Thursday, May 18, 2017

Shame vs. Guilt Culture

Sometimes what I choose to write about is something that gets my attention in several places in a short time. That’s true today.

A friend linked to an LDS General Conference talk, by Elder D. Todd Christopherson, from this past April Much of the talk was on why we share the word of God with others, as part of how we live, which comes down to loving our neighbor. All worth hearing again.
Elder D. Todd Christopherson
photo from

But there was a part where he mentioned the contrast between “shame culture” and guilt culture. When I looked up the print version, with footnotes, I realized he was quoting a piece by David Brooks from a year ago, “TheShame Culture.”

I looked that up, and realized Brooks was referring to a previous piece written by Andy Crouch in 2015, “The Return of Shame.” Crouch, in turn, was referencing research by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, defining the difference between guilt culture and shame culture.

So, back to the definition. Here is what Christopherson quoted from Brooks:

Sometimes those who raise a warning voice are dismissed as judgmental. Paradoxically, however, those who claim truth is relative and moral standards are a matter of personal preference are often the same ones who most harshly criticize people who don’t accept the current norm of “correct thinking.” One writer referred to this as the “shame culture”:
“In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. … [In the shame culture,] moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion. …
“… Everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along. …
“The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.”
So, guilt is what you feel when you are out of alignment with a set standard, that you know within yourself. Shame is what you feel when a shifting crowd decides to exclude you, because of your ideas or beliefs or associations, or anything they decide.

Guilt is something we want to avoid—but we can generally do so with efforts to live a moral life; we are in control. Shame is also something we want to avoid—but, because the goal post changes, we have very little control, other than to succumb to public opinion of the moment and define that as “moral.”

I read the rest of David Brooks’ article, and he adds this:
David Brooks
photo from here

If we’re going to avoid a constant state of anxiety, people’s identities have to be based on standards of justice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancy of the crowd. In an era of omnipresent social media, it’s probably doubly important to discover and name your own personal True North, vision of an ultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity and exclusion.
The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.
I’m a believer in ultimate good. God defines what that is; it is up to us to ascertain what God defines as good and seek that.

When a critical mass of society believes this way—in ultimate good—society moves northward (Spherical Model north) toward thriving civilization. An unfixed “moral compass” leads south toward savagery.

While I was looking at this idea of differences of opinion about morality, and how that has coincided with variations in bringing about conformity, I started reading my BYU College of Humanities magazine that came in yesterday’s mail. The theme is on diversity.

I’m not a fan of what you might call the diversity movement of the past couple of decades. I don’t think diversity of skin color or ethnic background is particularly valuable as an end in itself.

The first time Mr. Spherical Model came home from work talking about some required diversity training, and mentioned the claim that teams that are diverse (i.e., racially diverse and including women as well as men) get better results, I said, “You mean they’re teaching you how to do better despite the diversity?” No. They were not teaching the obvious—how to get work toward good results when facing this common built-in challenge; they were teaching that the common built-in problem wasn’t a problem but a benefit. That didn’t coincide with my life experience. But it turns out that’s pretty much doctrine today.

I still think I’m right. There is some value in having various viewpoints on a team. It might be valuable to get a female point of view (or several, if the group is large enough for the variety, because women are varied). And it might be very valuable to get a viewpoint from someone who has lived in circumstances different from others in the group and more like those they’re aiming to offer a service or product to. And it’s likely to help if you have some detail people and some strategic thinkers on a team. But I don’t see what skin color has to do with it.

The prologue (message from the dean) in the Humanities magazine, by Dean J. Scott Miller, seems to agree with me:

There is an irony to the fact that as we get to know others and experience the many diversities we carry around within us, the superficial differences and outward appearances that so often signal diversity come to matter less and less.
There’s another piece in the magazine by Thomas B. Griffith, Judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, who also earned a degree from the College of Humanities at BYU. He talks mainly about political discourse—and how it would be better to emulate some better examples than we’ve seen recently, like “The Federalist Papers, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Letter from Birmingham Jail, and Robert F. Kennedy’s extemporaneous speech invoking Aeschylus as he announced that assassination of Dr. King to a black neighborhood in Indianapolis.” He asserts that the study of the humanities could help. He says:

In his Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that the key to morality is empathy and that we grow in empathy by exercising our imagination, which means experiencing the otherness of the lives that literature, music, drama, dance, and art present to us.
So learning how others think through the arts is valuable for humans to understand one another; I agree. And then this:

Disagreement is critical to the well-being of our nation. But good humanists will recognize that those with whom we disagree are not our enemies; rather, they are our colleagues in a great enterprise. When we respect each other enough to respond carefully to argument, we are filling necessary roles in a republic founded on the insight that human rights are inalienable because they are given by God.
What we are about here, in this nation’s (the world’s?) effort toward freedom, prosperity, and civilization, is a conversation in which different people, with different minds, different experiences, and different beliefs exchange ideas.

That conversation ought to be the very definition of what goes on on college campuses. But I’d say today the typical college campus (with a few exceptions that I hope includes my alma mater) is the very microcosm of shame culture: ever-moving “morality” based on popular opinion, with no tolerance for any difference of opinion.

The shame culture attack can be stifling opposing ideas, shutting down speech; putting reputation, and maybe class grades, in jeopardy; maybe also choice of career, means of making a living, and ability to live freely in society.

There’s a long list of things for which you can be given the shame culture attack these days. In short, you can be given the shame culture attack for recognizing the principles that lead to freedom, prosperity, and civilization—because the shame culture has redefined tyranny, poverty, and savagery as “good” for now, until they change their minds.

Diversity of superficial things is pretty irrelevant. Diversity of ideas was never the danger. A closed mind combined with a shaming culture that forces conformity—that’s a danger.

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