The Impact of Criticism on People from Honor-Shame Cultures

An Oregan University Student newspaper published an editorial entitled “The Islamic Double Standard”:

Saudi Arabia has recalled its envoy to Denmark in response to the cartoon kerfuffle, blathering about how showing such disrespect for Islam is unacceptable. I would suggest to the Saudi government that if they want me to show their pedophile prophet (yes, Mohammad first had sex with his favorite wife when she was nine and he was in his fifties) any respect, they ought to make it legal to publicly practice my religion in their kingdom. Not executing Muslims who convert to other religions would also be good.

Granted this is inflammatory language. But it hardly registers when compared with the virulent attack on non-Muslims (and Muslim apostates) in the Islamic press.

It predictably elicited howls of protest from Muslim students, one of which, from Nada Mohamed, a 20-year-old junior and the vice president of OSU’s Muslim Student Association, is, I think, especially revealing:

“Tears were flowing out of my eyes as I was reading,” she said. “I felt like somebody was ripping my heart out.”

This highly wrought emotional response is classic honor-shame: “I have been publicly criticized, I find that so unbearable I feel as if my very being is threatened.” Dissing is indeed an existential threat in a culture where public face counts more than anything. And the asymmetry (my feelings are hurt by your pointing out that my co-religionists have a double standard in which we can insult you but you can’t insult us) reflects the classic honor-shame attitude: my tribe right or wrong.

The real question here is, how should civil society, which has managed to transcend such passions, among other things by acknowledging that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and asking people to be as respectful of the feelings of others as they would have others be respectful of theirs, react? By saying,

“I’m sorry your feelings are hurt, but in our culture, people have the right to criticize each other, a right you Muslims take full advantage of. We believe that a) ‘sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never harm us;’ and ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ If you are so sensitive that criticism, even harsh criticism is ‘tearing your heart out’ what are you doing to stop your co-religionists from engaging in the kind of inflated rhetoric about Israel and the Nazis which is a form of moral sadism?”

Or by saying: “I’m sorry. What can we do to spare your feelings in the future? Would you like to censor our newspaper so that passages critical of Islam don’t appear and you won’t feel hurt?”

Alas.

6 Responses to The Impact of Criticism on People from Honor-Shame Cultures

  1. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Not to be obnoxious: I confess to an inability to decide which matters more in Islamist thinking, the honor-shame polarity, or the authoritarian demands of a religion that will not be denied. Can we tell the difference?

    When someone is genuinely moved to tears by criticism, yes, it does appear honor-shame may be involved. How can we know? After all, why does a person cry? Could it be out of anger that he dare not express or even admit to himself exists? Frustration? Would those explanations have anything to do with honor-shame?

    Let’s think about Islam for a moment. If the individual is considered first a creation of a God who wishes to be served by his creatures, second a unit in an all-important social structure that imposes its scriptural rules upon him, and third as someone who is free to make narrowly described choices, can we be sure that honor-shame is the psychological concept that rules and predicts his behavior? Could there be simpler explanations?

    The Japanese might be compared to the Islamists, with the highly-stratified society of, say, 16th century Japan contrasted with Islamic societies of various times and places. Are there parallels? (Why don’t Muslims have seppuku?) Will the honor-shame abstraction work in all cases? Can it explain anything, or is it a Procrustian bed of a sort?

    I can’t quite articulate my discomfort. For me, the picture is not clear, and there is nothing revelatory about the honor-shame concept. I just can’t use it to explain anything to my satisfaction. There seems to be some uncertainty, some remainder….what we have here is a kind of covering law, a principle that is said to explain and govern human behavior in certain cultures. I have to wonder whether the very idea is not some kind of reductionism, a theory forcing itself on facts. Everything we see will fit, or else. Our theory explains it all.

    This smacks of Marxist economic determinism, or the sort of thing so criticized by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in his writings on system theory. He argued that it makes no more sense to explain human history and ethics and religion and art in terms of economics than it makes to explain the operation of an automobile in terms of electricity. Von Bertalanffy called this error reductionism, and that he was not understood is shown in the book The Alpbach Symposium: Beyond Reductionism. But I believe the theoretical biologist was correct: we cannot devise a slogan or concept or theory or idea and then say it is the principle that rules any system. When he insisted that men are not robots, von Bertalanffy was trying to go beyond mechanism and animism/spiritualism to a study of how things actually work, and he was the first to admit that stating the rules of reality in differential equations looked like an impossibility. So he focused on isomorphisms, showing the ways in which different systems displayed parallel behaviors. It was ground-breaking stuff, and I don’t know that anybody has been bright enough to carry on his work.

    Reductionist concepts go all the way from Marxist nonsense (inevitable laws of the universe like Newton’s, laws that men do not create or modify, and can not resist) to the “elan vital” and other more spiritual claims. What Schopenhauer saw as pure Will is for some karma, or perhaps the mind of God. Whatever it is, it explains everything; honor-shame does that, though admittedly only in some cultures.

    That caveat will not save it. I have to wonder when it will be seen as a tautology! “Honor-shame works where it works, and beautifully; if I can’t use it to explain anything, then it does not work there.” Yep, I reckon. “If you threaten him, he will obey you. That shows he is of the Threat-Responsive Personality Type, which we specialists call TRPT, pronounced tripped.” Cripes!! Does such a type exist in reality (no), or is it our imposition of a label on a sheer abstraction?? (Yes.) If something works to our satisfaction, does that make it fully explanatory of the phenomena under consideration, or are we just using jargon to describe events, and pretending to explain things? “Why do these people eat their captives?” “Because of jungju.” “What’s jungju?” “The idea that it’s good to eat people you have captured.” Aah, science.

    Ruth Benedict made a tremendously admirable effort to describe the nature, the fundamental ethos, of two distinct cultures, and she succeeded — if one is something of a classicist, and resonates to the concept that an Apollonian theme radiates throughout a culture, shaping and controlling it. Wow. Very impressive, and very philosophical, but also very 19th century. Cultures do not have souls, spirits, or personalities. Culture is man’s extrasomatic means of adaptation (Leslie White’s definition, not mine) and that is it. (Notice that this definition explains nothing. Rather it sweeps away a lot of nonsense.) You can always think of a culture as expressive of an emotion, a feeling, a yearning, a spiritual impulse — just as you can think of a song as the soul’s yearning for liberation, or a sport as a manifestation of the essence of manhood. Good for you. But don’t call your poetic wool-gathering science.

    To bound to the other end of the spectrum, I recall that a psychologist once told me that of course ESP and other similar things were impossible because there are only two things that can happen to a neuron — a positive or a negative charge. I would say he was right about ESP, but his understanding of why he was right was ignorant. He had his tidy little understanding of what made the mind tick, and the fact that he could not possibly account for such things as how we choose our mates did not bother him at all. It’s all just positive and negative charges, zillions of them, all racing around and coming up with…the Mona Lisa, Maxwell’s equations and my mother’s banana bread. No problem. Riiiiiight.

    I wish I could recall the name of the British scientist who said something like, “When we don’t understand something, we give it a name and claim we have explained it.”

    I can think of no better parallel to the honor-shame concept than Freudian mythology. I say “mythology” because that is exactly what it is: a fabulous invention based on sweeping assumptions and virtually no clinical evidence, all floating on gallons of ink. Freud made it up, drawing heavily on myths and legends, and it does make a kind of sense. Like most myths, it appeals because it explains, sort of. But it’s all just confabulation (this is the guy who believed cocaine helped him think), and not at all the “new science” Freud tried to create.

    Margaret Mead did something similar when she imposed her ideas on the poor Samoans, who have resented her portrayal of them as sexually insatiable ever since (they are in fact a very modest, even Puritanical folk). Maggie then preached sexual freedom to the West, which, enchanted by a (false) vison of a hormone-soaked paradise in the South Seas, generally accepted the notion that the lusty natives were liberated, free of problems, and a model for us. Ooops.

    We love names, labels, dichotomies, tripartite classifications, taxonomy and jargon. We like simple solutions, and we cherish the ability to say (usually at cocktail parties), “Oh, that’s Bill’s way of dealing with unacknowledged anxiety over control issues, which is pretty much due to his sexual immaturity. He’s very anal, and at the same time not in touch with his inner child.” Knowledge is power. It also helps you get girls….

    Perhaps it all comes down to the matter of whether honor-shame is a variety of mechanistic, reductionist cant that is used to explain complexity. I don’t have the answer, but I don’t think the question has been asked yet, so I would not expect anyone else to have it, either.

    I suspect defining the problem and clarifying it would take an entire book. Answering it might be important, or not. I don’t even know.

    Forgive the typos, please, and have at me…..

  2. RL says:

    Not to be obnoxious: I confess to an inability to decide which matters more in Islamist thinking, the honor-shame polarity, or the authoritarian demands of a religion that will not be denied. Can we tell the difference?

    one of the things i’m working on is the relationship of monotheism to honor-shame culture. if your orientation is honor-shame, and you don’t overcome it in becoming monotheist you end up with universal imperialism — we are right because we dominate, all people should become us, if they don’t they must be humiliated as proof that we are right.

    When someone is genuinely moved to tears by criticism, yes, it does appear honor-shame may be involved. How can we know? After all, why does a person cry? Could it be out of anger that he dare not express or even admit to himself exists? Frustration? Would those explanations have anything to do with honor-shame?

    i’d say it does. look it’s awful when you’re criticized publicly, it’s painful. and when your religious leader is called a pedophile that’s particularly painful. but feeling that your heart has been ripped out because of your commitment to a religion whose leaders have been engaging in a massive campaign of sadistic criticism of others, that strikes me as somehow so skewed and over-dramatized, so dramatically unfair to the “other” and so indulgent of the “self” that the world of honor-shame, where public face matters above all else seems to me the most likely explanation.

    i cd be wrong. Ms. Mohamed may be so insulated that she doesn’t know what’s going on in her own religious culture. if so, i would expect her to catch up quickly. somehow i don’t think that’s llikely.

  3. RL says:

    Let’s think about Islam for a moment. If the individual is considered first a creation of a God who wishes to be served by his creatures, second a unit in an all-important social structure that imposes its scriptural rules upon him, and third as someone who is free to make narrowly described choices, can we be sure that honor-shame is the psychological concept that rules and predicts his behavior? Could there be simpler explanations?

    i’m not sure what you mean here. honor-shame is a system of socialization and social control that, above all, concerns itself with what other people think. if you do something wrong and no one knows, it’s not shameful. if you have honor and don’t deserve it, never mind. if the individual is an autonomous moral agent (i think the starting point of most monotheistic beliefs), then what he does, viewed by God, is important no matter what others know or think. this is, i think, the original meaning of submission to the will of allah (islam), receiving jesus into your heart (christianity) or accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven (judaism). but sustaining that over time is not easy, and the members of the religion often become more concerned with how people “look” than what’s at stake internally.

    The Japanese might be compared to the Islamists, with the highly-stratified society of, say, 16th century Japan contrasted with Islamic societies of various times and places. Are there parallels? (Why don’t Muslims have seppuku?) Will the honor-shame abstraction work in all cases? Can it explain anything, or is it a Procrustian bed of a sort?

    not all honor-shame cultures are stratified. indeed tribal cultures tend to be strongly egalitarian (among alpha males) and they jealously prevent any effort on the part of a successful war leader to become a king. cultures that do stratify — thru conquests, thru literacy, thru imperial developments — tend to keep the honor-shame system and build heavy hierarchies aimed at maintaining the honor of those on top and affirming the shame of those below. “humiliation is necessary for the social order” wrote a member of Louis XV’s court. islam was in principle supposed to raise people up above the petty jealousies of honor-shame, but ended up producing an empire.

    it’s a long story.

    but as for seppuku, the latest muslim innovation — sending dishonored women to commit suicide terror attacks — is a particularly aggressive form of seppuku.

  4. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Lots of little details here, but let me focus very briefly on just one that seems (to me) to be pretty clear: Japanese seppuku does not have any significant parallel with Islamofascist suicide bombing. Think in terms of function, purpose, intent and the social setting (how the suicide victim is perceived by peers and others in his society) of each form of suicide. Similarities? None. I won’t enumerate, but just mention one huge distinction: suppuku is not something a man should have to perform, as it is his way of paying the price for failure; very, very different from the socially lauded choice of a respected individual to strap on the bombs and kill some children. One is a hero, the other a failure who has paid the price. Etc etc.

    More later? Heh!

  5. RL says:

    the only similarities are: 1) you commit suicide because you have been irreparably shamed in the eyes of your fellows; 2) by committing suicide in a culturally defined and specifiic way you wash your shame away and save your family.

    the differences are manifold, in particular the viciousness of the culturally approve forms in palestinian culture. of course that in turn is related to how profoundly humiliatied by the very continued existence of israel the palestinians (and more broadly the arabs and muslims) feel. thus the humiliation they try and wash away is not only personal (in the case of the women) but cultural — the whole society is in a state of unbearable humiliation and they cannot accept the easiest way out — recognition of israel and negotiation to a positive-sum solution because it would mean an even greater humiliation for all of islam — the acceptance of the independence of dhimmi and the establishment of an autonomous non-islamic state in the heart of dar al islam.

  6. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Trying to articulate the problem I have with the concept of the honor-shame (h-s) culture: it seems to me that it would be more accurate to describe what honor and shame are in a given culture, rather than try to categorize cultures as “h-s” and “not h-s.” I am uncomfortable with labeling any culture this way.

    Labels are abstractions. Freud wrote about the id, ego, superego and a bunch of other stuff as if these things actually existed; they do not. But our minds prefer to deal with symbols, and that leads to error. So we talk about love, as if it existed; it does not. Society does not exist. Truth does not exist. But we seldom bother to think about these concepts — they are very handy ways of expressing, forming and evolving our views of reality. An abstraction has no existence out there in the real world; there is no such thing as the class of even numbers, but, like any set that we care to define, it’s a convenient concept. We make the mistake of thinking that it actually exists.

    This is almost certainly one of the fundamental distinctions between non-human (infra-human) animals and homo sapiens. We think differently, using different tools.

    So when we talk about this or that culture being h-s, we assume that there is a real class of societies out there that have certain characteristics. That thinking requires us to draw lines in what could very well be a continuum, which means an element of arbitrariness will be present.

    Instead of creating abstractions, labels, would it not be better to describe the behaviors of people in a society, so that we can understand how the system functions?

    When we create abstractions, we are very prone to error; the abstractions lead to preconceptions and assumptions, to certain ways of thinking, and to the creation of yet more abstractions. You can, if you keep going, wind up with something like theology. !

    “If our viscera made as many mistakes in sleep as the brain, we should all die of indigestion after our first nursing.” Suzanne Langer

    And: I just can’t see how seppuku and Islamist suicide bombings are similar in that “you commit suicide because you have been…shamed….” The bomber has not been shamed, has he? He is looked up to, respected, praised, and memorials celebrate his sacrifice. His family benefits from enhanced prestige and, before we put Saddam in the lockup, a gift of cash. The samurai who fails is utterly disgraced, and has brought disgrace on his family. He is trying to restore his status by accepting his fate. These are the same??

    Or is the contention here that the bomber has been shamed by his society’s enemies, and that he must try to restore his own and his group’s honor? That strikes me as a misreading of what is happening, and, even if it were valid, again utterly unlike what the dishonored samurai is going through.

    Which leads me to ask whether different societies even have the same definitions of shame and honor. How could we find out? It’s rather like trying to determine that your perception of green is the same as mine. Literally impossible. All we have to work with is behavior — man’s extrasomatic means of adaptation. The rest is pure speculation.

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