Guilt and Shame

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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. 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...
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