Has America Become a Culture of Shame?

by Professor Jack

Years ago, anthropologist Ruth Benedict divided societies into two types: societies of guilt, and societies of shame. Guilt societies are inner-directed and morality-oriented, while shame societies are outer-directed and compliant with external norms. We tend to mush guilt and shame together, but for Benedict they were polar opposites. Historically, most Christian societies have been primarily guilt-oriented and most Asian societies shame-oriented. 

Furthermore, worldviews within societies may also stand at opposite ends of this spectrum. 

It seems to me that America is increasingly a shame-oriented society and decreasingly one of guilt. That is, the traditional ethos of personal responsibility, relationship to the transcendent, and religiously-sanctioned competition is giving way to lives governed by social norms and expectations. We are becoming accustomed to sanctions imposed by law and regulation rather than “obedience to the unenforceable” that marks the old morality of the heart. 

A society permeated by liberal political correctness, as ours is becoming, could be the ultimate shame society. We should not be surprised at the rise of some of the other characteristics of shame societies: arbitrary rule by charismatic individuals, public shunnings and ostracisms of those who run afoul of the official orthodoxy, and peer pressure to conform.  Prolongation of adolescence (the period of life most marked by conformity) should be expected too, along with token assertions of rebellion such as the tattoo culture and transgressive behavior.   

Liberals like to ridicule the guilt  mechanisms of the old Christian ways. But perhaps their worldview of shame is the final guilt trip our society takes.