Ruth Benedict was the first to write about ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ cultures in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), a study of Japanese society. She claimed that while Western, Christian societies tend to regulate behavior through guilt (an internal sense of wrongdoing), Japan tends to regulate behavior through shame (external sense of wrongdoing). Sin versus losing face. Benedict writes:
In anthropological studies of different cultures the distinction between those which rely heavily on shame and those that rely heavily on guilt is an important one. A society that inculcates absolute standards of morality and relies on men’s developing a conscience is a guilt culture by definition, but a man in such a society may, as in the United States, suffer in addition from shame when he accuses himself of gaucheries which are in no way sins (…) In a culture where shame is a major sanction, people are chagrined about acts which we expect people to feel guilty about. This chagrin can be very intense and it cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement (…) True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism (…) it requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. In a nation where honor means living up to one’s own picture of oneself, a man may suffer from guilt though no man knows of his misdeed and a man’s feeling of guilt may actually be relieved by confessing his sin.
These categories have been widely criticized and discussed (the linked article examines these controversies and redefines shame and guilt). In this article, I don’t intend to discuss shame as it relates to Asian culture, but rather the culture of the US and Western Europe, particularly in the example of ‘cancel culture’.
When I started to write this article — vaguely inspired by another Medium article relating the sweeping drama of ‘Bean Dad’ — I thought I knew what was meant by ‘cancel culture’. It’s sticking a scarlet letter on someone’s chest when they’ve said something that is perceived as a cultural no-no. Specifically when it happens on social media. Especially if it involves losing gigs.
Personally, I associated the term with a hint of mob mentality. Occasionally I see headlines: ‘So-and-so is cancelled’ or the slightly more worrying ‘Is what’s-his-face cancelled?’ It reads a little bit 1984 — it sounds like a grisly euphemism from a dystopian novel. Sometimes the choices feel arbitrary — like the uproar surrounding the rumors that Ellen Degeneres…wasn’t very nice, really?
When I thought about it for more than a couple minutes, the concept started to fall apart. Obviously, obviously, people have always been punished for wrongspeak. I was reminded of the 1993 Julian Clary controversy — he made a single joke at the British comedy awards that (temporarily) destroyed his career. He was quite literally cancelled. (But ok, these were conservative and more official voices). What about Hester Prynne, who was shamed by the community for her misbehavior? (But adultery isn’t the kind of thing we’re worried about anymore). Or the court of Versailles in the French Revolution? (But that was a political, not a social movement). What about the Amish meidung?
Woody: I can’t believe this! I’m being shunned! Just like with the Amish! Just like back in Hanover!
Norm: Who shunned you back in Hanover, Woody?
Woody: …the Amish. Weren’t you there for that part?
(Couldn’t resist an underrated Cheers quote). But no, I have to admit, these aren’t examples of cancel culture, because ‘cancel culture’ isn’t really a description of a particular action that can be pinned down and repeated in any time or place, but a particular societal phenomenon. Right now it feels like a trend; maybe someday we’ll read about it in history books.
So there’s our definition. But does it represent a shift from a more guilt-driven culture to a more shame-driven culture? As my examples show, Western culture has always used shame as a driving force for behavior to some extent. Otherwise we wouldn’t have P.G. Wodehouse plots driven by the need to stop grandpa from publishing his memoirs (even if they do end with the conclusion that actually, most people like seeing their scandalous youth in print). But has it become a more primary vehicle? And as such, does it represent a cultural divide?
Back in 1946, Ruth Benedict suggested that there was a changing tide:
The early Puritans who settled in the United States tried to base their whole morality on guilt and all psychiatrists know what trouble contemporary Americans have with their consciences. But shame is an increasingly heavy burden in the United States and guilt is less extremely felt than in earlier generations. In the United States this is intepreted as a relaxation of morals. There is much truth in this, but that is because we do not expect shame to do the heavy work of morality. We do not harness the acute personal chagrin which accompanies shame to our fundamental system of morality. The Japanese do.
Is it just the Japanese now, or does a large portion of the American (and Western European) public now operate on a shame-based morality? My thought is that watching the carousel of ‘cancel culture’ implies that this shift has taken place, and that, for a great percentage of the population, shame is meant to do the heavy work of morality. The passion with which celebrities are denounced now has a moral weight which was once reserved for religious judgements.
Traditionally in America, shame was essentially something to feel ashamed of. Or, more accurately, guilty about — it implied caring a little too much what other people thought of you, a little too much about your own reputation. Characters like Jaime Lannister who do the right thing knowing that the world will hate them for it are natural heros for us, and this scenario represents our usual attitude to guilt and shame — guilt is the seat of morality and takes precedence while shame plays a secondary role, perhaps that of temptation. Is this hierarchy reversing?
In any case, the transformation isn’t complete, and I’m not sure that it’s very healthy in a culture that has traditionally been focused on guilt. I would cite Michael Scott’s painful attempt to explain international etiquette as an illustration:
In Japan, you must always commit suicide to avoid embarrassment.
Obviously, his interpretation of Japanese social mores isn’t any subtler than his reading of his own culture. (Also, try to imagine how long Michael would last if he followed this rule). But that’s a guilt culture interpretation of a shame culture.
Western culture has allowed for ways out of guilt. The confessional. Atonement. Our literature, and literary analysis, is peppered with ‘redemption arcs’. Do we have a cultural way out of shame? Anything short of suicide?
The scary thing about cancel culture is that it often doesn’t seem to offer a way out from what looks like universal or near-universal public excommunication. In the Medium article I linked above, the public apologies were rejected — for seeming insincere. I was left wondering what the offender in question would have to sacrifice to expiate their sins to the gods of public opinion. It’s often my question when seeing these dramas unfold over my screen.
Now, I don’t think anyone has a right to celebrity, and losing your hour and a half of fame due to a change of public opinion or an indiscreet comment isn’t exactly a tragedy worthy of Sophocles. But I think the reason we find ourselves so drawn to these dramatics is that they are telling us how our society operates, what is acceptable, what we punish, how we punish it, and how we recover grace.
As such, and especially in relation to the last point, cancel culture troubles me. But perhaps it is a necessary step as we transition from a guilt-driven to a shame-driven society.
This is all, of course, just a layman’s theory. What do you think? Are we becoming more shame-driven as a society? Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or neutral, and what can we do to smooth the transition?