In a New York Times column Arthur Brooks explains that in 1993 art critic Robert Hughes first suggested that America had fallen into a culture of victimhood, a culture of complaint and grievance.
Not to be outdone, and unaware of Hughes, I wrote a book called: Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame in 1996. I did not specifically mention the culture of victimhood, but I compared shame and guilt cultures, thereby following the analysis proposed by anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Benedict’s book was written in the early to mid 1940s.
[For the record, I also offered an additional analysis of shame and guilt in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.]
Having been commissioned to analyze Japanese culture for an American military that was preparing to occupy Japan, Benedict argued that Japan was a shame culture, a culture where honor, dignity, propriety and especially face prevailed while America was a guilt culture, where criminalizing behavior and valuing individual feelings mattered more than public reputation.
After all, when you commit a crime you and only you get tossed into prison. And yet, when you lose reputation, which may or may not accompany the commission of a crime, your family and associates also suffer. One notes that you can tarnish your reputation by failing at a task—dropping a pass—but that guilt involves criminal activity-- whether in word, thought or deed.
Shame involves social isolation and ostracism. When you lose face you do not want to show your face in public. Guilt is the anxiety you feel as you are awaiting your punishment. It is resolved when you punish yourself, by doing penance, or when the authorities punish you.
If Japan is a great shame culture, I believe that Great Britain has traditionally fulfilled the same predicates. Where else do people care so much about keeping up appearances and maintaining a good reputation? By my analysis traditional America is more a shame culture than a guilt culture.
And yet, Brooks and others have argued that America is today more of a victim or guilt culture than it is a shame culture. I agree. How did that happen? By my analysis, the Vietnam War caused the shame culture to degenerate into a guilt culture.
How did the change take place? When America failed in Vietnam the people who were responsible for the failure refused to accept the attendant shame and shifted the blame to… the troops. The Kennedy-Johnson administration initiated and escalated the war, but once it started going badly the anti-war left suggested that the fault really lay with the military, a bunch of war criminals.
Note well, the man who currently sits as our Secretary of State testified before the Senate that his fellow soldiers were baby killers and war criminals.
Only in a guilt culture would such a man, having committed such a disgrace, have had the career that John Kerry had.
If we apply the same principle, we can see that Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was an effort to shift blame for the Great Famine from his policy initiative, the Great Leap Forward, to the bureaucrats who were implementing it. They were counterrevolutionaries, capitalist roaders and Confucians.
And, today, as I have been opining on this blog, our president has been shifting the blame for his own failed presidency. Since he is incapable of taking responsibility for his policies, he has laid the groundwork for movements like Black Lives Matters that blame white policemen for the crime rate in black communities. Of course, our fearless leader has led the march to blame everyone but himself, beginning with the Bush administration, the Tea Party, the Republican Congress, the NRA… for what is going wrong in America.
Also, student radicals believe that minority college students fail because of systemic racism. The mania about trigger warnings and microaggressions shows that people are avid to claim the status of victim. They also insist that those who do well in the country have not earned their privileged but have stolen it from the oppressed masses.
Instead of trusting people to behave well and properly, the new guilt culture assumes that we are all either criminals or victims. It has written American experience into a guilt-punishment narrative. White males are guilty and everyone else is a victim. All non-white non-males are entitled to reparations. If whites do not agree to reparations their wealth will be confiscated and redistributed.
Since white men had profited from the organized criminal conspiracy called America, since they owed their success to their exploitation of others, they needed to be punished. Those who had suffered under the yoke of their tyranny had to express their rage as often and as fully as possible, the better to help white men become more conscious of their guilt and more willing to pay the proper reparations… that is, taxes.
Clearly, if white males are criminals their gains are ill-gotten. Justice can only be done if they are punished and if their wealth is redistributed to those they exploited.
In a guilt culture, Brooks points out, there is no such thing as a good faith agreement. By the guilt narrative, life is a permanent struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed. In it, all problems, even misunderstandings and inadvertent slights become criminalized. There is no such thing as an honest error and no apology can erase one’s guilt.
To begin with, victimhood makes it more and more difficult for us to resolve political and social conflicts. The culture feeds a mentality that crowds out a necessary give and take — the very concept of good-faith disagreement — turning every policy difference into a pitched battle between good (us) and evil (them).
If you are trying to force the culture into a guilt-punishment narrative you will not be interested in producing wealth. Guilt or victimhood culture, Brooks continues, stifles innovation, motivation and economic progress.
In a guilt culture, no one is assumed to be honorable and decent, to have good motives. And no one is to be trusted. The world is divided between criminals and victims. People who appear to be polite and decorous are merely hiding their hidden depravity.
Note how Confucius defined the problem:
If you lead them by regulation and try to keep them in order with punishment, the people will manage to avoid punishment but will have no sense of shame. If you lead them by virtue and keep them in line by rites, they will have a sense of shame and will regulate themselves.
It is no accident that our guilt culture is being led by a president who has drowned the economy in regulations. If Confucius is correct, believing that people are motivated by potential or actual criminal intentions will require more and more regulations. People will react by obeying the letter of the law, thus, to avoid doing whatever is forbidden. But they will not be taking any initiative to do the right thing because it is the right thing or to do the right thing by participating in a free market.
The current mania over rape culture shows clearly the difference between shame and guilt culture approaches to mating. In the first men and women date and mate according to the rules of courtship. In the second, once the rules and customs have been tossed aside anything seems to go. This leads to more forced regulations and more threats of punishment.
Rather than tell people what they should do, and allow them to choose the right course, a guilt culture tells them what they are not allowed to do and threatens them with punishment if they transgress.
Shame cultures do not regulate behavior by forbidding crimes. They show you what you should do rather than tell you want you must not do. They inculcate virtue by having leaders set an example of virtuous conduct. When the leader does not take responsibility for his failures society degenerates to the point where no one feels a need to respect anyone else, to accept his errors or to do the right thing.