- secrecy, shame, guilt, and moral absolutism
a correspondent just wrote this to me: (in reply to https://jrfibonacci.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/introspection-courage-and-shame )
Always interesting to read your posts. I am not sure that shame leads to courage. How so?
[JR notes: I do not recall saying anything to that effect, by the way.]
It is my observation that shame, as opposed to guilt, is a socially conditioned emotion. For example, people in different cultures will feel shame about different things. In a traditional Asian culture, a grown child would feel terrible shame at leaving an elderly parent alone, even if that parent were in good health, and moving across the country to take a good job. In American culture that move would be more or less expected even by most parents. Everyone would feel proud that the adult child was experiencing success.
I think a lot of problems arise when we confuse shame with appropriate guilt. Guilt should arise
when we have violated a fundamental principle of our relatedness to another or to a group in such a way that real harm comes to that other or to the group or to both. People can feel shame in a social setting because they don’t live up to rules. Those rules may or may not be based on fundamental principles. Those rules may in fact be quite arbitrary and even nonsensical. But one of the signs of sociopathy is that a person is not able to feel guilt for harming others.
On the other hand, people who are ashamed of something feel that keenly and tend to hide that from themselves and others. That’s one reason psychologists point out that shaming a child for behavior rather than guiding him to better behavior can be disastrous for that child’s development. Shame lingers. Guilt can be redeemed.
- jrfibonacci Says:
April 20, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Reply editHi C.D., thank you for your thoughtful reply. First, I officially reserve the right to adopt any position that you communicate if I find yours to be more coherent or concise or elegant or accurate or fun than however I may have said whatever I said, or anything I ever quote of someone else, etc. I also reserve the right to misquote you in a way that is more coherent, elegant, or fun than whatever you actually said.😉
Now, on to the subject of appropriate guilt and so on. Who says what is appropriate? What is socially proper is still contextual. Further, I can adopt the position that all the variations of ideas about what are proper or shameful are all exactly perfect and orderly and “the Will of God” and so on.
Guilt is subjective. Shame is subjective. In other words, they are ways of relating to something. They both involve fear of being recognized, like a tendency to hide, distract, or lie goes with both guilt and shame.
These are quite distinct from mere sorrow. I could accidentally damage something or injure someone and feel tremendous sorrow and concern, but guilt and shame are what I would call “sin” while sorrow is not.
Of course, sin is a natural thing- as in guilt and shame. Those words exist for a reason, right? Anthropologists, spiritual leaders, and neuro-psychiatrists may have varying models for “how it all fits together.” Every model has a degree of accuracy plus a degree of oversimplification as in generalization. That is what models are for.
A map is a model of terrain. A map is not the actual terrain. That is why the map is useful.
Your reference to a “fundamental principle” of social morality may be presumptive. Outside of a particular society or socialization pattern, there are no fundamental principles of morality. For instance, it is universally immoral to kill your child’s favorite pet rabbit, at least according to your child. Just because you may have raised it for the specific purpose of making soup is no cushion for the trauma that the child can experience- but other children may hunt and kill rabbits with glee and enthusiasm and competition.
There is no universal morality. There is no universal society. Even the “universals” of human genetics are subject to change.
Language is a social adaption. Everything is a social adaption- though not just within a human society. So, I could say that everything is a relational adaption, as we associate with other species and in fact one of the huge advances of higher animals is that within every cell is an organism of bacteria called a mitochondria.
Be careful of labels. They always generalize. They are just models. Reality includes models, but it is not a model.
As for guilt from harming others, think of soldiers. A soldier may justify killing thousands of civilians with a bomb by rationalizing the action. Rationalizing implies guilt. However, there may be soldiers who assert no sense of guilt. They may bomb civilians with the same experience as driving down a highway and killing lots of butterflies on the windshield of their car- slightly annoyed at getting guts on the windshield.
When an executioner for the government kills a convict, that may be the same for them as when a government assassin kills a political leader of a rival organization (gang, country, party, etc). Guilt is an entirely social process.
Sociopathy is a label. There is no universal parameter for what is sociopathological. Consider the varying definitions used in different cultures and different times.
I could list a long series of government-funded programs in the USthat would upset a lot of folks
(especially folks within the US, who tend to have enormous pride and idealism about their own government). That is why all governments tend to keep certain operations “top secret.” They do not want attention and criticism and rebellion. So, they favor discretion, modesty, secrecy, security of intelligence data, or whatever else you might call it.
I could list a similar series of programs by Soviets or Nazis or Inquisitors of the Holy Roman Catholic Empire. For instance, systems of ritual human sacrifice can be called capital punishment or anything else, but beyond the language and labels are simple patterns of behavior. Further, labeling is itself a pattern of behavior.
Certain actions are promoted or even rewarded by any particular society (through language). Certain other actions are discouraged or prohibited or punished. Other things are merely warned about, but without any formal social regulation or intervention.
There are communications or linguistic behaviors that are reinforced positively as well as others in which people will be interrupted. “We do not share that information publicly! That is a trade secret! That is a sacred matter of national security! That line of questioning is dangerous to pursue!”
So, what is acceptable within a library is not the same as within a park. What is acceptable for the elite military or religious leaders to do and discuss internal to their exclusive group, such as their strategic plans or their private sexual rituals, might be highly controversial at a minimum if disclosed publicly.
Historically, think of the sexual norms of the aristocrats of Europe- quite distinct from the norms of behavior for the working class: of course! Or, consider the leaders of the ancient Greek and Roman militaries: their homosexual orgies are only shocking for people who are unfamiliar with a broader view of anthropology.
In other words, all “deviant” behavior is orderly- just outside of the acceptable order. The average person is not encouraged to be too perceptive or smart either. Their “loose-lipped” commentaries on issues of functional secrecy will be punished. That has been my experience.
It is about propriety. I would not talk about killing rabbits around certain kids. I would not talk about the details of military intelligence on camera with the mainstream media. I would keep confidential any information protected by attorney privilege or medical secrecy.
In fact, disloyalty to social norms that REQUIRE secrecy is one of the most aggressively punished of all violations. For instance, in jail, being a “snitch” is naturally one of the least popular character traits. Given that the folks in that subculture tend to be very sensitive about keeping certain information private, you can see the similarity to “oaths of secrecy” done by spies and other subcultures.
Imagine the issues of professional ethics for a criminal lawyer who had a compulsive habit of blurting out the truth and snitching on the defendant. The lawyer would be disbarred very fast. Their job sometimes is to hide criminality and of course immorality- but always in accord with the lawyer’s primary loyalty to the standards of the social order (the orders of the rulers of the military court system of organized coercion and economic redistribution).
The lawyers do their job or face consequences. Then, even though a defendant like Ollie (Oliver North) may have openly admitted legal guilt, confessed and been convicted and sentenced, then the President has the official authority to pardon a criminal’s violations of any law whatsoever. Why? Because that is how the system is set up. People who violate the law with the approval of rulers (such as the US President) will rarely even face prosecution. They are protected because of their membership within the elite.
I mention Ollie North only because his pardon was relatively well-publicized, with extensive live TV coverage of both his confessions and his denials (“I do not recall,” “I decline to answer”), plus now his return to some fame with books and TV shows. Never ever disrespect totalitarianism within the halls of totalitarianism.
The mainstream media RULES public perception. That is not a criticism. That is simply a recognition of the stated purpose of media. Here is what I was taught in college:
“Our purpose as the media is not to control what people think. That would be impossible. Our purpose is to influence what people think ABOUT.”
The same could be said of the education system. The same could be said of organized religion.
Can you give me an example of any communication behavior that is not for the sole purpose of directing the attention of an audience? That is what language and communication are for: social influence, socialization, governing, control.
Of course, some influence is a nudge and some is a tug and so on. However, all human social interaction is economic. In fact, all action can be interpreted as economic- like how trees spread their roots for the particular purpose of accessing moisture and minerals.
Name one thing that is not economic. Sleeping? No, that is economic, too. Don’t do it for a few weeks and you will be clear that sleeping is economic.
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