The Shame Culture

Mar 19, 2016

Photo credit: Shutterstock

By David Brooks

In 1987, Allan Bloom wrote a book called “The Closing of the American Mind.” The core argument was that American campuses were awash in moral relativism. Subjective personal values had replaced universal moral principles. Nothing was either right or wrong. Amid a wave of rampant nonjudgmentalism, life was flatter and emptier.

Bloom’s thesis was accurate at the time, but it’s not accurate anymore. College campuses are today awash in moral judgment.

Many people carefully guard their words, afraid they might transgress one of the norms that have come into existence. Those accused of incorrect thought face ruinous consequences. When a moral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post in support of it on Facebook within minutes. If they do not post, they will be noticed and condemned.

Some sort of moral system is coming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of this new moral system?

Last year, Andy Crouch published an essay in Christianity Today that takes us toward an answer.

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.

This creates a set of common behavior patterns. First, members of a group lavish one another with praise so that they themselves might be accepted and praised in turn.

Second, there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

Third, people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

Crouch describes how video gamers viciously went after journalists, mostly women, who had criticized the misogyny of their games. Campus controversies get so hot so fast because even a minor slight to a group is perceived as a basic identity threat.

The ultimate sin today, Crouch argues, is to criticize a group, especially on moral grounds. Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition. Crouch writes, “Talk of right and wrong is troubling when it is accompanied by seeming indifference to the experience of shame that accompanies judgments of ‘immorality.’”

He notes that this shame culture is different from the traditional shame cultures, the ones in Asia, for example. In traditional shame cultures the opposite of shame was honor or “face” — being known as a dignified and upstanding citizen. In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is celebrity — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform.


Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/opinion/the-shame-culture.html

5 comments on “The Shame Culture

  • Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation.

    Releases the Sheeple Gene. Or in more sinister terms, mob rule.

    Think for yourself. Life of Brian summed it up in the “You’re all individuals” scene.



    Report abuse

  • 3
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    @Sean_W

    Whatever, I think you just described life as it’s always been.

    Sure but putting in words in a clear and concise manner is important because it helps us home in on the specifics of the topic and reflect upon it after reading. This is the catalyst to the thought process that makes us acquire a better understanding of what we often suspect instinctively but can’t quite put our finger on.



    Report abuse

  • I do agree with the majority of your article, however it should be noted that there is one
    part of your article that is simply untrue. The gamers that “viciously” went after journalists
    in the movement known as gamergate did not attack journalists on the grounds of accused
    misogyny but on grounds of unethical practices as journalists (e.g. a private mailing list that demonstrated
    a conspiracy to push a specific narrative, using media power, between the dates of 29 August 2014-1 September 2014, known as the “gamers are dead” articles)

    It should be noted that this movement was leaderless and, as a result, fringes of people (though very few amongst the majority) did practice horrid musings towards fellow human beings.

    In truth the entire event was an eye opener for how much trust can be put in the media, especially when it is the media that is being criticized.



    Report abuse

  • @OP – The ultimate sin today, Crouch argues, is to criticize a group, especially on moral grounds. Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition. Crouch writes, “Talk of right and wrong is troubling when it is accompanied by seeming indifference to the experience of shame that accompanies judgments of ‘immorality.’”

    He notes that this shame culture is different from the traditional shame cultures, the ones in Asia, for example.

    One of the features of “shame culture”, is blaming the victim for the crime, while the “politically correct”, non-judgemental, just stand by and abdicate responsibility!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-36016648

    A Hindu religious leader’s comment that allowing women into a shrine devoted to Lord Shani (Saturn) will increase rapes has drawn criticism.

    Shankaracharya Swaroopanand’s comments came two days after the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra state let women into the inner sanctum.

    For centuries, the temple had been open only to men.

    Last month, the Mumbai high court affirmed the right of women to enter and pray inside all temples.

    Women’s activists had led protests demanding entry specifically to the Lord Shani shrine.

    “Women entered Shani temple’s inner sanctum,” news agency ANI quoted the 94-year-old as saying on Monday.

    “The women are worshipping Shani in the temple. By doing so, Shani’s eyes would fall on women and this would result in increase of rape incidents.”

    Women were kept out of the Shani Shingnapur temple for nearly 400 years and temple officials, in the past, had claimed that the ban was actually “to protect women since Shani emits radiation which can harm them and cause deformity in a foetus if a pregnant woman enters the temple”.

    Last year, temple priests carried out an elaborate ritual cleansing after a woman managed to gain entry inside and offer prayers.

    The temple authorities relented after last month’s Mumbai high court ruling that women had a fundamental right to enter temples, and said those trying to prevent them would be handed a six-month jail term.

    Clearly – the delusion is strong in these temple officials!



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.