Shame and Guilt

*This is a spiritual companion to my previous piece, Responsibility to the Then and Now.

Shame and guilt are the worst of our many emotions. They offer a way to contextualize our behavior and to measure our obligations. Or to be horrified if we commit a terrible act and we do not feel said emotions. In either case, they are our litmus test for our behavior. They are mentioned in tandem and often treated as being synonymous, but this is not the case. The distinction between these emotions is important because it makes a tremendous difference in how we operate and how our societies operate.

The difference between the two is where they come from. Shame is fundamentally the external becoming internal. While guilt is the internal becoming external. Here are the definitions of both as given by Merriam-Webster:

Guilt: a feeling of deserving blame for offenses
Shame: a. a painful emotion caused by the consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety

Now, there are several other definitions for these emotions, but these speak most directly to what we are talking about.

Guilt is an internal emotion becoming external. While people can and do try to “guilt” you, there is also no compunction behind it on an interpersonal level. The state may find you guilty of an offense, but whether or not you feel that guilt is another matter. It is a feeling centered around your sense that a. You have done wrong to another individual and b. You deserve punishment because you have done wrong to another. Guilt requires the individual to see the other person as an individual, that their actions have caused harm to another. In other words, it is the internal acknowledgment of wrongdoing expressed outward.

The feeling of doing wrong is inculcated within you. That we take actions on our own behalf. This is the basis for many if not all of our rights; that we are individuals. We are individuals that are rational, feeling, and autonomous, therefore, we can take hold and use these rights. When we do wrong, we are blamed. A substratum of society will ask, “where were the parents?” or claim that we are a product of our environment. However, we are considered to be ultimately responsible for our behavior. This is why whenever the topic of the actions of the average German soldier during WWII, we deem them guilty by virtue of them simply following orders. We in the West live in a guilt-centric society.

Shame works slightly differently than guilt. It is still the fact that we feel that we have done wrong, but it is externalized. Those around you know about your impropriety and they make their disapproval known. In a sense, it does not matter if we feel we have done nothing wrong because those around us feel differently. Because of this, we feel bad about ourselves. We have done something to ourselves and, to a large extent, it is not about intent; it is about the image. Shame is concerned with images far more than it is concerned with actual harm done.

Much of the East live in a shame-centric society. Here the individual is taught to not so much fear the punishment but of the social ostracism that comes from their actions. Here honor and pride matter a good deal more than they do here in the West. Our actions would have the added pressure of having to make our families look good, with any misdeeds on our part reflecting on the family.

What does this fundamentally lead to? Well, the West fears punishment for their guilt or put another way; we reap what we sow. This is advantageous socially for because we almost completely lack an honor culture that leads to extreme amounts of violence or ostracism. However, the moment the threat of punishment is gone, then we tend to go buck wild. Think every time police presence departs from a given area —immediate rioting and looting.

The advantage of shame-culture is that we would emphasize honor, pride, and image. It would lead to reduced levels of public impropriety —more social cohesion and stability. Maybe less crime? However, woe behold anyone who breaks the mold. Shame has little to do about guilt. We in the West ostracize many individuals, but it is usually because they are terrible people. Kind of hard for a murderer to come back from that.

In the East, you have the problem of people simply being unable to fit the mold being ostracized. In Japan, there is a growing trend of people known as hikikomori. People who have shut themselves off from society. Interviews with them reveal them not to be, broadly, drug addicts or raging alcoholics, but oftentimes people who couldn’t cut it in school or have ADHD who didn’t fit into society. So they are forced into their own little world.

So which is preferable? Both. The pursuit of perfection leads straight to hell. We need to present ourselves with honor and propriety and take responsibility for our actions. This is not to say the West does not have a sort of shame culture. We do. Just look at social media. Say the wrong thing and ‘boom’ you are “canceled.” However, that sort of shame is not conducive to anything constructive. Instead, it needs to be based on tangible principles and standards.


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