Thursday, August 18, 2005


General Comments about Shame
Shame is often an underappreciated psychological state. Particularly in the modern world, but also throughout history, shame-- in limited quantities and small doses--has facilitated civilized conduct and made both individuals and cultures behave more appropriately. But healthy shame, on the other hand, keeps us in touch with reality, and reminds us of our limitations, faults, and humanity. When experiencing healthy shame an individual may not be very happy to have embarrassing weaknesses and defects made obvious, but this awareness is insightful and humbling. As long as an individual is capable of self-doubt and self-reflection about his behavior; he is able to remain open-minded and willing to search for a better understanding of himself and others.

Excessive or inappropriate shame is another thing altogether, communicating forcibly to the individual that he or she is worthless. Shame can be an exceedingly devastating and painful experience

Children who live with constant hostility and criticism learn to defend against the bad feelings and shame within; and to externalize blame onto others. Projection and paranoia, which are both external assignments of blame, are psychological defenses against shame.

Often this excessive shame is dealt with by humiliating someone perceived as weaker or more worthless than the shamed person (e.g., the family pet, women, Gays, or outside groups serve this function for both individuals and cultures).

Guilt is an emotion that rises after a transgression of one's own or cultural values. Guilt is about actions or behavior; while shame is about the self. There is an important psychological difference in saying to someone that their behavior is bad; as contrasted with saying that they are bad. The former leads to guilt; the latter to shame.

The purpose of guilt is to stop behavior that violates a self, family or societal standard. Guilt keeps score on excesses or deficits of behavior deemed undesirable and is expressed in regret and remorse.

Eventually for the shame-avoidant person, reality itself must be distorted in order to further protect the self from poor self-esteem. Blaming other individuals or groups for one's own behavior becomes second nature, and this transfer of blame to someone else is an indicator of internal shame.

Most psychological theorists (Erikson, Freud, Kohut) see shame as a more “primitive” emotion (since it impacts one’s basic sense of self) compared to guilt, which is developed later in the maturation of the self. Without the development of guilt there is no development of a real social conscience.

Guilt Cultures vs. Shame Cultures

In thinking about how the concepts of guilt and shame apply in a culture, it is helpful to refer to a seminal work that was originally published by Benedict in 1946, where she discussed the collectivist culture of Japan during WWII and distinguished it from American culture. Japan had a “shame culture”, while the U.S. and most of the West subscribe to a “guilt culture”. Each type of culture has its own set of rules with regard to wrong-doing and they are determined by the beliefs of the individual and other people regarding guilt, and summarized in the two matrix tables below:

In both cultures there is no problem if both parties believe that the individual is NOT GUILTY. If both parties believe that the individual is GUILTY, again there is agreement and in that case the guilt is punished.

The difference in the two societies lies in the other two boxes in the matrix (in red).

In a guilt culture, when an individual believes he is NOT GUILTY, he will defend his innocence aggressively despite the fact that others believe he is guilty. In this case, the individual self is strong and able to maintain an independent judgement even if every other person is convinced of his guilt. The self is able to stand alone and fight for truth, secure in the knowledge that the individual is innocent.

The guilt culture is typically and primarily concerned with truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights. As we noted earlier, the emotion of guilt is what keeps a person from behavior that goes against his/her own code of conduct as well as the culture’s. Excessive guilt can, of course, also be pathological. I am solely referring to a psychologically healthy appreciation of guilt.

In contrast, a typical shame culture (e.g., Japan as discussed by Benedict; or the present focus of this discussion: Arab/Islamic culture) what other people believe has a far more powerful impact on behavior than even what the individual believes. As noted by Gutman in his writings, the desire to preserve honor and avoid shame to the exclusion of all else is one of the primary foundations of the culture. This desire has the side-effect of giving the individual carte blanche to engage in wrong-doing as long as no-one knows about it, or knows he is involved.

Additionally, it may be impossible for an individual to even admit to himself that he is guilty (even when he is) particularly when everyone else considers him to be guilty because of the shame involved. As long as others remain convinced he is innocent, the individuals does not experience either guilt or shame. A great deal of effort therefore goes into making sure that others are convinced of your innocence (even if you are guilty).

In general, it has been noted that the shame culture works best within a collectivist society, although it can exist in pockets even within a predominant guilt culture.

Let us now turn to Arab/Islamic culture.

This piece by David Gutmann is one of the best psychological analyses of shame and the Arab psyche I have read, and because it deals with something so critically important, I am going to quote a rather large excerpt:

The Arab world is suffering a crisis of humiliation. Their armies are routed not only by Americans, but also by tiny, Jewish Israel; and as Arthur Koestler once remarked, the Arab world has not, in the last 500 years or so, produced much besides rugs, dirty postcards, elaborations on the belly-dance esthetic (and, of course, some innovative terrorist practices). They have no science to speak of, no art, hardly any industry save oil, very little literature, and portentous music which consists largely of lugubrious songs celebrating the slaughter of Jews.

Now that the Arabs have acquired national consciousness, and they compare their societies to other nations, these deficiencies become painfully evident, particularly to the upper-class Arab kids who attend foreign universities. There they learn about the accomplishments of Christians, Jews, (Freud, Einstein, for starters) and women. And yet, with the exception of Edward Said, there is scarcely a contemporary Arab name in the bunch. No wonder, then, that major recruitment to al-Qaeda's ranks takes place among Arab university students. And no wonder that suicide bombing becomes their tactic of choice: it is a last-ditch, desperate way of asserting at least one scrap of superiority—a spiritual superiority—over the materialistic, life-hugging, and ergo shameful West.

But this tactic is not, I suggest, a product of Islam. Rather, it is a product of the bruised Arab psyche. Remember that the Japanese also turned to suicide tactics in WWII to evade the humiliation of defeat. Though their religion was Shinto rather than Muslim, they too constituted a paradigm shame/honor culture, and defeat brought about, as with the Arabs, a furiously suicidal/homicidal response. After their armies had been defeated, their fleets sunk, their cities set aflame, and their home islands invaded, they launched the kamikaze bomber offensive, thereby committing a hi-tech form of hara-kiri, their usual remedy against intolerable shame. It is in this way that the modern Arab world resembles the Japan of World War II. In both cases it is not religions but psychic wounds, the wounds inflicted by defeat and evident inferiority, that inspire suicide bombers.

It is often asserted that the changes set in train by modernization are particularly toxic to the Arabs. No doubt this is true. But if we are going to be therapeutic, our diagnoses need to be more specific; we need to identify the particular pathogens that are released by modernization. Besides sharpening their sense of inferiority relative to the West, modernization threatens to bring about the liberation of women (as in Afghanistan and Iraq). I say "threatens," because the self-esteem of Arab males is in large part predicated on the inferior position of their women. The Arab nations have for the most part lost their slaves and dhimmis, the subject peoples onto whose persons the stigmata of shame could be downloaded. But anyone who has spent time among them knows that Arab males have not lost their psychological need for social and sexual inferiors. In the absence of slaves and captive peoples, Arab women are elected for the special role of the inferior who, by definition, lacks honor. Arab men eradicate shame and bolster their shaky self-esteem by imposing the shameful qualities of the dhimmi, submission and passivity, upon women. Trailing a humbled woman behind them, Arab men can walk the walk of the true macho man.

Hence the relative lack of material achievement by Arabs: the Arab world has stunted the female half of its brain pool, while the men acquire instant self-esteem not by real accomplishment, but by the mere fact of being men, rather than women. No wonder, then, that the Arab nations feel irrationally threatened by the very existence of Israel. Like America, the Jews have brought the reality of the liberated woman into the very heart of the Middle East, into dar al-Islam itself. Big Satan and Little Satan: the champions of Muslim women.

I contend that female liberation is the most hopeful development in the Middle East, greater even than the first stirrings of democracy. I believe that Arab women have a greater stake in liberal democracy than Arab men, and as they acquire political power, they will fight for it. As for suicide bombings, jihadism and the macho posturing of Arab men, they are desperate remedies against further humiliation, against the perceived threat of “castration,” by their own women. Until Arab women achieve freedom and independence, we can expect, at least for awhile, to see Arab men cling to these remedies.

Even then, some Arab men will probably backslide to even greater suicidal/homicidal tantrums. Others, (perhaps even a majority) no longer able to project their deficiencies onto Arab women, will begin to recognize the flaws in themselves. These converts would adopt the self-critical stance that is already showing up among some daring Arab intellectuals and even religious leaders. And when Arab men can no longer acquire instant self-esteem by demeaning their women, some of them might even turn to the arts of peace, and try to acquire the sense of self-worth via instrumental rather than illusory psychological means.

We cannot, in the end, correct all the distortions of the Arab shame/honor ethos. But by pledging our support for Arab women's liberation—for instance, by advocating expanded liberties for women in the text of the new Iraqi constitution—we can hasten its erosion.

Gutmann takes pains to separate the toxic aspects of the Arab psyche from Islam. This is the only part of his argument that I do not find compelling.

it seems to me that the Arab psyche has had centuries to be slowly absorbed by Islam and that in many cases, and in most important aspects, the two are now inseparable. We can see this in the fact that even in Indonesia, Thailand and non-Arab locales where Islam has been embraced it retains both Arab misogyny and intolerance.

Alternatively, it might be argued, that Islam takes root and grows best when it is in the toxic nutrients of Arab-shame/honor cultures.

It is also important to remember that Mohammad himself was Arab and most of the Koran is pretty consistent with what is known about his personality and style.

On the other hand, it is only in the fairly recent history of Islam (e.g. in the last century) that Islam appears to have fully embraced the subjugation of women under the guise of "protecting" them and preserving honor.

This earlier article by Gutmann also discusses shame in the Arab world:

In regard to military history, the Arab's preference for guerrilla over conventional war reflects a long tradition, one that began in antiquity, with the Bedouin raiders. Their way of war- brilliantly described by T.E. Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – is based on hit and run forays by camel-mounted Bedouin who appear suddenly out of the desert, tear up an unsuspecting enemy camp, and then disappear back into the waste, carrying "honorable" loot: thoroughbred horses, camels and women.

The traditional Bedouin created a nearly pure "Shame" culture, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, and to acquire sharraf - honor. Thus, the goal of the Bedouin raid is not to finally win a war, for such inter-tribal conflict is part of the honorable way of life, and should never really end. The essential goals of the raid are to take wealth – not only in goods, but also in honor - and to impose shame on the enemy. Any opponent worth fighting is by definition honorable, and pieces of his honor can be ripped from him in a successful raid, to be replaced by figments of the attacker's shame. The successful attacker has "exported" some personal shame to the enemy, and the enemy's lost honor has been added to the raider's store.

This calculus of shame and sharraf is an important element in all Arab warfare, whether waged by Saddam Hussein, Yasir Arafat, or a Bedouin sheik. In particular, that same dynamic drives the Arab preference for irregular over conventional war.

Irregular tactics - spiced with Terror – have on occasion defeated regular armies; but win, lose, or draw in the military sense, terror tactics can be a far more efficient means of meeting psychological goals - i.e., shedding shame and capturing honor - than all-out war.

Let me be clear that I am not excusing the behavior of Islam and Arabs toward women, Jews, Christians, and other cultures. I am merely trying to understand those elusive "root causes" that everyone talks about.

As stated earlier in this essay, one of the ways that those who fear shame protect their fragile self is to subjugate those who he perceives as weaker. By doing so, he can rationalize that he is superior to the subjugated individual. In fact, this is the only way he can maximize his honor. In Arab/Islamic culture, women are one of the primary instruments of achieving honor. Hence the bizarre and distorted attitude that the culture has toward women and the exaggerated means by which "honor" must be maintained. So strong is the cultural pressure, even women buy into the delusion (as eloquently demonstrated by Dymphna in this post)

Honor killings of women are all too common in Arab culture, and importantly are not dissuaded by the tenets of Islam.

Other expressions of the shame culture that are obvious is the rampant psychological projection and refusal to accept responsibility for the atrocities committed in the name of Islam. Not only are we regularly subjected to imams, religious leaders, and leaders of Muslim states stating even now that 9/11 or the London bombings were not committed by Muslims; they also regularly blame the Jews for such acts. In this way they can avoid the shame that taking responsibility for evil.

Additionally, the emphasis by CAIR and other Muslim organizations in demanding that any statement that criticizes or even suggests blame or responsibility by Islam for terror, be retracted or apologized for, is also just a part of the shame-avoidant dance that leads the culture into the blurry realms of delusion.

Finally, it is not surprising that the most murderous thugs espousing religious ideals as they brutally cut off the heads of infidels are hidden behind masks and dare not reveal themselves to the world. I suspect that on some deep level they know that their "pride" in their sick behavior would be more difficult to boast about if they were not anonymous. "If no one knows it is me committing these acts, then I am not shamed," after all.

While psychological health and self-esteem depend to some extent on overcoming shame and progressing to a level where taking responsibility for one's actions and accepting that there is an objective truth out there that is not determined by other people's opinions; both shame and guilt can be important reality checks to an individual--or to a culture.

When a culture determines that the avoidance of shame is necessary no matter what the cost, the result is a culture of fanaticism, bizarre behavior in the name of "honor"; and simultaneously the cultural oppression, subjugation, and humiliation of women and others perceived as "weak" (and therefore "shameful"). It also inevitably results in the projection of one's own unacceptable behavior and shameful feelings onto another individual or an outside group.

Some of the earlier pieces I have written on these topics include:

Narcissism and Society, Parts I,II, III

Where Have All the Mothers Gone?
Yes, This Is Islam
International Women's Day in Iran
Modern vs. Medieval
Institutionalized Misogyny
The Psychopathology of Terrorism

Islamic Delusion
Paranoia and Projection
Psychological Defense Mechanisms
Paranoia Strikes Deep
Denial and Delusion

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