Shame-culture and Guilt-culture

"Trial by media" is very much a feature of political life at the moment, and it works largely because it seems that the public has different standards of proof for misdemeanours among those in public life from those it maintains for private citizens. In public life it is enough to be "tainted" with suspicion for one's future to be blighted. In practice, the same is probably true of people accused of offences in their own small social world, and yet we maintain formally that justice operates on much more rigorous principles.

In other words, the rules about responsibility and blame are not the same across cultures or even across different sectors of the same culture. Clichés about there being "no smoke without fire" and "mud sticks" on the one hand, and being "innocent until proven guilty" on the other, for example, represent fundamentally different assumptions.  

I remember watching then-President Nixon on television trying to exculpate himself from the Watergate affair, and thinking then, "What proof could he conceivably - even in principle if not in reality - adduce which would lead people to believe him?" The answer, of course, was "none".  

A useful distinction for articulating these different assumptions and rules is that between "shame" culture and "guilt" culture.

It was articulated by Dodds (1951). Discussing ancient Greek epics and drama, he traced an increasing sophistication in their development, from a conception of the world and the moral order as arbitrary and subject to the whim of the gods, through to a later understanding of the limits of moral responsibility. Even among the great tragedians, for example, Aeschylus' Oresteian Trilogy is about individuals simply caught up in the workings out of the curse of Atreus; Sophocles makes the issue of responsibility more problematic, and for Euripides it resides more fully in the individual. Aristotle eventually identified "hamartia" or "tragic fault" as an attribute of the individual. Dodds typifies the distinction as that between "shame" and personal "guilt".  

Benedict (1946; rpr 1967) spells out the distinction in more detail in her discussion of Japanese culture, prepared during WW2 to help Americans to understand their enemies. She distinguishes between the "guilt culture" with which the West is familiar from its criminal justice system, and the "shame culture" of more collectivist Japan.  

We are familiar with the rules of a guilt-culture: it is after all the staple of crime stories in literature, film and TV. The wrongly-accused person, even someone who is "framed", struggles to demonstrate innocence and be vindicated - or wrestles with his (usually "his") conscience over an undetected crime. The rules can be expressed thus:


Other people believe:

I believe

I didn't do it

I did it

I didn't do it

No problem

I protest my innocence and fight the accusation

I did it

I am expected to feel guilty regardless

I am guilty and am punished

There are two parties to the process: myself and other people. The matrix is set up in terms of what we believe about my wrong-doing (we are only talking about wrong-doing here: credit for good works gets more complicated). I could have put what I know about my wrong-doing in the vertical column, but there are circumstances in which I may mistakenly believe I have done wrong (and feel deeply guilty about it), so belief rather than knowledge underpins this process.

In both cultures there is no problem if we all believe I did nothing wrong. Similarly, there is not much of a problem if we all agree I did it (although there may be arguments about the extent of my culpability). The issues arise in the face of disagreement. In a guilt-culture I will defend my innocence even if everyone else is blaming me. My internal and individualistic judgement is what counts. But by the same token, I may be wracked with secret guilt even if the world believes me innocent.

The positive aspect of guilt-culture at its best is its concern for truth and justice and the preservation of individual rights. The sense of guilt might also preserve us from engaging in wrong-doing which no-one would ever discover: but it can also be misplaced and potentially neurotic.


Other people believe:

I believe

I didn't do it

I did it

I didn't do it

No problem

I am shamed and dishonoured by their belief

I did it

No-one knows, so I am not shamed

I am guilty and am punished

In a shame-culture (sometimes referred to as "honour-shame culture), what other people believe is much more powerful. Indeed, my principles may be derived from the desire to preserve my honour or avoid shame to the exclusion of all else. The down-side is the licence it appears to give to engage in secret wrong-doing.

It may motivate me to ensure that I am not only innocent but am seen to be innocent: that I not only do not engage directly in criminal or antisocial behaviour, but that I stay far enough away from it not to be tainted by association in any way. This is the standard the media seem to expect of politicians and other public servants, because (as quoted above) "mud sticks", and there is "no smoke without fire".

On the other hand, suspicion becomes sufficient to convict in judicial terms. Moreover, in a pluralist society, culpability (I'm trying to avoid saying "guilt") may be determined by one powerful sector of society and in ignorance of the facts of the case, since there is less incentive to prove them. And in that plural society, if my particular sector or reference group think there is "nothing wrong with", say, driving after drinking alcohol or stealing from one's workplace or cheating an insurance company, it may not exert any influence on my behaviour in that respect. If we are to believe the myths, the Mafia is run on shame-culture.

The sources I cited have located shame-culture principally in the more collectivist societies of the East, but of course the two cultures co-exist (perhaps with different relative influences) everywhere.

The European and North American cultures, claiming a Judeao-Christian heritage, claim guilt-cultures. Psychologically, guilt is proclaimed to be a more "advanced" emotion than shame: Erikson's popular model of personality development (which respects other cultures than the North American) sees the emergence of basic shame as part of the second stage in the growth of the ego, but guilt as the third. He follows Freud, for whom the Oedipal stage was central to the development of the super-ego, with its capacity for generating guilt, which creates a social conscience. (Roughly!)

But shame is everywhere in the informal justice practised in families, schools and work-places.

"You are not coming out with me looking like that! You'll show me up!"

"One more sound out of this class, and you will all be kept in after school!"

Trivial, but shame-culture driven. Bernstein touches in passing on how positional ("Because I say so") rather than rational authority, tends to inculcate shame-culture. Even in the formal justice system, it has been argued that a "welfare" rather than "justice"-oriented approach  particularly to young offenders—making the punishment fit the criminal rather than the crime—has shame-culture connotations. (These dynamics are explored in much more detail in Douglas, 1973)

Neither culture is perfect: neither is alien to our experience. Expressions of "fault" and "fairness" can be found in both, but they operate according to very different rules.

"What matters is manners rather than morals," D J Enright observed, in writing about Genji. "And shame lies less in being naughty than in being so maladroit as to be discovered"

Pico Oyer reviewing OKADA S (1999) Western Writers in Japan  in Times Higher Education Supplement 14.5.99 p.26 

BENEDICT R (1967) The Chrysanthemum and the Sword London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

CHRISTOPHER R C (1983) The Japanese Mind: the Goliath explained Tokyo: Charles E Tuttle

DODDS E R (1951) The Greeks and the Irrational Berkeley: University of California Press 

DOUGLAS M (1973) Natural Symbols Harmondsworth; Penguin

ERIKSON E (1965) Childhood and Society Harmondsworth; Penguin

KIM, TRIADIS, et al (1994) Individualism and Collectivism London: Sage Publications  

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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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