty, also regardless of culture. This is because one can reasonably believe, “There must be something wrong with me if they think I'm guilty of that.”
Ruth's chart is a categorization of appearances. So if the Samurai's guilt is not known, he has the appearance of innocence, he is not ashamed. However, as mentioned above, this does not take into account the self assignation of shame via the superego, built from social constructs. Similarly, the Samurai may feel shame at the mere accusation of guilt. While this may be true, on the chart and in life, it is certainly doesn't have to be true. What if I feel guilty of doing something wrong for what I feel are the right reasons. This again is appearances, but this time the Samurai has donned a Cowboy hat, and judges himself. Is it going to be culturally significant if I steal medicine I can't afford? Conversely, if the Cowboy stole the medicine, would he be ashamed or even feel guilty? Would the people at the pharmacy think he was guilty, would the family of the sick person think the Cowboy should be ashamed? It has become a matter of degrees. In the language the chart uses, the Cowboy “should” feel guilty if he is, yet the Samurai “does” feel ashamed by any accusation. This makes shame culture insistent and guilt culture suggestive. Due to the fact that cultural guilt and shame are influenced by social norms, yet ultimately processed by you, it all comes down to, and ends, with you. If it ends with you, how is it that cultural guilt and shame even exist? It turns out that it is a lengthy changing of habits of perception. In our times, modernity provides the opportunity for an increase in the power of the individual. When one gains power over their “selves,” the idea of this power becomes ingrained into the psyche of the society, until finally, the Eastern paradigm becomes more like the Western, the Western more like the Eastern and the individual chooses to deal with these feelings independently, rather than as any particular culture dictates. Once this reality becomes a social norm we become products of our own choosing, or as my Philosopher friend Gerhard Adam suggested, “Humans domesticating themselves.” Of course, the problems inherent in this reality are the same as we find ourselves dealing with in our concerns of complexity, modernity, etc. We are not actually able to make up our own minds. If one could consciously contemplate any paradigm fully, would one be able to separate truths from lies, right from wrong, suggestion from insistence, etc? Perhaps, some small part of the equation can be trusted, if you work hard, at every idea, all the time. This also says nothing of our awareness of the situation, indeed, for most of us, the hidden hand of influence remains unexamined. We react, we know not why.
After considering Ruth's table and it's correlations, it logically proves four statements, which are actually the repetition of the following two statements:
1.) In a shame culture, my feelings of guilt, (or shame,) are determined by your expectations of me.
2.) In a guilt culture, my feelings of guilt, (or shame,) are determined by my expectations of myself.
Before we begin our examination of “the Message” and “the Phenomenon,” let us briefly restate the effects of guilt and shame. Regardless of culture people respond to guilt and shame in very similar ways, culture, if it has any affect on the individual, only either increases or reduces the effect. While there is a range of reaction to these emotions they generally fall into these categories: Guilt leads to sadness, shame leads to anger. This is somewhat of an oversimplification but in order to make my case that Western culture is being steered into the shame culture paradigm, we really only need to realize that human responses to shame are more powerful and more goal directed than responses to guilt. Guilt can be absolved, shame we'll have to work on. Shame is a quicker cut and bleeds more.
This concludes Part I of "Shame Theory" part two is available here.
- Have You Visited The Doctor? There's A 50 Percent Chance It Was A Guilt Trip
- Environmental Guilt Is Big Business
- Shame Theory- Part II- The Rampant Ineptitude of Modernity.
- Sexual Harassment: The three sins of Christian Ott.
- Childhood Obesity And Parental Responsibility: Not As Easy As Some Would Have It