“If you behave in this way, you are going to be punished”.
“Do this thing, and you will end up in jail”.
“If you don’t behave in this way, you are going to be forgotten”.
“Do this thing, and everyone will hate you”.
These are four threats and they can seem all the same, but they are not.
The first two represent the guilt culture, the modern society in which we live in, without even recognising it.
The last two are instead the symbol of the shame culture, the one that affected the behaviour and the way of thinking of our ancestors.
Since we were born the society has been teaching us what is good and what is wrong, it shows us what is going to happen if we will become decent people and what if we will turn in mean and horrible ones. The concept at the basis of this principle is simple and everyone knows it: do well and you are going to be rewarded, do bad and someone soon or later will punish you.
Like everything in the history of humankind, this principle has evolved during the centuries, turning in something completely different from as it was in the beginning; this is how the shame culture has become the guilt one.
These concepts are two of the main recognised sociological categories and have been pointed out for the first time by the cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in her opera “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”. This work was the outcome of a study made on the Japanese migrants living in the United States during the Second World War, commissioned by the Military Information Service in order to reach a deeper knowledge of the way of thinking of the Oriental enemy that US was trying to defeat. It was during this study that Ruth Benedict firstly recognised two different patterns in the American and in the Japanese cultures.
On one hand the American culture, the more developed and modern one, was a guilt society, on the other the Japanese culture, under many aspects still regressive and attached to the ancient values, was a shame society.
But which is the substantial difference between the two of them?
The guilt culture represents a model of society in which people are brought in to behave in a certain way, forced by the fear of being punished and indeed guided by their individual guilt conscience. Moreover, people living in these types of societies, like almost every one of us does, are further encouraged to follow this behaviour by the possibility of being rewarded for their virtuous and appropriate actions. The birth of the guilt culture was reached by a process of so called “interiorization of the morality” began by the stoic philosophical doctrine and further developed by the Christianity; the interiorization of the morality can be described as the acquisition of a self-conscience that tells us in which way we should behave, according to the situation that we have to face.
The shame culture is an ancient pattern, that has existed for centuries before the prevailing of the guilt one. This concept, conceived by Ruth Benedict, was extended by the anthropologist and scholar of Greek culture Eric Dodds, that used it to describe the social model at the basis of the society described by the great poet Homer in his two epos, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Dodds deepened the knowledge of the shame culture by giving real examples of how men used to behave in a shame culture: all the heroes that populate these two famous operas did not act following their own self-conscience but rather a collective one, composed by all the living people of their world. The main aim of characters like Achilles, Agamemnon or Hector was not the one of feeling courageous and glorious, but they needed other people to think it, because the society in which they were living taught them that the life of a men is useless if someone does not remember him for his glorious actions after his death.
Even if this anthropological analysis seems to be very accurate, in the latest times the boundary between guilt and shame society has become more and more blurred. Nowadays, in the era of technology and communication, if only few people know who you are, you are practically inexistent. But at the same time, we have become so indoctrinated and attached to the division between good and evil that others have created for us, that the voice of our self-conscience is higher than the one of our own thoughts.
So is it still right to say that ours is a guilt society and not the weird and dangerous outcome of a cocktail of guilt and shame?