Quickie Post — Guilt vs. Shame

In the Whitsunday Islands, Australia

There’s a longer post a-brewing on Joe Henrich’s book, The Weirdest People in the World — How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, but that review will have to wait. Basically, what Henrich has created in this book is an empirical, case-study driven proof of our Theory of Empathetic Evolution. Henrich kind of sees this, but simply can’t pronounce it. For lots of reasons. But I digress.

He does have some killer insights couched in his text, though — and that is the difference in aggregate cultures (social structure be damned!) on the difference of motivators of large masses of people.

Particularly relevant is drawing a line between guilt — which is self-inflicted by the person feeling it; and shame — which is inflicted from the outside.

It won’t take long for students of this blog to realize that guilt is the result of a developed independent self-image. You yourself don’t feel good for doing something that is in conflict with what you believe yourself to be. Shame is inflicted from the outside — by others — and so is inherently a result of social networks that suppress agency, and rely on external defined, status-driven relationships. The authority says you should feel bad about yourself, and so, well, you do.

Shifting back into the topic of this blog, shame functions well in low-empathy environments, with simplistic reasoning on why you are doing what you’re doing. Guilt is the result of existence in higher empathy environments. You hold yourself accountable because you’re connected to a larger body of people. Shame is used in low-responsibility situations, whereas guilt relies on higher responsibility stages of personal development.

What’s more interesting is what a bellwether/signal this is, in the current COVID milieu, on what stage of development our society is currently at — and at what level of complexity messages the larger body politic can actually operate at. There is no better example than masks. If you don’t wear a mask, now even if you’ve had the vaccine, and can’t give the disease to anyone, you’re not operating at the level of emotional empathy that authorities expect. Higher v-Memes would think this as gaslighting (it IS a control measure directed at the population) and resist the manipulation. Or even make the more grounded argument — if what we’re really working on is emotional comfort for those terrified of COVID, for whatever reason, should we not also require women to wear burqas as to not offend the Wahabbi members of our population?

Clearly, it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole — that’s the problem with fundamentally arbitrary measures that don’t work well. But it also allows us to gauge how easily our societies are manipulated. If we are deeply shame-based, AND have open channels to the outside world with poor national self-image, our level of development will make us particularly vulnerable to those who mean us nothing good. The counterpoint of how governments manage this is China, which carefully meters information to their society (through the Great Wall and general press control,) even though China as a whole has a very powerful self-image of itself as a great place. The leadership, either through emergence or design, know that their population is easily shamed (really read manipulated) and they aren’t going to drop the developmental stagnation policies any time soon. In fact, they’ll dangle their version of goodness out to the West (wouldn’t all of you give up your freedom to live in a safe society?) And those at the same level of memetic development, who just happen to be a sizable hunk of our journalistic caste, will amplify them. No extensive propaganda campaign needed.

Regarding guilt, it IS a sign of the development of a society that it can feel guilt. A population that possesses the ability to feel guilt can fix long-time wrongs, like slavery and theft of native lands. But only if we’re developed enough to feel it.

Otherwise, it turns into shame, with it’s concomitant linkages to lower v-Meme development, with strong In-group/Out-group behaviors. Which never help the Out-group in the long run, regardless of how shrill the voices become. The In-group will posture, and the out-group will still suffer. This is a great piece around one of my big issues — equity in education — that offers up ample evidence for this case.

So, thanks Joe — that dichotomy is a good one. And a powerful indicator of empathetic development. I’m doubling down on development in all this. If we do, people will feel guilty — and solutions for our problems will emergently appear. Shame will always remain the tool of the elites. And we know those folks only use what benefits them.

It’s in the memetics.

4 thoughts on “Quickie Post — Guilt vs. Shame

  1. Useful distinctions, thank you. And. I would postulate that guilt as such is only one aspect of assuming responsibility – and a crude one, at that, equally likely to lead to defensive/aggressive attitudes as to atonement.

    If my great-great-grandfather had been Jack the Ripper, could/should I feel guilty or in any way responsible? (I don’t think he was, by the way.)

    It seems to me that if guilt is linked to a particular misdemeanour committed by others in the past (like colonialism), then what is called for is not in fact guilt but a recognition of my responsibility as a privileged fellow human to, in all humility, do what is in my power to alleviate any (resulting) suffering that still persists. This for me has come to be the core of ‘atonement’, which finally has nothing to do with the past (where guilt resides) and everything to do with the present.


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