To Your Heart's Content

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Guilt v Shame

Went out with a German friend the other night who was here in Beijing for five years or so working for the European Commission and is now a consultant vetting NGO proposals to receive education assistance. Funny, the conversation turned on the topic of Western guilt versus Chinese shame and when they surface--the chronology of the feelings and how they influence, or what they mean to, the individual,--a topic that has come up before with another friend. Here it is:

In the West, the feeling of guilt is very personal, very individualistic and happens psychologically immediately after the deed or even just after the thought of the deed. For some the feeling is psychologically stultifying, for others it's just a small voice that says "you are bad" or "that is wrong" and acts as preemptive force to dissuade one from committing the act (again). This happens in the mind of the individual, whether or not somebody else knows about it. So, if I cheat or steal or lie, perhaps I will feel guilty, or even the thought beforehand may prevent me from doing it (barring other factors like I am starving and need to steal a loaf of bread). And shame, for the most part, only comes after guilt, though it can certainly intensify it too.

On the other hand, we tentatively reasoned, in China guilt is something that comes after shame. That is, if somebody, namely a Chinese, does something that is a social foux pas, they don't feel guilty until after somebody or the community finds out. This is interesting because one wonders then what prevents the Chinese, in this case, from committing an unethical act they feel they can do it unnoticed?

And even more interesting, the feelings of shame and then guilt in China only surface based on the communities prescriptive and proscriptive values. For example, if flogging a small helpless and chained-up dog is not considered a bad thing by the community or society, not something to lose face over, then no feelings of guilt or regret will surface in the flogger. So it is interesting how it is society's values, or put in a different way, your face in society, that keeps the individual in check, that draws the ethical parameters (and explains why chit-chat is so goddam prevalent here). Interesting too how with a change in societal values comes a change in when one can be shamed. For example, not too long ago in China it was accepted that a man have a concubine or another lover. In fact, it was expected. "Hey Chen, how's the paramour doing today? Well, tell her I say hello! And bring her and your wife over to eat sometime..." However, this changed substantially after the cultural revolution, though not entirely, and today is considered much more shameful (the Taiwanese, interestingly, who were not influenced by the cultural revolution, are infamous for having paramours).

In the West, admittedly, not all people feel guilt and of course many heinous acts are committed even by seemingly normal people. So guilt doesn't always work, but those things that do create guilt in the Judeo-Christian sense have been put into laws that have more or less been enforced, and it is the law (and infrastructure put in place to enforce the law, as demented as it sometimes can be) that also keeps us in check. So, you beat your kid and the neighbor calls child services, you never see your kid again and are locked up for ten years with a $100,000 fine. Meanwhile the kid is convinced he/she is scarred for life, feels guilty or shamed that he/she is different, goes on meds, and later tries to commit suicide (or something like that). In China, on the other hand, one, the law is the last thing people resort to (though this is slowly changing) and two, it is okay to hit one's kid (to a certain extent) and the kid even expects it!! In fact, there is even an expression that goes something like "to hit is to love, to scold is to care" in Chinese. Maybe the law in the West is the society in the East, and vice versa???

Well, this entry turned out to be way longer and more complicated with more tangents than I intended but I hope the crux is intelligible. Any opinions??? I am especially interested to hear about where Mongolians might fall on this guilt/shame spectrum, or if they even do...!


  • you know what i think about this. i don't know about mongolians and i don't think i agree wholely about the chinese as well but with the filipinos, guilt and shame is torn between the foerver warring pragmatism and religion...we are one messed up race, thanks to the spanish and the americans...hah!

    By Blogger Rivafilia Estoque, at 7:16 AM, November 26, 2006  

  • Can you expand the debate to a macro setting, say the situation in Darfur and China's need for Petrol?
    For my 2cents, I always thought that Mongolians did it a tad backwards. If someone is doing a shameful act (like get drunk and yell/cry/attack another with a knife)it was up to everyone else to not look at him and not pay him any attention until he leaves. Everyone else is shamed (very short term) but no one feels guilt or calls him on it. Ask Allyson about her village after her ger burned down and about her camera.
    Keep up the good writing

    By Anonymous Todd, at 7:07 PM, November 29, 2006  

  • Thanks for the comments guys! Todd, where the hell you been homey?!

    The macro conclusion I hoped people would reach! Yeah, on a macro level we may be seeing the same thing with China "funding" extremely repressive and violent governments. Where's the shame? There's nothing to be shamed of because though the Chinese gov't may be losing face internationally (which many Chinese don't realize), they certainly are not domestically. But I can't say I entirely disagree with what China is doing (except in countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe).

    I think I partially agree with you about the Mongolians. My question would be, did the person who did it feel shame or guilt? I never sensed a strong feeling of shame and guilt amongst Mongolians while I was there. And maybe everyone else was shamed because YOU were there?

    By Blogger justin fabish, at 3:46 AM, November 30, 2006  

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