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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Shame, responsibility and maturity

As a follow-up to my earlier posting on the differences between how South Koreans are acting to the AV Tech massacre versus Arab reaction to 9/11, there is still a nagging issue that needs to be addressed.

It has been long recognized that the West has a guilt culture and the Arab and Eastern worlds are a shame culture. He have discussed many times how Arab conceptions of "honor" (which is just a manifestation of shame) are so foreign to Western ears, and are critical in understanding the differences between us.

But here we have a stark contrast between two cultures that are both recognized as shame cultures: the Arab world and the Asian (in this case, South Korean) world. If they are nominally the same, why are their reaction so diametrically different?

I believe that the answer lies in another dimension of their respective psyches, namely, maturity. The Korean reaction to VA Tech represents a mature instantiation of a shame culture, while the Arab responses to the multitude of terror attacks is clearly immature.

I would argue that the single biggest difference between immature and mature people are their respective abilities to take responsibility.

A child will go through a number of steps instead of admitting guilt - he may lie, or try to put the blame on someone else, or claim extenuating circumstances - not only in an attempt to avoid punishment, but also often so as not to admit to himself that he is guilty.

Growth comes from learning to act responsibly and learning to take responsibility.

Compare the Arab world to Japan. Both suffered humiliating wartime losses in the 1940s. It can be argued that Japan lost much more, as it had a formidable war machine and it was not just defeated but forced to surrender unconditionally. And both of them have strong shame cultures.

Yet only decades later, with very few natural resources, Japan turned itself around into an economic and technological powerhouse that became the envy of the West. The Arab world, in contrast, had the misfortune of sitting on billions of barrels of oil.

Japan was forced to grow up in a hurry. The Arab world, with the cushion of petrodollars, had the luxury of becoming the spoiled brats of the planet, building playgrounds for the super-rich in the Gulf. Is there any real psychological difference between the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s and a boy who takes his football back when the game doesn't go the way he wants?

In short, the shame/honor dynamic may explain many of the Arab world's psychoses, but it doesn't explain them all. We need to add the dynamic of an infantile culture as well. And the VA Tech outrage shines a brilliant light on the contrast between a mature shame culture and a puerile one.