Monday, October 06, 2014

  • Monday, October 06, 2014
  • Elder of Ziyon
During Yom Kippur I used the machzor (holiday prayer book) written by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain.

It is a very good machzor. Sacks uses it as an opportunity to highlight the contributions of Judaism to the world at large as a supremely moral religion.

One of the points he makes is that Judaism was the first guilt culture, as opposed to the shame culture of the rest of the world. He continues to make the case for the guilt culture today, as he writes here:

Judaism gets it right and the zeitgeist gets it spectacularly, dangerously wrong. Consider: guilt enters the world hand in hand with the spirit of forgiveness. God forgives: that is the message emblazoned all over Yom Kippur. God doesn’t expect us to get it right all the time. The greatest of the great, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, had their faults and failings, defeats and doubts. There is only one person in the Hebrew Bible who is said to have committed no sin: Job. And look what happened to him. So, because God forgives, we can be honest with Him and therefore with ourselves. Unlike a shame culture, a guilt culture separates agent from act, the person from the deed. What I did may be wrong, but I am still intact, still loved by God, still His child. In a guilt culture, acknowledging our mistakes is doable, and that makes all the difference.

Today’s secular environment is a shame culture. It involves trial by the media, or public opinion, or the courts, or economic necessity, all of which are unforgiving. When shame is involved, it’s us, not just our actions, that are found wanting. That’s why in a shame culture you don’t hear people saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Instead, people try to brazen it out. The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down we know that there’s something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility.

Ultimately, guilt cultures produce strong individuals precisely because they force us to accept responsibility. When things go wrong we don’t waste time blaming others. We don’t luxuriate in the most addictive, destructive drug known to humankind, namely victimhood. We say, honestly and seriously, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Now let me do what I can to put it right.” That way we and the people we offend can move on. Through our mistakes we discover the strength to heal, learn and grow. Shame cultures produce people who conform. Guilt cultures produces people with the courage to be free.
As we've noted many times before, the Arab world is suffused with the shame culture. And shame cultures value appearance over reality: they cannot separate the sin from the sinner, so instead of admitting mistakes all effort must be made to hide them.

We saw a perfect example of this yesterday. A senior researcher at B'Tselem, Atef Abu Roub, called the Holocaust a lie - on camera - but he insisted for over a month that he did no such thing. B'Tselem defended him for as long as it could until they could no longer deny the facts from the extended video that was released. (Even after the extended video was released, B'Tselem denied it for four more days, before grudgingly admitting it only in Hebrew.)

B'Tselem acted as part of the modern Western shame culture. Abu Roub acted as part of the long-standing Arab shame culture. The modern shame culture, when confronted with facts, reluctantly admits the truth; the Arab shame culture refuses to admit the truth no matter what, since admitting you are wrong is a fatal blow to one's honor.

The entire existence of "honor killings" is a reflection of a shame culture gone amok.

The guilt culture is morally superior to the shame culture. Guilt cultures allow individuals, and ultimately societies, to grow and improve, while shame cultures will remain stagnant and backwards.
If you wrong someone in a guilt culture, you can seek forgiveness and restore the relationship. If you wrong someone in a shame culture then the only solution is to suffer revenge, or to offer appeasement and abasement - there is no growth, no lessons learned. It is a culture based on appearance and not reality, and this is a paradigm that cannot be sustained.

Nominally, Western culture is mostly a guilt culture, although of course shame exists - one need only to look at how most famous actors, sports figures and politicians attempt to weasel out of accusations of misconduct. But even today's celebrities are slowly realizing that public reaction to them telling the truth and seeking forgiveness is much more positive than the reaction when they deny and try to cover it up. Those who continue to be brazen in the face of the facts look like fools and those who admit mistakes can move on - sometimes, even more successfully.

The shame culture has a major weakness: it itself can be shamed. When people from a shame culture are confronted with their shortcomings in a public way, and their lies cannot hold up in the glare of the spotlight, they are forced to change - to salvage what little honor they can, and to try to regain it. Within the shame culture the lies can be tolerated and expected, but from without they cannot and should not be.

This is how to defeat the honor-shame culture in the Arab world. And it is the exact opposite of what Western media and politicians and most "human rights" groups do. They are afraid to shame Arabs out of fear of causing a violent, shame-based reaction. The natural Arab reaction to being shamed is to threaten in response, to maintain their own honor. Those threats are almost always empty but they scare Westerners into adhering to the Arab rules of avoiding shame and shaming.

Yet there have been cases where shame has made an impact on the Arab psyche.

Immediately after 9/11, the Arab world was overwhelmingly supportive of terrorism. Al Jazeera openly praised Osama Bin Laden. But since then, polls have shown a steady decrease of support for suicide bombings and other terror acts throughout the Arab world. Part of the reason is, of course, that they have been the primary victims of terror since 9/11, but I think part of it is because of the Western disgust at terrorism and those who openly support it. People want to feel that their own culture is better than others', and it is hard to defend a culture that supports terror openly.

The culture changed, to a small extent. But it did change.

Another, almost comical example happened in 2008, when Hamas was publicly shamed by Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in an interview, criticized Hamas for targeting children with its rockets. In response, Hamas denied aiming at civilians - and its press releases from then on pretended to be targeting soldiers with every rocket in Operation Cast Lead!

To be sure, Hamas' actual behavior didn't change, but it was forced to change its public position because of the shame of being berated by another terror group on grounds of morality. It is a small step, but when terrorists are forced to change their publicly stated positions there will be a trickle effect to the masses. Their people learn, over time, that lies are not acceptable.

Another example: Egyptian society now takes harassment against women seriously, something roundly ignored only a few years ago. The reason is because the story was highlighted in the West, especially when female Western reporters were assaulted. They were shamed into confronting it rather than pretending it doesn't exist, the first reaction by someone who is shamed.

The Western world needs to do a full-court press against the more repugnant aspects of the honor-shame culture - because it can be shamed into reforming. When the shame of being publicly exposed as immoral overwhelms the benefits of lying to hide your immorality, then a society can be shamed into abandoning the culture of shame altogether. But the pressure to do so from the West must be relentless, and each lie must be exposed and ridiculed, rather than accepted. The Arab shame society does not want to be publicly exposed as less moral than the hated West.

Imagine how different things could be if Palestinian Arab officials were forced to explain their obvious lies. Imagine if Hamas would be forced to justify every single rocket the way Israel is expected to account for every airstrike. Imagine if the world would automatically discount every statement made by Arab politicians who were already proven to have lied repeatedly and unabashedly.

Imagine if the Western world treated liars in a shame culture the same way it treats their own liars. They would have no choice but to admit to their lies - or look like fools, to even greater shame. The Arab world can be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world where people take responsibility for their own actions when the alternative is feeling even more shameful.

A major reason that the West lets these lies slide is because the shame culture is being coddled, not confronted.

The shame culture can be shamed into behaving more morally - and it is the most effective, and least-used, weapon we have.


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