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  • Shame vs. Guilt
  • Gregory McNamee (bio)

You borrow a book from a friend, knowing full well that you’ll never return it. You sleep with another friend’s spouse. You drink too much at a party, then drive home, merrily exceeding the speed limit.

Do you feel shame for your behavior, or do you feel guilt?

If you’re a sociopath, you won’t feel either. If you’re not, you’ll feel one or the other of these systems of admonition. Which one depends on who you are and where you came from.

“Guilt” has a distant cousin in the Old English word gelt, “money.” It stems from a crime or offense that requires some sort of payment in atonement. That punishment, externally imposed, thus hinges on a social debt; not for nothing does the Old English gylt gloss the Latin debitum, “debt,” in the Lord’s Prayer. In strictest terms, then, the phrase “Catholic guilt” describes the view that the fear of God, and not the counsel of one’s inner better angel, is what’s going to make us behave—for when God collects on a debt, the vig is always massive.

Shame, conversely, comes from within. Etymologists hazard that it connects to the Old English word hama, a covering of the sort that one might wear in order to signal penitence. In that light—or, perhaps better, that darkness—a person who has committed an offense need not worry about being punished by an external agent, since he or she is doing plenty of self-punishing.

Put another way, punishment in the case of guilt is a judgment on bad behavior. In the case of shame, conversely, the emphasis is on the intrinsic rottenness of the person who committed it.

I am old enough—for which I feel perhaps a bit of survivor’s guilt, given all those who fell by the wayside in my generation, but certainly no shame— that in my undergraduate field of study, anthropology, I was schooled to believe that a sharp distinction could be drawn between cultures of shame and cultures of guilt. Ruth Benedict, author of a wartime study of the Japanese mind, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), is often credited as the source of that distinction. In that book, she contrasted Japan’s “shame culture” with America’s “guilt culture” as a complex of behaviors that explain certain attributes that, with a nod to the shameless Johnny Rotten, we’ll call cultural tendencies: Shame idealizes the ritualized suicide called seppuku, while a hyperactive sense of guilt overstuffs our prisons today.

A later generation of psychological anthropologists located shame and guilt along a continuum that extends from the semantic cluster around “sadness,” making the two closer, emotively, than Benedict might have liked. Relativism-sensitive anthropologists are more reticent about drawing distinctions of any sort today, but historians don’t seem to mind doing so. In his illuminating book Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (2005), for instance, James C. Cobb finds that there’s hay to be made yet in the old distinction between the Yankee guilt culture and the Southern honor culture, the latter embracing—yes, shame.

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Do you feel guilt, then, or shame? You be the judge. Or not. [End Page 197]

Gregory McNamee

Gregory McNamee is a writer, journalist, editor, photographer, and publisher. He is the author or title- page editor of thirty- five books and is a consultant, contributor, and contributing editor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and its blog. He is a contributing editor to and regular reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributing editor to the Bloomsbury Review.



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