Saturday, January 2, 2016

Notes on Victim Culture

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.

Brooks writes:

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. 


Dennis said...

There are a number of people who are beginning to question the SJW and victimology. If one is facing "the Stick" of those who have little else then one needs to take that "stick" away by finding common ground with the young who are just starting to see the failures and logic errors of a significant number of the 60's generation, feminism, et al. This also needs to happen for blue collar and minorities as well. Far too many people have ignored these constituencies in the past, especially the Republican party.

Ares Olympus said...

Its hard to comment on such a long-winding blog topic, but I find some parts very strange.

Stuart: 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.

You mean like the My Lai Massecre?
But let's see specifically what he said. Did he say "baby killer"? Nope, the word "baby" is not found in his testimony. Maybe he said it at one of the protests somewhere?

Its confusing to me that a testimony is disgraceful. What specifically in the transcript above is disgraceful, and what aspects are okay to talk about? He also talked about veteran coming home and feeling unwelcomed which is as much a recognition of the negative aspects of the antiwar movement as the government leadership.

Stuart: 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.

And that statement looks like pure propaganda, having nothing to do with any culture anywhere. Once you get beyond personal relations, all you have is agreed upon laws of what behavior is acceptable and what is not.

Sure, reputations exist, and the modern version is called "branding", so Trump is a Brand, Obama is a brand, etc, and yet is this branding really such a powerful moral force? In practice it looks like its still just about power, and populism, and strange in/out-group dynamics where someone's brand is your brand not because you care about it, but because you hate another brand. It's irrational and hopeless for containing any practical moral force.

Stuart: 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.

Shame cultures don't tell you what you should do or not do. They tell you what you should only do behind closed doors, where there's no proof of what you did, and then depend on your higher status to dismiss the charges made against you by lower status people.

I do wonder where Christianity fits in these imaginary culture categories?

I can see guilt is appropriate where amends can be made, but some crimes are irreversible. If you drive drunk and kill someone and escape without punishment, you can keep that crime secret and let it eat into your soul. But even if you confess your crime, the innocent person is still dead. Even if you spend 50 years in prison for it, all you've really done is made yourself a burden to society, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If we go back to Hammurabi, an eye-for-an-eye, the only proper punishment for killing someone is to end your own life, and in a shame culture you don't even let society do it for you, just leave confessionary note of your bad deed, and take your own life. So suicide seems the perfect solution for all personally shameful acts.

But Christianity is crueler than the old religions. It won't let you off the hook that easily. It says you're forgiven the moment that you ask God for his forgiveness, and then you have to know that you're alive and clean by the grace of God, and so your life is not your own, but exists for some higher purpose you still have to find through the holy spirit's guidance.

Its a tough belief system, especially since God doesn't talk very loud, and a guilty conscience would seem to be able to completely overwhelm divine voices within.

Leo G said...

Thank-you Stuart, the pebble just dropped from my eyes. I did not realize til now why I feel so frustrated with other people. I now see, from your explanation, and the Confucius sutra, that I was raised in a shame setting (which should have been obvious, since I was raised RC), whilst most of the people today, in our society, work from the guilt perspective.

I have huge anger problems with the ME first attitude of this present day society, could never understand the idea behind it.

Thanks again for aiding in another step of my journey.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. Of interest, here's a recent blog by Jonathan Haidt, summarizing a paper with some of his own reflection added.
I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized.

It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim.

A) A Culture of Honor - Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone.

B) A Culture of Dignity - a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others

C) A Culture of Victimhood - The emerging victimhood culture appears to share [dignity culture’s] disdain for risk, but it does condone calling attention to oneself [as in an honor culture] as long as one is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits.
What we are seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between honor and dignity….

At universities and many other environments within modern America and, increasingly, other Western nations, the clash between dignity and victimhood engenders a similar kind of moral confusion: One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional offenses abound.

And the conflict will continue. As it does each side will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing various battles. But remember that the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization. Microaggression complaints and other specimens of victimhood occur in atomized and diverse settings that are fairly egalitarian except for the presence of strong and stable authority.

In these settings behaviors that jeopardize equality or demean minority cultures are rare and those that occur mostly minor, but in this context even minor offenses – or perceived offenses – cause much anguish. And while the authorities and others might be sympathetic, their support is not automatic.

Add to this mix modern communication technologies that make it easy to publicize grievances, and the result, as we have seen, is the rise of a victimhood culture.

Ares Olympus said...

On the Shame culture of Japan, I thought this 4 minute video by the Economist was enlightening, started with a very low rate of crime and high rate 99% rate for conviction. Why Japan's conviction rate is 99%, The Economist, December 12, 2015
And an older Economist article on the same topic: Confess and be done with it: Almost everyone accused of a crime in Japan signs a confession, guilty or not

The video shows a man who was convicted of murder in 1964 when he was 24 on a forced confession, and on death row for 10 years until the sentence was commuted down to life in prison and he was released in 1994, and has spent the last 20 years trying to exonerate his name, trying to get the government to release evidence that would prove his innocence.

It's curious at 1:10 he said "But I confessed to a crime that I never committed. For that I must apologize to the people of Japan." So rather than recognizing his personal loss, does he sees his being tricked into confessing is a stain on the honor of Japan, perhaps since it enabled the real murder to go free?

Maybe that gives us some perspective on what a "shame culture" looks like. And maybe it would mean a loss of face for the state to admit a wrong publicly, like a forced confession of a man who was innocent, its better to just leave him in prison for 30 years, and cover up the evidence, even decades old.

And now rather than spending the last years of his life in joyment with his restored freedom, he feels obligated to clear his name before his death, whether for personal vindication, or to protect the honor of his family name?

You wouldn't think a shame culture is obligated to cover up errors in justice, but perhaps Shame cultures focus on "social order" over individual justice, so when there's a crime, what's important is someone is punished and the appearance of order is restored.

And perhaps in shame cultures scapegoats still serve a positive function, if only they would have the good sense to stay quiet, and not try to correct the facts after they pay their price.

On the personal side, I wonder, if you murder someone, and someone else is punished, what affect does that have on your psyche? Can family honor still redeem you, knowing your unpunished crime were paid by someone else? Or does it destroy you inside equally, whether you're in a shame or guilt culture?

On the other hand, going down the road to Victim Culture, obviously has its own vices we've yet to face.

The questions are mostly behind my mental capacities, and I'm tempted to side step all the generalizing, and say we all have free will if we're willing to take it, so whatever system you live in, you have choices at every step, how you respond to personal guilt, personal shame, as well as injustice against you, and a loss of public reputation.

Job in the bible taught us this lesson of appearances not always being what we think they are. And a part of us is too easily persuaded to agree with society and wrongly conclude we deserve our misfortunes and our enemies' wrath even when there's no objective evidence for it. Victim culture would seem to partially fight that self-doubt, but the mirrors you create need careful cleaning so you don't become what you hate.