Shame Theory

Max Dunn Posted by Max Dunn, Digital-Editorial Intern, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Shame Theory: The Rampant Ineptitude of Modernity.
Shame Theory: The Rampant Ineptitude of Modernity.

January 2010
Brian Taylor

“Humans should be ashamed of themselves.” This will be a predominant message of 2010. I know this is an accurate prediction because I'm one of the people who is going to be spreading the message. There seems to be a controlled shift in popular Western culture to move past Guilt and go directly to Shame. I believe these ends are achieved purposefully and professionally by many different sources but all seem to be cashing in on the following idea, which this essay will examine in detail: Due to the much stronger emotional response to shame stimuli that to guilt, either individually or collectively, those wishing to take advantage of this response would be best served by promoting a message of fallibility rather than culpability. Your required action might be to buy a salad spinner, vote, or to save the Earth, the “range of possibility” is limitless. So in order for us to have this conversation we must delve deep into what guilt and shame are, what differentiates them from each other in individual circumstances as well as culturally and we must do all this while flipping between CNN and HSC. For simplicities sake , the idea of our opening sentence, “Humans should be ashamed of themselves,” can be thought of as “The Message.” The guided transference of collective guilt into collective shame we will refer to as “The Phenomenon.”

At this point I would be remiss to omit that this conversation is going to have, at the very least, social, political and/or moral implications to its appreciation. I will be doing my very best to remain neutral in this endeavor, (with humorous exceptions,) it is hoped that the reader will reciprocate this subscription. Whether or not we deserve to be ashamed is not the question, nor are the motives of those who claim we should be, (this will be apparent enough with awareness.) Rather it is hoped that through this essay one might find a little promise for the future by resisting the shame and acting when appropriate, rather than when programmed to.

What does it mean to feel guilty? How is that different than being ashamed? What about embarrassment? The differences between shame, guilt and embarrassment, on the level of the individual experience and without taking into account any cultural significance are confusing enough. This is partially because of the interchangeability of the words “feeling” and “being.” The easiest way to keep this clear in our heads, (although, it is a bit of a cheat,) is to remember ,“The essence of Guilt is culpability.” “The essence of Shame is Fallibility.” Guilty is something you are or are not as well as feel or feel not. If you feel ashamed, your ashamed, if it's you, your it, no choice.

Both experiential norms and social norms are the constituents of Paradigm which is a major subject matter of my forthcoming book, “Anti-Social Engineering.” If you are interested in exploring these ideas further, please go to For now, let's remember that in psychological terms you can think of a Paradigm as a mental model about any particular subject. It can be as broad or specific as you like. The constituents of Paradigm are associations, which can be any single idea you have or a complicated web of associations, which you may or not be aware of. These constituents are organized by experience and influence into either experiential norms or social norms. Experiential norms make up the associations you have built yourself, free of influence. Social norms are the associations you have absorbed entirely from influence. Thus, in terms of guilt vs. shame, you feel guilty if you feel you are guilty, this is experiential. This does not mean that you can not experience “your own” shame , but rather that your shame paradigm comes from outside sources and guilt without culpability is shame. Shame is put upon you, feeling guilty is not. One can be guilty and not feel guilty, but one cannot be shamed and not feel ashamed.

If I were attempting to quit smoking cigarettes and everyday, while at work, I was cheating, (having a smoke,) I might feel guilty, because I am culpable. I might also be ashamed of myself because I have let myself down. “I have let myself down,” is a strange statement and further helps us delineate guilt from shame. It seems within this statement that there are really two of us, “Me” and my “self.” If “I” have let my “self” down, who is doing the judging and who is being judged? Psychology provides the answer that I will overly simplify accurately enough for our purposes: You are your ego, made up of your experiences. Your superego is the expectations you have of yourself, the part that judges from outside the ego. If it makes it easier, think of your superego like it was your parents, setting the standards that your ego (you) must try to live up to. So if I'm cheating on my stop smoking program and I feel badly about doing so it is my superego judging my ego that is causing it. It's perfectly plausible that my ego might be able to reason with my superego in the very common practice of an internal argument. This, of course is where talk to yourself, hopefully silently: “You shouldn't be doing this.” “I know, but it's just this one and one is better than a whole pack, isn't it?” “Yes, I suppose it is, but still...” If it was the case that my superego was able to be satisfied by this logic, I might not feel ashamed at all. The superego foundation of shame is what makes it heteronomous as opposed to autonomous, (subject to external rules rather than internal rules.) For, even, if I am feeling shame for an internal rule that I created for myself, (such as “I'm not going to smoke anymore,”) I must judge myself from the superego, which is a product of social norms, or external forces. Thus, “I” am able to disparage my “self.” (This is probably the most controversial statement in this essay as it logically leads to the conclusion that, if the superego is heteronomous, there is actually no such thing as the autonomous self.)

If, however, I had made my intentions to quit smoking clear to others I will have let them down, if only in my own self-opinion. I might even be able to assuage my guilt with the same logic as before but it is unlikely that I'll be able to not be ashamed because now my shame is known. It's one thing to be able to convince your superego to shut up but something completely different to convince someone else of the same. This is where embarrassment comes into play. If someone knows my shame, it is embarrassing. There has been some question to whether or not shame and embarrassment are the same thing. They are not. Embarrassment can happen without being attached to shame and shame can occur without embarrassment. This is not to say they are mutually exclusive, it is completely acceptable to say that one can be embarrassed by one's shame, (provided it is known,) but to say that one is shamed by one's embarrassment is redundant. If one can be embarrassed by something that is considered not shameful, shame and embarrassment are not linear. For instance, even the most graceful dancer will occasionally trip over their own feet. If it were to happen during a performance it is likely that the dancer would be very embarrassed and ashamed. They may feel guilty of ruining the whole performance, even if no one noticed. However, if their tumble took place on a sidewalk for no apparent reason they might feel embarrassed but not feel ashamed. If they were drunk and slipped on some ice, even if they were seen by others who laughed mockingly at them, they might laugh right along with them, feeling no embarrassment at all. So here again, the definition of guilt is objective and shame is subjective. It has been said, quite correctly, that “you feel guilt about your actions, you feel shame about your person.” Embarrassment is actually irrelevant to this conversation because it is independent of guilt and shame, collectively or not, I only bring it up to point out this fact.

On a biological level, guilt is a necessity, shame, it seems, is not. Guilt is required for empathy, which is required for cooperation. Shame is humiliation based on a perceived flaw. While this is a very powerful emotion and tool the it seems to me to be entirely constructionist and, at the least, as a social norm may or may not be eudaemonic. On the level of mirror neurons, the domain of guilt and shame are at the forefront of recent Science. In fact, most of the research done for this essay, couldn't have been done previous to 2007. (I will offer links at the end.) I think that Mirror Neurons are one of the most exciting fields of study that promises real hope at beginning to understand consciousness. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of what is known and our own specialized goals in this conversation, I will have to again sum up the idea in a few sentences. Essentially, the idea is that we have empathetic brain neuron impulses that mimic actual events, when only thinking about those events. Of course it's much more convoluted and important than this, but it dumbs all the way down to a man saying “Ugh,” when he sees another man get kicked in the testicles. It is this exact process that stops us from ignoring a babies cries or forces us to perhaps interfere when someone is being treated poorly. For our intents and purposes, know that guilt is required by humans, shame may or may not be.

To sum up, feeling guilty is due to a perceived mistake or wrongdoing, you can make amends, Feeling ashamed is an internal admission to having something wrong with you, requiring repair.

So far, we have only really examined the similarities and differences of an individual's interpretations of either shame or guilt, but what of collective guilt and collective shame? It turns out that groups deal with collective guilt and shame much the same as individuals. This can best be summed up with the following quote,

“In the case of guilt, people feel that wrongs committed by their ingroup implicate something about their own personal behavior (i.e. What they should and shouldn't have done,) whereas in the case of shame, they feel that wrongs committed by their ingroup implicate something about the very nature of who they are.”
-Collective Guilt – International Perspectives, edited by Nyla R. Branscombe and Berjan Doosje, Cambridge University Press.

When you feel collective guilt you are accepting that someone from the collective to which you belong, (your ingroup,) had (or has or will have) some level of control over the thing your feeling guilty about. Perhaps your great-grandfather, for instance, could have acted and didn't, or shouldn't have acted but did. At any rate, you have attached his culpability to yours. If it is collective shame you are feeling, then in our same scenario, you feel there was something wrong with your great-grandfather. His decision, whatever it was, was faulty and that fallibility reflects poorly upon you, because you are like him in this capacity, by relation. It might seem that you should be able to feel ashamed of your great-grandfathers' actions without feeling guilty of exhibiting the same behavior or “carrying it's potential” but if this is the case, you are not ashamed, you are embarrassed. Shame is flaw, as far as we're concerned, if you feel you don't share your great-grandfathers' fault, you can't be feeling shame. If you accept even partial blame and are able to attach yourself to the blameworthy group, or if you can recognize in yourself the same things that made your great-grandfather the magnificent bastard he was, guilt and shame can be all yours for the low, low price of doing nothing. Finally, remember that guilt leads into shame, even collectively, by a perceived flaw in one's self or one's group and that you aren't going to feel flawed, if you don't feel guilty of the commission or at least the ability to fall prey to the exemplification of the flaw. We will shortly begin to examine how it is that, from certain angles, we are all part of the Ingroup of our species and this is cause enough.

At this point we must leave the safe, albeit confusing, world of the self and branch out in our observations. What can we expect from guilt and shame, on as grand a scale as that of a human society? When we say that a culture is either shame based or guilt based we are differentiating between dichotomous perceived social consequences. In 1946 Ruth Benedict, an American Anthropologist wrote a book called “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” that attempted to define the difference between a guilt culture (represented by America) and a shame culture (represented by Japan.) Essentially the differences, as she saw them, are illustrated by this simple chart below.

Benedict was attempting to compare and contrast the differences between American and Japanese cultures. The possible propagandist reasons for producing such a study, nor even any relevant moral bias present in the work do not sully our investigations. In fact, in the spirit of the whole thing, I see it as Cowboy Culture vs. Samurai Culture. Both the Cowboy and the Samurai have honor. Both are powerful and mysterious and I should be able to exploit their metaphorical value without offending either represented parties, too much. It's quite plain to see the differences demonstrated by this chart: In a guilt culture our Cowboy protests his innocence, is concerned with justice, is honest and forthright. He also expects you to stand up to him and be as forthright as he is. The Samurai is honor bound and as honor (the opposite of shame,) is bestowed by others he is reliant upon you to make him what he is. Even the suggestion of transgression is too great a burden to bear. He will continue to hide any guilt, apparently without consequence, as long he can. So while the chart makes the Samurai look weak, needy and sneaky, with his reactions easily programmable by social norms, the Cowboy, justice bound, is democratic, free and responsible. What the chart doesn't address is how the Cowboy is selfish, how he, as someone who can be accused and not suffer, is spoiled. The Cowboy is left to his own devices while the Samurai is accountable to his culture. There are Anthropological reasons for this we can easily suss out by merely taking into account the geography, isolation and age of the Japanese culture. No one, however, is talking about how one of these things seems more altruistic than the other, or the threat this fact poses. Guilt Culture is: “Sit down. Shut up. Do as I say. Because I told you so. Shame culture says, “What is wrong with you? You must be some kind of idiot if you do or don't think “this” or “that” way. You end up, when you reduce it to the level of one's experience of it, in a game of either “I say” or “They say.” (Thus, selfishness vs. altruism.) It then becomes a question of “What do they say?” and therein lay dangers.

The problem with Ruth's argument is in the determination of “just what the hell is happening on this chart?” She is not measuring or defining anything by essentially asking, “How is it that a shame based culture feels differently about being guilty than a guilt based culture feels about feeling guilty.” Ruth's mistake is that she appears to be comparing and contrasting two different logical species. She is attempting to mash together two incongruent quantifications. It shouldn't be about being guilty and feeling ashamed, is should be about feeling guilty and feeling ashamed. Again, the confusion with “being” vs. “feeling.” Furthermore, these charts categorize our feelings of guilt in either a guilt based culture or shame based culture, and say nothing about the categorization of shame in both cultures. If one attempts to argue that Ruth is asking “Are we shamed by our guilt, dependent on culture type?” (which is what she seems to want to ask,) she is, by utilizing the above chart as an answer, actually only asking, “Is our guilt known?” which is to either mistake embarrassment for shame or guilt for shame.

I bring up Benedict's chart only to help differentiate how both cultures associate guilty feelings from shame feelings and vice versa. I'm certainly not here to pick a fight with Ruth Benedict's chart, especially considering that, despite her unscientific way of deliberating her theory, it is, at it's core, correct. The Cowboy does protest his innocence and the Samurai is honor bound. I have already stated that because embarrassment is independent of either shame or guilt, but further to that confusion; feeling guilty is only the product of either being guilty or perceiving yourself to be guilty, regardless of culture. If you don't think your guilty, you're not going to feel guilty. However, feeling ashamed can be either the product of being guilty or being perceived as guilty, also regardless of culture. This is because one can reasonably believe, “There must be something wrong with me if they think I'm guilty of that.”

Ruth's chart is a categorization of appearances. So if the Samurai's guilt is not known, he has the appearance of innocence, he is not ashamed. However, as mentioned above, this does not take into account the self assignation of shame via the superego, built from social constructs. Similarly, the Samurai may feel shame at the mere accusation of guilt. While this may be true, on the chart and in life, it is certainly doesn't have to be true. What if I feel guilty of doing something wrong for what I feel are the right reasons. This again is appearances, but this time the Samurai has donned a Cowboy hat, and judges himself. Is it going to be culturally significant if I steal medicine I can't afford? Conversely, if the Cowboy stole the medicine, would he be ashamed or even feel guilty? Would the people at the pharmacy think he was guilty, would the family of the sick person think the Cowboy should be ashamed? It has become a matter of degrees. In the language the chart uses, the Cowboy “should” feel guilty if he is, yet the Samurai “does” feel ashamed by any accusation. This makes shame culture insistent and guilt culture suggestive. Due to the fact that cultural guilt and shame are influenced by social norms, yet ultimately processed by you, it all comes down to, and ends, with you. If it ends with you, how is it that cultural guilt and shame even exist? It turns out that it is a lengthy changing of habits of perception. In our times, modernity provides the opportunity for an increase in the power of the individual. When one gains power over their “selves,” the idea of this power becomes ingrained into the psyche of the society, until finally, the Eastern paradigm becomes more like the Western, the Western more like the Eastern and the individual chooses to deal with these feelings independently, rather than as any particular culture dictates. Once this reality becomes social norm we become products of our own choosing, or as my Philosopher friend Gerhard Adam suggested, “Humans domesticating themselves.” Of course, the problems inherent in this reality are the same as we find ourselves dealing with in our concerns of complexity, modernity, etc. We are not actually able to make up our own minds. If one could consciously contemplate any paradigm fully, would one be able to separate truths from lies, right from wrong, suggestion from insistence, etc? Perhaps, some small part of the equation can be trusted, if you work hard, at every idea, all the time. This also says nothing of our awareness of the situation, indeed, for most of us, the hidden hand of influence remains unexamined. We react, we know not why.

After considering Ruth's table and it's correlations, it logically proves four statements, which are actually the repetition of the following two statements:
In a shame culture, my feelings of guilt, (or shame,) are determined by your expectations of me.
In a guilt culture, my feelings of guilt, (or shame,) are determined by my expectations of myself.

Before we begin our examination of “the Message” and “the Phenomenon,” let us briefly restate the effects of guilt and shame. Regardless of culture people respond to guilt and shame in very similar ways, culture, if it has any affect on the individual, only either increases or reduces the effect. While there is a range of reaction to these emotions they generally fall into these categories: Guilt leads to sadness, shame leads to anger. This is somewhat of an oversimplification but in order to make my case that Western culture is being steered into the shame culture paradigm, we really only need to realize that human responses to shame are more powerful and more goal directed than responses to guilt. Guilt can be absolved, shame we'll have to work on. Shame is a quicker cut and bleeds more.

Now let's return to our opening ideas, “The Message.” and “The Phenomenon.” How is it that, in particular, Western Culture wants us to “be ashamed of ourselves,” now, more than ever? How is this different than having “the Message” be one of guilt? What is the likely result of such a manipulation? The manifestations of “The Message” actually need little explanation, we need only accept them as realities to see their relevance. They are as obvious as the info-mercial. “You flip... and they flop.” (You must be some kind of moron not to flip that pancake! Look, we have the solution for you.” They can also be as subtle as the things we get used to, the things we start to let slide and not bother us anymore. The final two messages utilize a rather complicated observation about complexity that is necessary to appreciate the overall effect of “The Phenomenon.” Consider the following movements, remembering at this point, we are not judging their worth, We are only determining that they exist and that the clear message they send, with increasing levels of complexity, is that of, “Humans should be ashamed of themselves.”

Global Warming (or Climate Change, if you prefer.)
Here, the message is, “Humans have damaged the planet by their actions. Perhaps irreparably, perhaps not. At any rate, not only are we responsible, but we acted stupidly and selfishly, without foresight and for frivolous purposes. It's not enough that you feel collective guilt about this, we have to make it a fight between people who believe it and people who don't. That way, you'll either be ashamed of the people protesting your point of view or you'll be ashamed of your Past Ingroup, perhaps even yourself.” Consequence: “Act or suffer.”

Population Control.
This message is not being sold to the Western Cultures as much as to the Eastern, (except in reference to the East,) but the problem of population control is no small part of any ecological sustainability. The message is, “There are too many humans for the planet to sustain the current rate of resource consumption.” (I have, most likely, worded this more correctly than any organization that touts this philosophy, but this message suggests more than one solution to the problem.) This one is easy for westerners to pass the buck on, “I only have one kid. I use birth control. It's an Eastern problem.” Then “they” are ashamed by you. You put it upon them to feel shamed, and if they don't then you think they should be ashamed for not doing so. You might even feel ashamed of yourself for being so judgmental, but that's probably wishful thinking. This, again, is another “fight.”It's much easier to establish and maintain social norms if there is an alternative to compare it to. So compare, if you dare, the fact that, for the most part, we only had all these babies so that we could outnumber those “other” babies, for evolutionary reasons. That is our job. (Notice how elegantly I leave race, politic and religion out of it? You don't need them to make an argument about guilt anymore.) We are biologically competitive. Consequence: “Act of suffer.”

Tales of guilt-worthy or shame-worthy human actions must be older than the written word. Surely, parables told around the fire were the first form of social engineering. Many of those same morals are probably being learned today. The difference being that now we sit around high definition screens with surround sound systems. The list of books, plays, shows, songs and movies that carry the message, “Be ashamed, dirty Human!” is seemingly endless, so let's look at one of the most recent. “Avatar” is a film by James Cameron that tells the story of a young, space-traveling species (humans) that find it's first “other intelligent life-force” on a not-too-distant planet. The two species get along swimmingly until, for some reason or other, the business arrangement they had falls through. The humans decide to take what they want anyway, destroying anything that gets in their way. (I think you see the point.) Shame themed movies seem to be all the rage. The things that pushes these films past guilt into shame are twofold products of our time: One, as already mentioned, we are now a global community, our ingroup is species wide, and two, the films themselves implicate more shameworthy attributes. So while if one feels guilt by self or ingroup it is essentially an admission that you or your group is culpable because you had, have or will have some control over the situation, shame is an admission that you share a perceived flaw. The entertainment could be exemplifying counterproductive behavior, cruelty, arrogance, stupidity, madness, selfishness, fear, the list goes on, but it only takes one to get through to you. If you would like to have this theory demonstrated to you (and you aren't already familiar with them,) go rent “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Schindler's List.” They are both very fine movies that are excellent case studies in Guilt and Shame. Both are about men who empathize with people who, society says, should be their “enemy,” both men are subject to shame and guilt. The differences help us understand as well: Schindler is in a guilt culture and Lawrence is in a shame culture, Lawrence, as a British Officer in Arabia, is actually working in the interests of his superiors while Schindler, as a military Industrialist protecting Jews in Germany, is working against those interests. Finally, please don't fail to notice the stylistic differences that speak to our needs as a modern audience. “Lawrence of Arabia” is a subtle, beautiful film that was made in the 1960's, “Schindler's List” is ugly, blunt and pulls no punches in revealing your naked truths. While your at the video store, consider these other guilty pleasures: 2012, Zombieland, (any zombie movie, for that matter,) District 9, 9, Planet 51 (shame for kids,) Knowing, the Matrix trilogy, the Day the Earth Stood Still, Amistad, Dances with Wolves, the Wizard of Oz, Bill Cosby, “Himself,” etc... The message is, “Humans are dysfunctional, selfish jerks.” Consequence: “Act or suffer.”

Information Age Modernity.
Modernity is a word generally used to describe what we, in this age, would consider “Modern Times.” There is some debate about how far back “these times” should go, or conversely that we are already into “Post Modernity,” mostly because of high technology. Others contend that Modernity stretches back only to our ability to be cross cultural, moving trade, organizing society into specialized segments, basically “creating the system” with which we now live. (This takes us back to about the seventeenth century, just before the industrial revolution.) I'm somewhere in the middle on the “when” of modernity but I think the important deliberations centre around the inherent dangers of programming dynamic social systems.

Since the advent of telecommunications, radio, television, computer, internet, satellite and the peripherals they bring with them, we are constantly inundated with information. So it is that we too, despite being free of any bureaucracy insisted upon us, find our own, I call this age of auto-bureaucracy, Information Age Modernity. So without even blinking, we have ourselves, like our ancestors, broken free into the Universe of choice only to reassemble in our own governments and religions. Just as an example, consider “the News.” It wasn't that long ago that one could sit down at 6:00 and watch “the News.” If one wanted to hear opinion, speculation or “infotainment,” one would have to watch a “Magazine” show, like 20/20 or 60 minutes. Now all News is a “Magazine” show. With 24 hours to fill, it's not surprising that News Anchors must blather on with “Experts” in an attempt to fill up time until something new happens, or the story “develops.” Where “The Message” comes into play is directly proportional to the amount of fodder needed to fill a news day and the agenda the news agency subscribes to. I'm not suggesting that “the News” was ever influence free, or ever not susceptible to any particular agenda. (They seem to have the came capitalist models that advertisers use.) I'm saying that now, in the technological post-modern era, “the News” must be filled up with fodder and that fodder has to come from somewhere. If you like, you can think of it as a Quality vs. Quantity problem. Further to this line of thinking, we must consider the fact that due to the speed with which information travels and the limits of who it can reach near infinite, the news is nothing if it's not susceptible to influence or agenda, or in absence of either, conjecture. Perhaps you do your own investigating and you find on the internet a series of stories about a particular event described very differently, only because you don't happen to live where that news agency does. Is that a question of opinion or of fact? How do you know? Our modernity problems don't end here. We are all responsible for our own bovex filters, we must use them. (Bovex = bovine excrement, from Linguist, Patrick Lockerby.)

Unfortunately protecting ourselves from undue influence is getting more difficult as it gets easier to communicate with each other. How are we to know which opinions to believe when we are presented with so many different versions? The message is, “You are a fickle contradictarian, convoluted by greed and addicted to infotainment,” or perhaps, “You don't what to believe or care about and you change your mind too readily,” or perhaps, “You're full of shit and don't know it!” Consequence: “You don't know what to think and that is interfering with how you think.” Act or suffer.”

Rampant Ineptitude of Modernity.
The RIM, as I call it, is something that I've been noticing all my life. One could think that this observation has nothing to do with modernity and regardless of what age I considered modern I would still consider the mass bulk of people inept. However, this interpretation of my observation derives from a question of either accepting or denying blame (and a slight misinterpretation.) Through my own work defining Assignee's Prerogative and Anti-Social Engineering, I've come to understand that if ineptitude is blameworthy of being directing at anything, the best thing could only be the idea of Systemic Complexity. My apparent arrogance is even more revealed by my candor, for RIM, before I had dared to ask the question, “Why are most people idiots?” used to be called the Rampant Ineptitude of Humanity. Thankfully, I'm not in the habit of publishing every thought I have. I'm only addressing the defense of the RIM theory so that you understand: When I point my finger at you and say, “You're inept!” it is because you are inept. “Who me?” you say. “Yes, you,” I say, “but it's not your fault.” (Or perhaps, more correctly, it isn't your fault until you are made aware of your ineptitude, yet do nothing about it.) As Al Pacino says in “And Justice for All,” “You're out of order. This whole trial is out of order!” Ultimately, the whole system is out of order due to systemic complexity being susceptible to counterproductive influence, and like all things, to entropy.

As fascinating a topic as RIM is, (to me,) for our discussion today I'd like to draw your attention to what I call the blame game. This is not a shame game, but a guilt game as it is determined by culpability, not how the culpable feel about it. This is exemplified whenever someone needs to, for whatever reason, point a finger accusingly. This need stems from the psychological desire to understand causation from the point of view of the blameworthy enterprise. The blame game doesn't determine how the accused feels about what they did, or even if the accused is actually deserving of blame at all. It doesn't matter if you have no target to direct your blame at. The blame game is remarkably simple to play, there is only one rule: “When you need to blame, blame.” It doesn't matter who or what it is you're talking about. It seems to not even matter if you know what your talking about. Things like ideas, careers, movements, philosophies, governments, cultures and whole individual lives are, if not created and/or destroyed based on accepted speculations, at least manipulated to similar ends.

The blame game is just one facet of the Rampant Ineptitude of Modernity that becomes relevant to this discussion through its employment of “passing the buck.” There are a great many examples but let us again take the most recent example and simultaneously reveal the impetus for this essay: The case of the alleged “terrorist attack” in Detroit, Michigan USA, Christmas day, 2009.

Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, apparently with an explosive ball between his legs meant to explode by utilizing a syringe, failed to accomplish his “mission,” upon landing. Three months of training in Yemen, how he got on the plane in Amsterdam, who his “well dressed Indian chaperone” was, were all topics that were learned of quite quickly, having caught the young man. Yet all of these issues came second to CNN (and every other news agency,) speculating on who, what, where, when and why. Within the first hour of the event the focus became, “Even after'all we have done' to improve “Homeland Security” how is it that this could have happened?” (They are getting ready to play the blame game.) All that could be heard by December 27 was, “How could the CIA let this happen?” because it became known that young Mr. Abdulmutallab was on someone's list A: Form A and B for this side of the Atlantic while on the other he was recorded as being on list A: Form A only. The words “Systemic Failure” began being bandied about. By January 7, 2010 it was announced by President Obama that in terms of responsibility, “the buck stops here,” and, of course, that the US will take action to improve communication between organizations, to deter “alQaeda” in Yemen, or elsewhere, while tightening security or restrictions to ensure safety. Ultimately, regardless of how dizzy you are from spinning as you point your finger, you will come to rest only on our old friend, systemic complexity, due to the Rampant Ineptitude of Modernity. The message is, “Your flawed designs are unnecessarily complicated and ineffectual. You are ill-equipped to deal with your responsibilities.” Consequence: “Act or Suffer.”

The likely results of such social manipulations are, at their core, the same effects as one would expect on an individual level. If one can be more easily “excused” from one's guilt through some absolvancy, desensitization or distancing from the causation, than is possible with shame; And if one is more likely to address the causation in some form of action when shame, a perceived flaw, is exposed, then it is much easier to spur social change through shame than by guilt.

In the 1998 Myers-Briggs Type Indicator survey of psychological preferences, a robust 38% of Americans functionally gathered their information objectively and experientially, as one would expect in a guilt culture. Only 5 % exhibited opposite tendencies to absorb paradigm via intuition, subjectively, socially, or as one would expect in a shame based culture. How Americans judge the info they gather is not as cut and dried but there does seem to be a noticeable preference to feeling over thinking. This observation leads one to believe that while Americans don't trust ideas that aren't proven to them they do trust their own abilities to suss out, via their feelings, the “truth” of any matter.

If modernity is the cause of complexity and systemic complexity is the cause of the rampant ineptitude that keeps rearing it's ugly head, and we, in our infinite confusion, attempt only to counter this problem by adding further complexity, are we not just denying there is even a problem? If “they” are the purveyors of the message and “I” no longer exist, I am only my ingroup, am I not a puppet to their whims? Ask yourself, what culture promotes modernity more than any other? Answer at your own peril, for it is at this point it I begin to take the accusations personally and I feel ashamed of my heritage, nationality, race, sex and species. I am however, not guilty of doing nothing about it. You are here and you have read these words, you have seen the tip of the mammoth iceberg that you are about to crash into. Are you ready?

-”Collective Guilt – International Perspectives,” edited by Nyla R. Branscombe and Berjan Doosje,
Cambridge University Press.
-”The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” by Ruth Benedict,
Meridian Books.