Friday, April 10, 2015

Misunderstanding Shame and Guilt

It’s a shame that Eric Posner does not have a better understanding of shame. Or of guilt, for that matter.

A law professor at the University of Chicago, Posner suggests that shame and guilt cultures differ because the latter enforces moral norms through the rule of law while the latter enforces them through mob action.

Here, Posner defines a shaming culture:

Shaming is a form of social control. It occurs when a person violates the norms of the community, and other people respond by publicly criticizing, avoiding, or ostracizing him. Shaming has always been extraordinarily important—often, even more important than the formal legal system. In the distant past, when legal systems were rudimentary, shaming was a major source of public order.

He continues:

On the one hand, shaming is the very antithesis of the law. The basic principle of due process holds that a person has a right to contest charges or claims against him to an impartial tribunal before the government may inflict a sanction on him. By contrast, shaming occurs in the absence of due process. While it is triggered by a perceived act of wrongdoing, no one takes responsibility for establishing what happened. Instead, others react, often instinctively and harshly, and often to emphasize their own virtue through their condemnation of someone else’s vice. The upshot is a reaction that looks a lot like mob rule.

Posner is obviously mischaracterizing shame. If he opposes the social value of shame that suggests that he must be wanting to promote a culture of shamelessness.

Today’s American culture is more shameless than shaming. Consider the pervasiveness of oversharing and sexting.

Whatever the value of due process, it certainly not desirable to criminalize all forms of impolite, even rude behavior. Doing so creates what has aptly been called a police state.

Does Posner want to enforce good table manners through the court system? Does he believe that those who are rude, lewd and crude, who do not obey the norms of decorous behavior should be prosecuted?

And what would he say about the shame that attends failure? Leaders who fail—think military officers who lose major battles—are obliged to resign their office in disgrace. Having lost the respect of their troops they can no longer function as leaders.

Does Posner believe that they ought to be arrested and tried for crimes against their troops?

Of course, if they have betrayed their troops by siding with the enemy, they have committed treason and should be put on trial. But if they simply lost a battle or a war because of bad planning, they have not committed a crime.

Try another example.

Once upon a time-- a time that I, for one remember well—relationships between the sexes were conducted according to codes of conduct. Men were required to act like gentlemen. Women were told to be ladylike.

Since courtship and dating were in principle supposed to end in marriage, people were more likely to respect each other and less likely to use each other for transitory gratification.

It was not so much that miscreants and offenders were shamed and ostracized. People obeyed the norms of dating because these norms made sense and produced good relations between the sexes. People who failed to respect the norms had more difficulty forming and sustaining relationships.

Posner notwithstanding, a shaming culture encourages good behavior more than it sanctions bad behavior. It isn’t about mob rule. It’s about a polite and harmonious society.

Posner should have known that the world’s great shame cultures, cultures like Japan and even Great Britain have strict codes of personal conduct, codes that produce social harmony. It is absurd to say that these cultures are beset by mob rule.

Take table manners. Clearly, they are a positive behavior. We know that there are sanctions for people who chew with their mouths open or who use the wrong fork or spoon, but most people are happy to learn proper table manners. They are not motivated by fear.

Surely, Posner does not believe that the sanctions for bad table manners should involve the due process of law?

In America, of course, the codes of gentlemanly and ladylike conduct are now relics. They were rejected and denounced by second wave feminists. We are told that most young people do not even date any more.

In the absence of such norms we used to have a hookup culture. We also have pervasive sexting. We have crude, rude and lewd behaviors. And we now have something that the feminists are calling a “rape culture.”

By all statistical indications the problem of “rape” is not as prevalent on college campuses as the supporters of rape culture would have it. But surely the hysteria about the problem of campus sexual abuse derives in part from the fact that the old forms of respectful and courteous behavior were denounced as repressive by certain groups in society.

Once those rules are tossed out, both women and men are likely to be treated disrespectfully.

In the absence of viable social norms our culture is attempting to regulate relations between the sex with the criminal law. It invents more and more taboos, criminalizes many forms of male behavior and that punishes miscreants, either through the courts or through the kinds of high-tech lynchings that pass for shaming.

A true shame culture allows people who break the rules or who fail at a socially responsible task to offer a public apology and to retire from public life for a time.

As a rule public shaming is only a fallback position when the individual does not apologize.

In a normless culture, like ours, shaming is often be misapplied. Using shame as a way to punish people indiscriminately is not part of a shaming culture. It is part of a guilt culture.

To be more precise, in a guilt culture shame does not disappear. It becomes more intense and unmanageable.

Shame cultures are about avoiding shame. They prescribe a series of positive behaviors that will make you a member in good standing of your group and will make you a moral individual. Following these rules will shield you from shame.

When these norms break down, those who experience shame will not know what to do to restore their feeling of belonging to a group. And thus they will feel overwhelmed by shame. They will lash out at those who witnessed their shame. This makes life more chaotic and anarchic. People will turn to the courts to impose order on the chaos.

Shame will not disappear. People will no longer believed that anyone can have enough moral sense to apologize for bad behavior and mend his ways. Thus, they will humiliate him before he even has the chance to apologize... and even if he does apologize.

Shame will then become a handmaiden of the judicial system. When a mob shames people openly, no one is given the chance to apologize. If they do apologize their words are disregarded.

Some people today propose more public shaming, but they want to use it to punish those politically incorrect few who fail to adhere to the liberal pieties. Frustrated by due process and offended by those who do not think as they do or feel as they feel, they want to police thought and punish those who stray from the party line.

Posner writes:

Shaming seems like a democratic, cost-effective, and fluid device for combating environmental degradation, racism, and homophobia—for creating a virtuous society.

We should have a serious discussion about what makes for a virtuous society, but it is reasonably certain that it not should be defined by the willingness to adhere to the left’s political agenda. These are not social norms. They are political dogmas that define membership in the Church of the Liberal Pieties.

I will repeat, a shame culture sets down rules for harmonious social conduct… like table manners. It’s a long way from table manners to leftist policy prescriptions and enforced dogmatic beliefs.

Shame cultures value good behavior. They do not value ideological conformity and do not persecute people for their beliefs.

Guilt cultures want you to feel guilty, for crimes and sins, real and imagined. Shame cultures are designed to ensure that you avoid feeling ashamed.

In the old days when there really was a shame culture, people practiced the basic forms of polite and courteous. They did not malign and insult people because they it was rude to do so.

Even when they did, the insults were easier to handle... because people were less threatened by ostracism.

Posner is disturbed by the potential for injustice in a shaming culture:

That is why people can easily be shamed even though they did nothing wrong or not be shamed even though they did do something wrong. It also explains why, as Ronson documents, people are often punished in a way that does not reflect the severity of their conduct. Law displaced shaming because such a chaotic system can do as much harm as good.

Different cultures place a different emphasis on shame and guilt. When adultery was believed to be a transgression producing guilt, the guilt was dealt with through the confessional. It was, dare we say, largely ineffective in controlling the incidence of adultery.

When, as I explained in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, cultures decided that adultery should not be countenanced, they started shaming adulterers. But, but they also instituted the practice of allowing women to have a free choice of a spouse, practice that was relatively rare in cultures where marriages were arranged and where the price of adultery was penance.

As we know in the case of Japan and Great Britain and many other places, shame cultures are anything but chaotic. When social norms break down the law enters the picture as a potential savior. And yet, a police state is necessary intrusive and invasive. It attempts to control all aspects of human behavior, both public and private, and to criminalize those it does not like.

Those who want the court system to replace social norms ought to understand—as I fear they do not—that their reasoning leads to the creation of police states.


Ares Olympus said...

A very important discussion, and I confess I can be as easily confused as Posner. And perhaps the problems in communication always come down to definitions and clarity of examples what we're talking about.

Like the example of table manners are very different category than adultery, as well as the first being about what you SHOULD do, and the second what you SHOULD NOT do. And we can agree that table manners are subjective, cultural, so good manners for one culture, or even one family can be different from another culture or family, and its when people from divergent backgrounds meet, we have to consider "rules" of whose manners should be followed. You could say a "host" sets the standards, and then has to demonstrate proper behavior so anyone who observes can learn without being explicitly told what to do.

And I agree policing and courts are the last-resorts of disputes, and have no guarantee of justice. And that's for example why America moved to "no fault divorces" after the divorce spikes of the 1970s, because lawyer mentality of distorting facts to demonstrate victim status as well as legally extracting every advantage you can get makes for hard feelings, and especially intractable problems when you leave kids in the middle of two hostile parents.

I wonder if the concept of "Covenant marriage" relates to shame vs guilt? Anyway, a bigger issue than whether to talk with food in your mouth.

I also wonder about the nature of "status" in shame cultures vs guilt cultures. What I'd imagine is high status people have a greater ability to avoid things like good manners if they chose, without social consequences, but probably shame cultures also contain an idea of "duty" so people with high status feel its their duty to lead by example, and this gives them the moral authority as well to rebuke those who fail the standard.

And one related subject is the degree which money now dominates our lives, so money is our "ultimate status", and we express our approval and disapproval of others by how we spend our money, so if a server is rude or "too familiar" or whatever transgression, you take your business elsewhere.

So this would seem to be a degenerate form of shame culture, where people with money make arbitary rules that make them feel good in the moment, and those without money learn to be "performers", like a prostitute, acting in whatever fantasy relationship the client wants, and because everyone is different, the only standard is deciding who has the status in a relationship, and if its the other, adapting yourself to who you think they want you to be.

So that sounds bad, and if we consider it in a shame culture like Japan, you could try to compare the Geisha role, and consider the "degeneracy" is only a real risk if she sees status in the PERSON she is serving rather than in the role they are playing?

So to counter that degeneracy in whatever sort of culture you find yourself, there's a question how to hold yourself from your role. The ritual role allows harmonious relations, and the self behind the role has some will to be more than that role.

And for Great Britain, we have Kipling's advice in his poem If-more about the person behind whatever roles you are playing at the moment.

Kipling's advice may be grandiose, but an internal standard which doesn't depend on your external status which can go up and down undeserved.

I might imagine such a standard is more important in a shame society, or at least if you have such strength you don't have to worry about what Posner most fears.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Those who want the court system to replace social norms ought to understand—as I fear they do not—that their reasoning leads to the creation of police states.

I wondered if guilt cultures are more likely to fall into police states than shame cultures.

The only search I found was this article, contrasting Japan and Germany after losing World World II, with Germany under guilt and Japan under shame, and labels Japanese culture past as a "police state", although labels again cause trouble.
For centuries Japan had been ruled as the world's most efficient police state. Writers and scholars were co-opted by the rulers to become part of the Nomenklatura. If one wants to know how pre-modern Japan worked, one should read Czeslaw Milosz's descriptions of Poland under the commissars. Except that Japan never had a Catholic Church to run to.

Japan has changed, of course. It is no longer a police state. There is freedom of the press. People are entitled to their opinions. Of course, of course. But the police state mentality is still strong. And the intellectual Nomenklatura jealously guards its privileges bestowed by the pow- ers that be. And, unlike German intellec- tual debates, which are continuously fol- lowed by the rest of the world, Japanese intellectuals still operate in a cosy little hothouse, completely shielded from the harsh climate of international criticism. The few foreign critics that break through can be dismissed as `Japan-bashers'. In this parochial but oh so comfortable little world it is deemed prudent not to rock the boat, not to cause embarrassment, not to look too critically at officially received opinions.

You could equally look at the incompetence of Japanese leadership was in faceing the fukushima meltdowns after the 2011 tsunami.

Its all good and well to have good manners, but its something different when good manners get in the way of inconvenient truths, and critical ones where lives are at stake and hard decisions need to be made that have no right answers.

Perhaps the best thing for any disaster is for a leader do the best he can through it, and then resign in disgrace even if the best possible bad outcome was achieved. A shame culture would seem to support this.

That is to say a leader can be a scapegoat, and carry all the humiliation of failure upon himself, and by resigning, he lifts the burden from everyone else, and then we can "start over".

The questions are too big for me, but I see also if you live in a place with many people, where you can sacrifice individuals, you can also allow all leaders to end up in humiliating failure and "disappear" to the people, and find another.

Perhaps these questions are very different from national levels of full cultures from community ones, where people are both "public faces" you'll never meet in person, and "private faces" that you'll also see and have mercy towards?

I accept I'm still misunderstanding. Generalizations are great but the devil is in the details.

priss rules said...

Shamelessness has its own way of shaming others.

If you disapprove of vulgar homosexual parades, you will be shamed as unhip and 'homophobic'.

If you don't talk like a hussy among friends, you will be shamed as a 'prude'.