Monday, February 06, 2006


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In a previous post on "Shame and the Arab Psyche and Islam", I stated:
[...]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).

In contrast, 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 manages the excesses or deficits of behavior deemed undesirable; and is usually expressed as 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. It should be noted that without the development of guilt there is no development of a real social conscience.

Islam has absorbed the dominant features of a "shame culture" from its Arab and tribal roots; while the West has become a "guilt culture". The differences between them can be summed up in the table below:

A guilt culture (i.e., the West) is typically and primarily concerned with truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights. As 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, be pathological.

In contrast, in a typical shame culture (i.e., Arab/Islamic culture) what other people believe has a far more powerful impact on behavior than even what the individual believes. 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 several side-effects, including granting the individual carte blanche to (1)engage in wrong-doing as long as no-one knows about it, or knows he is involved; and (2) engage in any necessary behavior, including wrong-doing (i.e., murder, beheading, etc.) in order to avoid shame and/or recover honor.

Although it is hard for someone in a guilt culture to appreciate, it may be impossible for an individual in a shame culture 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. Remember maintaining honor is what is important--not truth, not justice, and not tolerance or restraint.

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.

Another expression of the shame culture is the rampant psychological projection and refusal to accept responsibility for the atrocities committed in the name of Islam. For the last five years we have been regularly subjected to imams, religious leaders, and leaders of Muslim states insisting that 9/11 or the London bombings were not committed by Muslims. These same individuals will often 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 their continual demands that any statement or drawing or act that casts aspersions on Islam (whether true or not) be immediately retracted or apologized for, a part of this shame-avoidant dance that leads the culture into the blurry realms of delusion.

There is no shame involved in insulting or denigrating other cultures for Muslims. Therefore such insults are acceptable. That is why there is a disconnect between the disgusting cartoons that are incredibly offensive to Jews and Christians and/or the West (see here), yet at the same time, they angrily DEMAND on threat of violence that even the most mildly offensive cartoons (i.e., the Danish ones here) be immediately repudiated.

SHAME MUST BE AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS. Everything else is secondary. Contradictions are irrelevant; logic and reason unimportant. HONOR MUST BE RESTORED, and this can only be done at the expense of those who originated the "insult".

Meanwhile, in our guilt culture, we obsess about how we might have hurt their feelings and some of us (not me) actually desire to make amends and apologize. This is laudable and very sensitive. It underscores the sense of tolerance that has evolved within Western culture. However well-meaning, IT WILL NOT WORK , particularly in the long-run. Making an apology for having "shamed" someone in such a culture is merely a sign of weakness from their perspective (since you are shaming yourself by admitting guilt), and hence only escalates the self-righteousness and demands that follow; and it does not ameliorate the next insult when it inevitably (and usually unintentionally) comes.

For most shame societies, even the mildest insult must be avenged with death, because now everyone knows that you have been insulted, and without the death (or blood) to wipe it out, honor cannot be restored.

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 within the culture, the oppression, subjugation, and humiliation of women and others perceived as "weak" (and therefore "shameful") is a high priority. Additionally, the shame culture will always perceive the guilt culture as "weak" and inferior.

Shame cultures inevitably project their own unacceptable behavior and shameful feelings onto outside groups.

The last such culture the West dealt with was Japan during WWII. Interestingly, they also had their suicide bombers (kamikaze) and their ritual killings for honor and vengeance related to shame avoidance.

The conundrum facing the West in dealing with Islam is that if Islam backs down from its demands, the resulting humiliation only increases the entire culture's sense of shame (which has been high for some centuries now) and brings it closer to the reality of a ticking time bomb that can blow up the rest of the world.

And sadly; the reverse situation--if the West, out of guilt and a sense of justice and fair play, backs down and permits Islam to restore its honor over the Danish cartoon issue at the expense of the West's cultural values; Islam will perceive such appeasement as the ultimate weakness and will be encouraged in thinking that it is the superior culture that will conquer and dominate the world. Hence even that scenario offers no relief for the world from the ticking time bomb that is Islam.

In other words, there appears to be no way to avoid a final confrontation.

UPDATE: Sigmund, Carl and Alfred and I are on the same wavelength today and approaching the same issue from slightly different starting points.

UPDATE II - an excellent analysis of some fascinating data at Dean's World. It is my hypothesis that as the freedom increases in a "shame culture" it will have a greater liklihood of evolving into a "guilt" culture. It has been noted in several studies that a shame culture works best within a collectivist society, although it can exist in pockets even within a predominant guilt culture.

UPDATE III - ShrinkWrapped draws some parallels between the Reichstag fire and the cartoon wars and comments:
This is the point that needs to be kept in mind by those who correctly counsel restraint. While there is no need for any Americans to purposely provoke the Islamists and their thugs and cannon fodder on the street, we should not for a minute believe that our behavior of restraint will have any influence on how this plays out. I suppose one could argue that we could make things worse but we have no ability to make things better. That is up to the governments of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, along with such ugly actors as Hamas, Hezbullah and Fatah. To believe these types will do anything more than offer a "hudna" is to delude oneself.

Read it all.

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