Shame vs Guilt: The Rise of Shaming in Western Cultures

Shame vs Guilt: The Rise of Shaming in Western Cultures April 30, 2019

Guilt is often something associated with the Catholic Church. However, according to many, it goes deeper and larger than that. Guilt can be seen as very much a western, cultural characteristic that is used to great effect in more individualistic cultures. Shame, on the other hand, can be seen as more of a collectivist cultural tool.

I have previously talked about the difference between individualistic and collectivists cultures in my post “Sapolsky on Cultures: Collectivist vs Individualistic”.

Here is an excerpt from Robert Sapolsky’s Behave [UK here], after which I will discuss the ideas:


We return to our contrast between collectivist and individualistic cultures (in the studies, as a reminder, “collectivist” has mostly meant East Asian societies, while “individualistic” equals Western Europeans and North Americans). Implicit in the very nature of the contrast are markedly different approaches to the morality of ends and means. By definition, collectivist cultures are more comfortable than individualistic ones with people being used as a means to a utilitarian end. Moreover, moral imperatives in collectivist cultures tend to be about social roles and duties to the group, whereas those in individualistic cultures are typically about individual rights.

Collectivist and individualistic cultures also differ in how moral behavior is enforced. As first emphasized by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict in 1946, collectivist cultures enforce with shame, while individualistic cultures use guilt. This is a doozy of a contrast, as explored in two excellent books, Stanford psychiatrist Herant Katchadourian’s Guilt: The Bite of Conscience and NYU environmental scientist Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary?

In the sense used by most in the field, including these authors, shame is external judgment by the group, while guilt is internal judgment of yourself. Shame requires an audience, is about honor. Guilt is for cultures that treasure privacy and is about conscience. Shame is a negative assessment of the entire individual, guilt that of an act, making it possible to hate the sin but love the sinner. Effective shaming requires a conformist, homogeneous population; effective guilt requires respect for law. Feeling shame is about wanting to hide; feeling guilt is about wanting to make amends. Shame is when everyone says, “You can no longer live with us”; guilt is when you say, “How am I going to live with myself?”*

From the time that Benedict first articulated this contrast, there has been a self-congratulatory view in the West that shame is somehow more primitive than guilt, as the West has left behind dunce caps, public flogging, and scarlet letters. Shame is the mob; guilt is internalizing rules, laws, edicts, decrees, and statutes. Yet, Jacquet convincingly argues for the continued usefulness of shaming in the West, calling for its rebirth in a postmodernist form. For her, shaming is particularly useful when the powerful show no evidence of feeling guilt and evade punishment. We have no shortage of examples of such evasion in the American legal system, where one can benefit from the best defense that money or power can buy; shaming can often step into that vacuum. Consider a 1999 scandal at UCLA, when more than a dozen healthy, strapping football players were discovered to have used connections, made-up disabilities, and forged doctors’ signatures to get handicapped parking permits. Their privileged positions resulted in what was generally seen as slaps on the wrist by both the courts and UCLA. However, the element of shaming may well have made up for it—as they left the courthouse in front of the press, they walked past a phalanx of disabled, wheelchair-bound individuals jeering them.

Anthropologists, studying everyone from hunter-gatherers to urbanites, have found that about two thirds of everyday conversation is gossip, with the vast majority of it being negative. As has been said, gossip (with the goal of shaming) is a weapon of the weak against the powerful. It has always been fast and cheap and is infinitely more so now in the era of the Scarlet Internet.

Shaming is also effective when dealing with outrages by corporations. Bizarrely, the American legal system considers a corporation to be an individual in many ways, one that is psychopathic in the sense of having no conscience and being solely interested in profits. The people running a corporation are occasionally criminally responsible when the corporation has done something illegal; however, they are not when the corporation does something legal yet immoral—it is outside the realm of guilt. Jacquet emphasizes the potential power of shaming campaigns, such as those that forced Nike to change its policies about the horrific working conditions in its overseas sweatshops, or paper giant Kimberly-Clark to address the cutting of old-growth forests.

Amid the potential good that can come from such shaming, Jacquet also emphasizes the dangers of contemporary shaming, which is the savagery with which people can be attacked online and the distance such venom can travel—in a world where getting to anonymously hate the sinner seems more important than anything about the sin itself.

This is an incredibly topical subject because the atmosphere on the internet and social media particularly, and being talked about by many commentators, is one of public shaming that has resulted in the development of the term Social Justice Warrior. In fact, shame seems to have become far more prevalent in Western cultures over the last few years as a tool for enacting moral justice.

It annoys me that the left, in general, is maligned and tarred with the brush of the radical left whose shrill attacks on just about anyone for almost anything is conferred as an attribute upon the whole of the left by anyone else. When this is done through social media, and the effects of these attacks are so obviously public, then we have a case of very obvious public shaming. As mentioned by Sapolsky above, this can be particularly effective in holding large corporations to account. So often, these corporations appear to be above the law and unaccountable to anyone. When a tidal wave of social media backlash hits these corporations and their public image is dented (and thus their profits), then public shaming can be seen as an effective tool for the good of society.

Politicians are held to account in a way that they never previously have been, and I think this is generally a really good thing. They are being taken to town for saying and believing things that are, by and large, morally corrupt. But, I’m sure many will disagree, and ask who gets to arbitrate what is morally corrupt? Is this just a case where we set up the stocks in the village square and whichever group has the loudest voice gets to punish?

So can this go too far? I think we can all give examples of when public shaming has been inappropriate or mishandled or misguided or just downright wrong. As Sapolsky he points out above, however, there can often be personal damage that goes above and beyond. And, as mentioned, anonymity on the internet can be part of the problem. I know that people don’t want their past to come back and haunt them, but hiding behind anonymity on forums and social media can be problematic. I’m not saying that anyone who uses a non-anonymous handle is therefore somehow corrupted. Not at all. Most people on these threads here have anonymous handles. But it certainly can be a problem. Twitter can be a vicious battleground where you end up fighting with people who are effectively invisible. And this seems to be an issue for all sides of the political polygon.

But let’s look at the balance here. Does this happen more often than examples of when public shaming through social media and other avenues obtains a positive end? I can think of a multitude of examples where people and corporations have been properly held to account by, ostensibly, the internet.

Whatever the answer to this question may be, the simple fact of the matter is that public shaming through social media is now a thing. Shame is a tool currently used everywhere, no matter what the culture (though it may look very different from culture to culture). Perhaps, in a funny way, social media has made our Western societies more collectivist. I don’t know, maybe we would have to closely define the term collectivist. Perhaps we are throwing off our individualistic shackles as socialism no longer becomes a dirty word for many, particularly on the other side of the pond.


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