Guilt societies and shame societies

I have been talking about his recently. It is actually something out of sociology, and I read about it somewhere on the internet many years ago now. So it’s not my idea, but it has to do with the difference in societies where GUILT holds a certain prominence, as opposed to societies where SHAME is the more significant thing.

America, as well as most of Europe, is held to be a “Guilt Society”. This means that in any unfortunate situation one might find him or herself in, it’s really about the guilt. Is the person guilty of some transgression? Yes, sure there’s shame. But it’s more a focus on guilt. You are held in high or low regard based on the guilt.

Different than this, are societies that are focused on shame. “Shame Society” considers whether or not you have shame. And, yes, there is the idea of guilt in these societies, but it hangs more on whether you have shame.

Japan is considered a shame society.

Now, let’s analyze this.

You have to click to enlarge, as always, but this is an analysis of how it goes in a guilt society:

As you can see, the diagram is divided into what is the actual truth, versus what the rest of the people of the group think. That’s life, isn’t it? We all know, or feel very confident about, something that is true. The true situation. The real situation. And then there’s what the other people might think. Sure, they don’t all think the same, but that generality, that reputation.

In a Guilt Society, if you did something, and yes, the other people think you did, too, then you have guilt. That’s the basis of the trial and the jury. Did you do it? And also, when you consider Judeo-Christianity, that is your relationship to God. Depending on your sect and beliefs in free will, your actions are accountable to God.

So guilt is very much some internalized thing, as well as something that the community can judge. Therefore, in the box below DID IT / DID IT is the one where you did do something, but other people don’t think so, or aren’t aware, or don’t consider it.

And in this box, you still have the guilt! Regardless of what the other people think, whatever you did, you did! It’s still there, that blotch on the soul. It was something you did, and it was wrong, and whether or not you people know it or whether you are willing to consider it, you “own” that bad thing! That is guilt society.

And so the converse (upper right), where you DIDN’T do some bad thing, or it’s not your responsibility or fault, but the other people think it is. They think you are guilty, but you are not! What is the response? PROTEST your innocence! “Hey, I didn’t do it!” “Look, it’s not my fault!” This is the natural response, right? It even goes to convoluted, but usually not-so-convoluted, reasons and excuses why you are NOT guilty in a situation. “It was not me but other people!”, “I can’t be responsible for someone else’s actions!”, “People before me took the land from the Indians or paid hard cash for it!”, etc. etc.

The fourth box, where you didn’t do it, and no one thinks you did, needs no further explanation. Everything is O.K.

Now consider the Shame Society:

A society based on shame works a little differently. There, the idea is that there is shame, and you either have it or you don’t. It’s really not about you, it’s about what the other people think of you.
And as you can see from the chart, if they think your action is shameful, then it is whether you did something or are responsible for something or not.

Shame is basically put on you and stuck to you.

So where I have the arrows there between the two diagram boxes, this is where the misunderstandings and tension arise when people of the Guilt Society intermingle with those of the Shame Society.

For as you can see, in the box of the upper right, whether or not you did, or are ultimately responsible for some bad thing, your shame status is going to depend on what the other people think. Your actual guilt or as we see it, responsibility, in the situation is only just a factor in whether there is shame or not.

And so human nature of course, people try to avoid shame as much as they try to avoid guilt. But the idea of protest in the Shame Society just makes the shame worse, if the people think you have it. So it’s better just to shut up and take your shame, (and plan to impose the shame in revenge on whoever stuck you with the trouble. . . .)

The other box that’s different is the one where you actually did do some bad thing, but the other people don’t think it or don’t consider it. Then, in the Shame Society, you get a free pass. Even though you are guilty. For us, we look at this as a moral failing. After all, you did the bad thing, and you either knew or should have known that it was a bad thing. And, inside, don’t you really think it was a bad thing? No matter what the other people think or don’t. If ever it came to be that everyone knew this—and surely God does—don’t you realize the guilt that would be on you? You have it whether the people think so or not. That’s guilt.

But in the shame society, you can do some terrible thing, but if the other people are oblivious, the shame does not attach to you. Sure, you can feel bad or guilty about it inside all you want. But no one else cares, it doesn’t matter.

Again, this general construct is not my idea—some academic came up with it decades ago. But I see it in the interaction between Western Culture and Japan, which is decidedly an Eastern Culture no matter how much these poor people worry about being overly influenced by the West. (Good luck! You could never really be a Western culture without a wholesale transfusion of everything about Japan. It didn’t happen after World War Two, and so don’t worry about being infiltrated even.)

Sometime shortly I will put out some concrete examples to back up what I am talking about.


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