Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The War on Shame Cultures

At the beginning of Euripides' Hippolytus, Phaedra feels guilty about being in love with Hipploytus. This guilt turns to shame when the Nurse tells Hippolytus about Phaedra's love for him. To avoid the shame she feels -- and its extension to her children -- Phaedra kills herself and accuses Hipploytus of rape. She makes the accusation both out of vengeance for his rejecting not just her, but all women, and to ensure nobody believes him if (when, in her mind) he tells someone she was in love with him.

When Theseus discovers the suicide letter, he immediately takes vengeance on Hippolytus. But in death, Hipploytus not only does not take vengeance on Theseus and/or Phaedra's children, but rather, he forgives both Phaedra and Theseus. This act of forgiveness not only ends the vengeance cycle, but returns the play back to guilt and, thus, to the beginning of the play. Thus, we see a thematic unity in a play that seems, superficially, to be two different plays.

Forgiveness is an aspect of guilt culture, along with third party vengeance (in the form of a court system that has to discover things like motivation, etc. -- internal things -- thus reflecting the internalness of guilt itself), whereas direct vengeance is an aspect of shame culture. This is how and why Hippolytus' forgiveness returns us to guilt in the play.

One should also note that while the shift within Greek culture from a shame to a guilt culture is marked in the play within the human realm, we equally see this shift has not taken place within the divine realm. Artemis plans to take revenge on Aphrodites by killing Aphrodite's favorite. Given tragedies were in trilogies, one can thus imagine a second play on that story, with a third about the shift in the divine realm toward a guilt culture and trial (and forgiveness) system. Thus, the human realm is actually ahead of the divine realm in Euripides' world view. It is the gods who have some catching up to do with the humans.

Given that shame results in vengeance and guilt results in trial and/or forgiveness, we can see the kinds of problems which would arise in a mixed shame-guilt culture. After all, it is individual people who feel either guilt or shame. And, as we saw with Phaedra, guilt can become shame -- especially if the culture is still dominated by shame. What Phaedra does is an indication of the violence that can erupt when regression to shame from guilt occurs.

When we refer to a guilt or a shame culture, or a culture in which shame is decreasing and guilt is increasing, it is important to understand that within the culture there can be shame-drive and guilt-driven individuals, even if a certain majority makes the culture as a whole a shame or a guilt culture. Given the social nature of shame, one can expect a tipping point to be reached once a certain number of guilt-driven individuals is reached. Once the shame network collapses, there will be a large number of people who seek what the shame culture gave them -- and it is likely they will find it in religion or government. Monotheistic religions tend to develop guilt, so when the culture turns monotheistic, guilt will increase, shame will decrease, the network will collapse, and the religion will dominate. But once enough people embrace guilt (or it embraces them), the religion itself is no longer needed, and its dominance becomes broken. Which is what we see with the Catholic Church at the end of the Medieval period.

As noted above, a shame culture requires a network of people who are all morally regulated by shame. You not only feel shame, but you shame others. That creates the shame network. But if some people start feeling guilt rather than shame, those people cease shaming others. If you cannot count on others to shame you into good behavior, you may cease good behavior. A person regulated by shame who does not have enough people around to shame him or her becomes morally freed. This results in calls for some external authority to regulate others' behaviors. Ironically, it will likely come from those who themselves feel shame -- and no longer feel the social pressure to conform their morals -- who will want the external regulator. Those who feel guilt, after all, are internally regulated.

At the same time, there have to be enough people with guilt in the culture for there to be an institutional change from the institutions of shame to those of guilt. Those who are regulated by shame will take advantage of being forgiven. And not everything should be only forgiven. Thus, one needs  a court system in place to act as a third party judge and to ensure third party vengeance is undertaken. Only if the latter takes place can a full-fledged guilt culture arise.

And this is why the Euripidean trilogy, of which we only have Hippolytus, likely went in the direction of the creation of a celestial court system to work out differences among the gods. Once the vengeance cycle is cut off, the culture can move away from shame and toward guilt. This is the role of a court system. And it is the role of the external authority that emerges to regulate those who are still in the shame culture, so they will not take advantage of those who feel guilt. Only when those who feel guilt have sufficient numbers will they no longer need to ensure that one of their own has power over everyone. When this happens, we see the disintegration of the external power.

Indeed, it is no coincident that the U.S. government has gained in power in direct proportion to the extent to which members of the guilt culture in the U.S. have felt threatened by members of the Middle Eastern shame culture. All calls for more policing within a guilt culture country are always directed toward whatever shame subculture continues to exist. And when we see our military acting much as the police in dealing with shame cultures around the world, we should also perhaps not be surprised to see our police being militarized as well. The boundaries are being blurred because each organization is fighting the same foe -- shame cultures.
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