Honor-Shame: Comments on Dr. Sanity (long)

Dr. Sanity has an excellent exploration of matters of honor-shame cultures and the Arab world. After completing a first-time course on this topic last week, I am more than ever convinced that understanding these dynamics offers the key not only to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to the global struggle right now between the West and Islam. If we want to say, along with President Bush, that the terrorists have hijacked Islam, then it makes most sense to say that honor-shame culture has hijacked Islam, and that hijacking goes back to the very origins of the religion. I repost with interlinear remarks this extremely valuable essay. [Dr. Sanity in blockquote, bold; David Gutmann (whom he quotes extensively) in blockquote, bold, italic; me in plain text no blockquote.]


General Comments about Shame
Shame is often an underappreciated psychological state. Particularly in the modern world, but also throughout history, shame – in limited quantities and small doses – has facilitated civilized conduct and made both individuals and cultures behave more appropriately. But healthy shame, on the other hand, keeps us in touch with reality, and reminds us of our limitations, faults, and humanity. When experiencing healthy shame an individual may not be very happy to have embarrassing weaknesses and defects made obvious, but this awareness is insightful and humbling. As long as an individual is capable of self-doubt and self-reflection about his behavior; he is able to remain open-minded and willing to search for a better understanding of himself and others.

Alain Finkielkraut referred to this problem of a shameless generation among French (Gaulois) youth, who have no problem admitting that they haven’t read their culture’s great literature. At least the last generation, which didn’t read it either, at least had the pudeur to hide that failing. In a sense, demopaths, like the Hamas leader claiming the right to “suicide operations” are shameless. The problem goes back to a humiliation so great that they have lost all sense of honor in their pursuit of restoring honor.

Excessive or inappropriate shame is another thing altogether, communicating forcibly to the individual that he or she is worthless. Shame can be an exceedingly devastating and painful experience

Children who live with constant hostility and criticism learn to defend against the bad feelings and shame within; and to externalize blame onto others. Projection and paranoia, which are both external assignments of blame, are psychological defenses against shame.

Often this excessive shame is dealt with by humiliating someone perceived as weaker or more worthless than the shamed person (e.g., the family pet, women, Gays, or outside groups serve this function for both individuals and cultures).

This tendency to pass down the shame is almost a universal instinct as anyone with more than one child knows from family dynamics. Overcoming it – not doing onto others as others have done onto you – takes real effort, both individual and cultural. In Sagan’s terms, it’s shifting from the dominating imperative (rule or be ruled) to the empathic imperative (golden rule).

Guilt is an emotion that rises after a transgression of one’s own or cultural values. Guilt is about actions or behavior; while shame is about the self. There is an important psychological difference in saying to someone that their behavior is bad; as contrasted with saying that they are bad. The former leads to guilt; the latter to shame.

I would put it slightly differently: guilt comes from an internalized sense of having done wrong; shame comes from an externalized sense of disapproval of the peer group or larger society. This is particularly significant since in shame cultures, if no one knows or finds out, it’s not wrong.

The purpose of guilt is to stop behavior that violates a self, family or societal standard. Guilt keeps score on excesses or deficits of behavior deemed undesirable and is expressed in regret and remorse.

Eventually for the shame-avoidant person, reality itself must be distorted in order to further protect the self from poor self-esteem. Blaming other individuals or groups for one’s own behavior becomes second nature, and this transfer of blame to someone else is an indicator of internal shame.

My sense is that shame can also operate in this manner: “to stop behavior that violates family or societal standards, keeping score, feeling remorse and regret… that others have seen one weak, faulty.” As a friend of mine who works on African politics put it to me: “corruption is not considered a fault, getting caught is.” The response to this, however, is more interesting: in honor cultures, it is extremely difficult to recover from shame, and generally takes shedding blood to show manliness. Women, who cannot gain honor but only lose it (their virginity/purity), have no recourse.

Most psychological theorists (Erikson, Freud, Kohut) see shame as a more “primitive” emotion (since it impacts one’s basic sense of self) compared to guilt, which is developed later in the maturation of the self. Without the development of guilt there is no development of a real social conscience.

This, of course, raises the classic problem of “social evolution” and the “modernist claims” to superior development, attacked by multi-culturalists as cultural imperialism. Behind this lies a profound sense that with guilt something basic is lost, what Nietzsche called the injection of bad conscience. If one reads the story of Adam and Eve and the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as the introduction of morality by women (Eve tastes first, then gives to Adam), then the “Fall” represents awareness of guilt, and the intense misogyny that has arisen from various readings of that text reflects the profound resentment of man for the deeply mixed blessing of conscience.

Guilt Cultures vs. Shame Cultures

In thinking about how the concepts of guilt and shame apply in a culture, it is helpful to refer to a seminal work that was originally published by Benedict in 1946, where she discussed the collectivist culture of Japan during WWII and distinguished it from American culture. Japan had a “shame culture”, while the U.S. and most of the West subscribe to a “guilt culture”. Each type of culture has its own set of rules with regard to wrong-doing and is determined by the beliefs of the individual and other people regarding guilt, and summarized in the two matrix tables below:

In both cultures there is no problem if both parties believe that the individual is NOT GUILTY. If both parties believe that the individual is GUILTY, again there is agreement and in that case the guilt is punished.

The difference in the two societies lies in the other two boxes in the matrix (in red).

table of guilt shame

In a guilt culture, when an individual believes he is NOT GUILTY, he will defend his innocence aggressively despite the fact that others believe he is guilty. In this case, the individual self is strong and able to maintain an independent judgment even if every other person is convinced of his guilt. The self is able to stand alone and fight for truth, secure in the knowledge that the individual is innocent.

The guilt culture is typically and primarily concerned with truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights. As we noted earlier, the emotion of guilt is what keeps a person from behavior that goes against his/her own code of conduct as well as the culture’s. Excessive guilt can, of course, also be pathological. I am solely referring to a psychologically healthy appreciation of guilt.

In contrast, a typical shame culture (e.g., Japan as discussed by Benedict; or the present focus of this discussion: Arab/Islamic culture) what other people believe has a far more powerful impact on behavior than even what the individual believes. As noted by Gutmann in his writings, the desire to preserve honor and avoid shame to the exclusion of all else is one of the primary foundations of the culture. This desire has the side-effect of giving the individual carte blanche to engage in wrong-doing as long as no-one knows about it, or knows he is involved.

Additionally, it may be impossible for an individual to even admit to himself that he is guilty (even when he is) particularly when everyone else considers him to be guilty because of the shame involved. As long as others remain convinced he is innocent, the individuals does not experience either guilt or shame. A great deal of effort therefore goes into making sure that others are convinced of your innocence (even if you are guilty).

This four-square reveals the double-twist of contrast between the two styles of cognition: a person motivated by a desire to avoid guilt and maintain integrity, feels bad about hurting others unfairly whether or not others know, but only if he or she has done the deed in question, while the person motivated by a desire to avoid shame and get honor, feels bad about hurting others only if others know about it, regardless of whether they have misbehaved..

In general, it has been noted that the shame culture works best within a collectivist society, although it can exist in pockets even within a predominant guilt culture.

Let us now turn to Arab/Islamic culture.

This piece by David Gutmann is one of the best psychological analyses of shame and the Arab psyche I have read, and because it deals with something so critically important, I am going to quote a rather large excerpt:

The Arab world is suffering a crisis of humiliation. Their armies are routed not only by Americans, but also by tiny, Jewish Israel; and as Arthur Koestler once remarked, the Arab world has not, in the last 500 years or so, produced much besides rugs, dirty postcards, elaborations on the belly-dance esthetic (and, of course, some innovative terrorist practices). They have no science to speak of, no art, hardly any industry save oil, very little literature, and portentous music which consists largely of lugubrious songs celebrating the slaughter of Jews.

Obviously this is not the presentation of a sympathetic observer of Islam. But the problem remains: Arab economic development is appalling. If we remove oil from the economic equation, the net product of the Arab world is less than that of sub-Saharan Africa. And it’s not merely terrorism that represent the most innovative areas of Arab culture, but the whole area of paranoid hate-mongering. Possibly the single biggest export from the Arab world (especially to the rest of the Muslim world) is hatred. One one level this is a response to humiliation; on another, it constitutes a deep humiliation for anyone who would like to be proud of the Arab world in front of the rest of the world.

Now that the Arabs have acquired national consciousness, and they compare their societies to other nations, these deficiencies become painfully evident, particularly to the upper-class Arab kids who attend foreign universities. There they learn about the accomplishments of Christians, Jews, (Freud, Einstein, for starters) and women. And yet, with the exception of Edward Said, there is scarcely a contemporary Arab name in the bunch. No wonder, then, that major recruitment to al-Qaeda’s ranks takes place among Arab university students. And no wonder that suicide bombing becomes their tactic of choice: it is a last-ditch, desperate way of asserting at least one scrap of superiority—a spiritual superiority—over the materialistic, life-hugging, and ergo shameful West.

This is a key element. In one sense, the Arab world has awakened to modernity to find itself sitting next to the traditionally nerdy Jew in a class where the Jew is not only many grades ahead of him, but where that academic advantage translates into military might far greater than anything they can muster. Not that Arabs are stupid, not by any means. But so many really don’t know how to get here from there, and worse, those who do – those who know how to learn and play by modern rules, become outcasts or crabs to be pulled back in the basket. That Saïd, whose work contributes to Arab self-pity and self-destructiveness, is the only prominent intellectual, that his epigones are (predictably) of the fifth-rate quality like Massad at Columbia, only makes the picture worse. As opposed to Freud and Einstein, who even when they were wrong, opened fruitful conversations, Saïd’s legacy will be the fastest and most deeply mistaken paradigm shift in the history of any academic field.

As for the recruitment among the angry university failures – whether real failures, or failures in terms of the expectations that they and their communities had for them – this is an old pattern. One of the major sources of ideological violence comes from second rate academics.

But this tactic is not, I suggest, a product of Islam. Rather, it is a product of the bruised Arab psyche.

While I agree with the overall point Gutmann makes here, and the importance of shifting attention from the purely religious (whatever that means) to the cultural, I think it’s important to realize how much honor and shame concerns have shaped the evolution of Islam. It’s not, as Gutmann seems to suggest, an “either-or.” The honor-shame dimensions of Islam are especially visible in relations with non-Muslims – dar al Islam/Harb, Dhimmi, Jihad – all of these central concepts reside in an honor-shame interpretation of monotheism in which my visible superiority over everyone else is proof that my religion is the true and right one. Honor-shame monotheism is zero-sum, supersessionist, claims a monopoly on salvation. Put simply, an independent, non-Muslim state in the midst of Dar al Islam is a humiliating scandal and puts Islam’s superiority — indeed its very validity — into question in the minds of Muslims.

Remember that the Japanese also turned to suicide tactics in WWII to evade the humiliation of defeat. Though their religion was Shinto rather than Muslim, they too constituted a paradigm shame/honor culture, and defeat brought about, as with the Arabs, a furiously suicidal/homicidal response. After their armies had been defeated, their fleets sunk, their cities set aflame, and their home islands invaded, they launched the kamikaze bomber offensive, thereby committing a hi-tech form of hara-kiri, their usual remedy against intolerable shame. It is in this way that the modern Arab world resembles the Japan of World War II. In both cases it is not religions but psychic wounds, the wounds inflicted by defeat and evident inferiority, that inspire suicide bombers.

Indeed one might even distinguish between military cultures that encourage suicide attacks and those who never send out soldiers on suicide missions, always leaving even a tiny possibility for escape (US, Israel, others?). In the former, my guess is that the elite in that culture considers commoners expendable – like the generals of WWI in Europe (1914-18) and of the Iran Iraq war (1980-88).

It is often asserted that the changes set in train by modernization are particularly toxic to the Arabs. No doubt this is true. But if we are going to be therapeutic, our diagnoses need to be more specific; we need to identify the particular pathogens that are released by modernization. Besides sharpening their sense of inferiority relative to the West, modernization threatens to bring about the liberation of women (as in Afghanistan and Iraq). I say “threatens,” because the self-esteem of Arab males is in large part predicated on the inferior position of their women. The Arab nations have for the most part lost their slaves and dhimmis, the subject peoples onto whose persons the stigmata of shame could be downloaded. But anyone who has spent time among them knows that Arab males have not lost their psychological need for social and sexual inferiors. In the absence of slaves and captive peoples, Arab women are elected for the special role of the inferior who, by definition, lacks honor. Arab men eradicate shame and bolster their shaky self-esteem by imposing the shameful qualities of the dhimmi, submission and passivity, upon women. Trailing a humbled woman behind them, Arab men can walk the walk of the true macho man.

This may be the single most dangerous aspect of Israel’s presence, possibly even greater than the religious problem – although the two are difficult to separate in reality. The reason why fundamentalism often involves strong efforts to “return women to their place” involves not only the concern with irresponsible sexual egalitarianism, but also a fear on the part of men that in modern conditions they lose control over women. John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago that the reason the working class does not support women’s rights is because when they get back from work and a day of suffering at the hands of their bosses, they need someone to take it out on. Honor-shame cultures offer a double problem here. 1) They need visible superiority, signs everyone can see to reassure the “other-directed” self; and 2) because there is no internal brake (guilt) on the feelings of resentment and desire for revenge, the idea that one makes oneself look bigger by making others look smaller has free rein.

Hence the relative lack of material achievement by Arabs: the Arab world has stunted the female half of its brain pool, while the men acquire instant self-esteem not by real accomplishment, but by the mere fact of being men, rather than women. No wonder, then, that the Arab nations feel irrationally threatened by the very existence of Israel. Like America, the Jews have brought the reality of the liberated woman into the very heart of the Middle East, into dar al-Islam itself. Big Satan and Little Satan: the champions of Muslim women.

For a more extensive discussion of this in the context of economic development, seee David Landes, Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Others so Poor, chap. 24. For a recent and remarkable piece of self criticism that looks directly at this problem, see Farrukh Saleem’s “Why Jews are so Powerful.”

I contend that female liberation is the most hopeful development in the Middle East, greater even than the first stirrings of democracy. I believe that Arab women have a greater stake in liberal democracy than Arab men, and as they acquire political power, they will fight for it.

This argument, one based on (an intelligent) version of the liberal ethos (i.e. that democracies are universally popular because they are better for the majority who have to gain by the end of arbitrary rule of elites) is somewhat dubious (see Swanee Hunt’s remarks at Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s talk). The logic of civil society, however clear it may seem to us does not register on the same emotional spectrum in honor-shame cultures, where the reasoned preference for positive-sum has to overcome the pull of envy, resentment, and peer pressure. For example, we find increasing numbers of women drawn to Jihad and liberation through martyrdom. The cult of death has even Arab women in its grip.

As for suicide bombings, jihadism and the macho posturing of Arab men, they are desperate remedies against further humiliation, against the perceived threat of “castration,” by their own women. Until Arab women achieve freedom and independence, we can expect, at least for a while, to see Arab men cling to these remedies.

Again simplistic. Arab women cannot achieve freedom and independence independent of changes in the male culture. You can’t get there from these assumptions about potential recruits for the individuality of modern society. This is true of any honor-shame culture, all the more so for one in a state of constant humiliation. Thia is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s point about the clash between individual and collective rights, and even in “modern, liberal societies” it’s very hard to pull off.

Even then, some Arab men will probably backslide to even greater suicidal/homicidal tantrums. Others, (perhaps even a majority) no longer able to project their deficiencies onto Arab women, will begin to recognize the flaws in themselves. These converts would adopt the self-critical stance that is already showing up among some daring Arab intellectuals and even religious leaders. And when Arab men can no longer acquire instant self-esteem by demeaning their women, some of them might even turn to the arts of peace, and try to acquire the sense of self-worth via instrumental rather than illusory psychological means.

We cannot, in the end, correct all the distortions of the Arab shame/honor ethos. But by pledging our support for Arab women’s liberation—for instance, by advocating expanded liberties for women in the text of the new Iraqi constitution—we can hasten its erosion.

This is a very optimistic scenario… a kind of “break the logjam and everything will flow” approach that I don’t think will work. Part of the problem is that suicide terrorism has become so common a resort in the Arab world that its use to resolve these kinds of conflicts about manhood are likely to get much worse before they get better. Support for women’s rights can just as easily lead to greater violence, certainly in the short run. My personal tendency is to look to changing the “public opinion” about what is honorable, rather than go for creating a population of “western” individuals.

Gutmann takes pains to separate the toxic aspects of the Arab psyche from Islam. This is the only part of his argument that I do not find compelling. It seems to me that the Arab psyche has had centuries to be slowly absorbed by Islam and that in many cases, and in most important aspects, the two are now inseparable. We can see this in the fact that even in Indonesia, Thailand and non-Arab locales where Islam has been embraced it retains both Arab misogyny and intolerance.

Alternatively, it might be argued, that Islam takes root and grows best when it is in the toxic nutrients of Arab-shame/honor cultures.

It is also important to remember that Mohammad himself was Arab and most of the Koran is pretty consistent with what is known about his personality and style.

I agree here with Dr. Sanity. Gutmann is trying to get Islam off the hook; but it’s been on the hook of honor-shame dynamics from the latter part of Muhammad’s career, when he turned to Jihad as a way to punish and humiliate unbelievers and bring honor to believers. The “hi-jacking” of monotheism by honor-shame concerns is not unique to Islam, although unlike Christianity, Islam has yet to emerge from it. (It’s when Christianity emerges from it in the course of the last two or so centuries that democracy first emerged.) If you believe that a) your religious truth is proved by its visible superiority (i.e., your religious tradition has honor and the others have shame), so that b) your God is honored by your dominion, then your monotheism will be intolerant, imperialist, and claim a monopoly on salvation (i.e., everyone needs to be “us” in order to be saved).

On the other hand, it is only in the fairly recent history of Islam (e.g. in the last century) that Islam appears to have fully embraced the subjugation of women under the guise of “protecting” them and preserving honor.

This earlier article by Gutmann also discusses shame in the Arab world:

In regard to military history, the Arab’s preference for guerrilla over conventional war reflects a long tradition, one that began in antiquity, with the Bedouin raiders. Their way of war- brilliantly described by T.E. Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – is based on hit and run forays by camel-mounted Bedouin who appear suddenly out of the desert, tear up an unsuspecting enemy camp, and then disappear back into the waste, carrying “honorable” loot: thoroughbred horses, camels and women.

Honor-shame ethics, while adaptive to this kind of zero-sum raiding, proves counter-productive when faced with a demotic army playing positive-sum games. Meritocracy, ability to discipline one’s ego for the group, bottom-up co-ordinated initiatives, self-critical appraisal of performance, all make an Israeli army better adaptive to modern conditions. For an analysis of military dimensions of honor-shame on the Arabs’ ability to write, see Norvell DeAtkine, “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”

The traditional Bedouin created a nearly pure “Shame” culture, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, and to acquire sharraf – honor. Thus, the goal of the Bedouin raid is not to finally win a war, for such inter-tribal conflict is part of the honorable way of life, and should never really end. The essential goals of the raid are to take wealth – not only in goods, but also in honor – and to impose shame on the enemy. Any opponent worth fighting is by definition honorable, and pieces of his honor can be ripped from him in a successful raid, to be replaced by figments of the attacker’s shame. The successful attacker has “exported” some personal shame to the enemy, and the enemy’s lost honor has been added to the raider’s store.

This paragraph is worth its weight in gold. Excellent description of the zero-sum world of warrior honor-shame. For a poetic expression from pre-Islamic Arab culture (Jahaliyya), see here. This logic is long-run, not temporary; this is a world of zero-sum, plunder or be plundered, kill or be killed, rule or be ruled. Honor, especially the honor of the alpha male, dominates the cultural rules. If this is the logic of relations with the honorable, imagine how one treats the dishonored, the shameless.

This cultural logic may have an ancestry of tens of thousands of years, and represents a stage that most “higher” “civilizations” have gone through on their way to becoming aristocratic empires. It is certainly part of the longue duree of human culture, and cannot be easily changed. Nor should one either trifle with or appease it.

This calculus of shame and sharraf is an important element in all Arab warfare, whether waged by Saddam Hussein, Yasir Arafat, or a Bedouin sheik. In particular, that same dynamic drives the Arab preference for irregular over conventional war.

Irregular tactics – spiced with Terror – have on occasion defeated regular armies; but win, lose, or draw in the military sense, terror tactics can be a far more efficient means of meeting psychological goals – i.e., shedding shame and capturing honor – than all-out war.

I think this is a particularly important notion to think about. We think of terrorism as shocking and morally disgusting. They think of it as an effective way to claim honor. This helps explain things like the anomaly of a moderate Palestinian like denouncing suicide terrorism (“Martyrdom operations”) as “working against the Palestinian cause” (because of their negative impact on Western public opinion), and then, in front of an Arab audience, promising that he would never declare them immoral. Their importance for Arab honor is far too great to deny them that emotional satisfaction.

This is also important for understanding the role of 9-11 in concentric circles in the Arab world. At one register, 9-11 was a magnificently executed commando attack on behalf of Global Jihad, by the boldest of its warriors. It unquestionably won the forces of Jihad many new recruits, but still within a “reasonably narrow” range of, say .1-1% of Muslims globally, or one to ten million Muslims enthused by the prospect of global Jihad. On another, far broader register that includes even non-Muslims, we find the thrill of humiliation to the US and honor to Islam. To rephrase Gutmann’s eloquent language:

pieces of [the US’s] honor can be ripped from him in a successful raid [9-11], to be replaced by figments of the attacker’s shame [US damaged]. The successful attacker has “exported” some personal shame to the enemy, and the enemy’s lost honor has been added to the raider’s store.”

And among the ever widening circles of people whose American Derangement Syndrome led them, openly or in their inner hearts, to rejoice at American pain – which, according to reports that I think are credible (to be investigated), include a range of people from Lebanese Christian and American Arabs, to Europeans left and right including to their “highest” thinkers, to the American left, the more dogmatic of whom could dismiss the victims as so many “little Eichmans.”

The degree to which Arab terrorism has worked is itself a testament to the degree to which the observers who have approved of it respond on the levels characteristic of honor-shame cultures of resentment and revenge. Europe gave Arafat his most enduring and important seal of approval, in response to his terror campaign, much to its long-run disadvantage. Given the moral simplicity of the case – shun the terrorists rather than give them a platform – one has to wonder what might so deform Europe into a self-destructive politics of resentment.

Let me be clear that I am not excusing the behavior of Islam and Arabs toward women, Jews, Christians, and other cultures. I am merely trying to understand those elusive “root causes” that everyone talks about.

This is an interesting interjection. Normally when one speaks of honor-shame components, one runs the risk of arousing the post-colonialist ire: how dare one “other” another culture by calling it honor-shame society. But here, the author is worried about being an apologist for the honor-shame culture, by making it “understandable.” This itself underlines the moral dilemma of civil society: how do you “empathize” with people whose moral values you not only do not share, but have renounced as “immoral”?

As stated earlier in this essay, one of the ways that those who fear shame protect their fragile self is to subjugate those who he perceives as weaker. By doing so, he can rationalize that he is superior to the subjugated individual. In fact, this is the only way he can maximize his honor. In Arab/Islamic culture, women are one of the primary instruments of achieving honor. Hence the bizarre and distorted attitude that the culture has toward women and the exaggerated means by which “honor” must be maintained. So strong is the cultural pressure, even women buy into the delusion (as eloquently demonstrated by Dymphna in this post)

This comment underlines why we can have people say that Islam is against ill-treatment of women, against honor-killings, and Muslims who insist on the dominance of men, the legitimacy of honor-killings etc. It’s Muslims in the grip of honor-shame concerns who turn to the Quran and find the passages that feed their emotions, who speak this way. The more insecure they feel in the face of the vastly more successful monotheisms of demotic Christianity and Judaism, the more they need, urgently need, subordinates with whom to play their hard zero-sum games. I make myself look bigger by making others look smaller. Under modern conditions, as Muslims lose more and more dhimmis to pick on (Christians, Jews), they turn on their women (and, increasingly, appeasing Europeans). In the 21st century, the most significant dhimmi population in quotidian Islam is women.

Honor killings of women are all too common in Arab culture, and importantly are not dissuaded by the tenets of Islam.

This is, as far as I can make out, the core of the problem. If we can’t hold the line on honor-killings, we have failed civil society. And if making it impossible to kill their daughters, and possible for their daughters to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the hyper-testosteronic patriarchies that characterize much of “resurgent” Islam in Europe, makes Europe and any other civil society a location not pleasant for Islamists, then so much the better.

Other expressions of the shame culture that are obvious is the rampant psychological projection and refusal to accept responsibility for the atrocities committed in the name of Islam. Not only are we regularly subjected to imams, religious leaders, and leaders of Muslim states stating even now that 9/11 or the London bombings were not committed by Muslims; they also regularly blame the Jews for such acts. In this way they can avoid the shame that taking responsibility for evil.

Demonizing is the natural extreme of projecting blame. The worse you are, the more evil your opponent must be. The Western opposite — Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome (MOS) — is the natural extreme of accepting blame. The worse your enemies behave the worse you must be. And in that sick combination we find the Moebius strip of cognitive egocentrism that is killing us.

Additionally, the emphasis by CAIR and other Muslim organizations in demanding that any statement that criticizes or even suggests blame or responsibility by Islam for terror, be retracted or apologized for, is also just a part of the shame-avoidant dance that leads the culture into the blurry realms of delusion.

And we play right into that, protecting their fragile egos, treating their temper tantrums like (Danoongate) as natural forces that we should avoid triggering.

Finally, it is not surprising that the most murderous thugs espousing religious ideals as they brutally cut off the heads of infidels are hidden behind masks and dare not reveal themselves to the world. I suspect that on some deep level they know that their “pride” in their sick behavior would be more difficult to boast about if they were not anonymous. “If no one knows it is me committing these acts, then I am not shamed,” after all.

Interesting speculation. I agree with the notion that at some profound level, real Muslims – including the killers – know that this is a perversion of morality, that they are actually shaming Islam. I suspect that the reason they are so violent is that the more they doubt themselves the more violent they must get to cover that doubt. After all, to have to kill someone to make Islam dominant is an admission that Islam cannot win in a fair fight. Imposing one’s faith is, after all, a reflection of the most profound lack of faith. And I also suspect that at some level they hate us most for not calling their profoundly shameful bluff, for not telling them to cut it out, for expressing the profound racism of excusing them because we don’t think they can possibly live up to normal standards. It’s not like they can’t think morally: in order to be a good demopath, you have to understand what morality is.

While psychological health and self-esteem depend to some extent on overcoming shame and progressing to a level where taking responsibility for one’s actions and accepting that there is an objective truth out there that is not determined by other people’s opinions; both shame and guilt can be important reality checks to an individual–or to a culture.

When a culture determines that the avoidance of shame is necessary no matter what the cost, the result is a culture of fanaticism, bizarre behavior in the name of “honor”; and simultaneously the cultural oppression, subjugation, and humiliation of women and others perceived as “weak” (and therefore “shameful”). It also inevitably results in the projection of one’s own unacceptable behavior and shameful feelings onto another individual or an outside group.

And when outside observers enable, encourage, and approve of such “acting out,” then there’s no reason to change. When will the world community begin to disapprove of Islam’s ways of handling its problems with lost honor and how to regain it?

25 Responses to Honor-Shame: Comments on Dr. Sanity (long)

  1. davidka says:

    ‘I am more than ever convinced that understanding these dynamics offers the key not only to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to the global struggle right now between the West and Islam.’
    bravo! wisdom indeed!
    It is also the key in the understanding of our own behaviour in confronting our own reponse when threatened.
    Islam excises guilt from the jihadists by sanctioning violence against the infidel or apostates. No shame is felt for the genocidal activities as a result.
    The deeper the belief in Islam the more the believer is excised. and that is why moderate muslims do not commit terrorism.
    it delivers the perpetrators from the destructive emotions that Jews and Christian cannot avoid when they commit evil, because the morality of our religions forbids such evil absolutely.

  2. Timelines
    For those of you who think that the Iranian Mullahs are relatively similar to us, that we can appreciate how they think, and they can be deterred just like the Russians were deterred for so many years, please read this excellent post at The Augean Stables, Honor-Shame: Comments on Dr. Sanity (long). In the post, there is a point made that because Islam has not struggled through its own reformation, it is stuck in a position from which it cannot extricate itself:

    The “hi-jacking” of monotheism by honor-shame concerns is not unique to Islam, although unlike Christianity, Islam has yet to emerge from it. (It’s when Christianity emerges from it in the course of the last two or so centuries that democracy first emerged.) If you believe that a) your religious truth is proved by its visible superiority (i.e., your religious tradition has honor and the others have shame), so that b) your God is honored by your dominion, then your monotheism will be intolerant, imperialist, and claim a monopoly on salvation (i.e., everyone needs to be “us” in order to be saved).

    Our efforts in Iraq, among many other factors, has been designed to allow the people of the Middle East some breathing room in which to start their efforts at Reformation; sadly most of the Muslim world has been very slow to take up the “offer” and the Western appeasement of Islamists that is occurring in Europe as well as our own difficulty ending the Sunni terror in Iraq, have set back the prospects of a timely maturation of the interpretation of Islam that is our best hope of avoiding catastrophe.

    Unfortunately, the time-line of 2-3 years that we have is hardly likely to be sufficient time for such extensive re-thinking and the nature of the Honor-Shame dynamic makes it impossible for the Islamists to back away from the precipice. The entire post at The Augean Stables is very much worth careful perusal as it extends some of the ideas touched upon in the Honor-Shame post by Dr. Sanity that should be required reading by anyone who wants to understand the cultural pathology of our enemies.

  3. OhBloodyHell says:

    > Not that Arabs are stupid, not by any means

    Actually, according to a Muslim-Pakistani relative-by-marriage of mine, yes, the Arabs themselves are, in fact, pretty stupid. His opinion of them was sorta like that of classical “Polacks”. I would not have been amazed to hear him telling old Polack jokes retread to use Arabs. Maybe that’s just general prejudice or something by Pakistanis, and maybe it’s just him, but it didn’t seem to be that way and he generally doesn’t seem the type — he went to British schools and is pretty well westernized. Since the daughter of the relative he married is herself pretty liberal, as is the relative, I don’t see him being excessively prejudiced about other Muslims.

    Just a data point for you to use.

  4. RL says:

    The Polish jokes are everywhere reserved for some group people don’t like: in Canada it’s Newfies, in France it’s Belgians, in Belgium it’s Flemish, etc. (What’s it in Poland?) As you point out, your friend is from the Pakistani (Westernized) elite, and my guess is that some of this hostility comes from the racism in Islam. As one Pakistani told me, if an Arab Muslim had been my wife’s suitor, her family would have given her to him, since Arabs are considered (apparently not just by Arabs) to be the best (classiest) Muslims.

    But thanks for the data point. My experience with Arabs in the Middle East, in the US, and in print, has been that they are extremely smart… just so aggressively defensive that they can’t deploy that intelligence in constructive ways.

  5. […] the light. Unfortunately, this last rhetorical question Good question, to which there are depressing answers, is about to get a “why not?” a […]

  6. […] the emotional need to believe that there is something one can do to get rid of that which one finds unbearable. Anything but learning to live with Isra […]

  7. dymphna says:

    Thanks for your comment on my post re honor killings, including the American-style incident in Florida.

    The shame/pride axis is common to many cultures. Our native Americans are one example, the Japanese are another.

    The experience of shame is hard-wired into the human brain and is also wired into the face and neck muscles. The demeanor of shame in a baby — which can come from the most benign of circumstances when its pleasure or curiosity is interrupted — is a curved neck with the face turned away. Absolutely no eye contact. The mouth slackens a bit.

    To understand the psychoneurobiology of shame I suggest reading Donald Nathanson, MD. He builds on (and elucidates) the work of Sylvan Tomkins. His theories re the Compass of Shame are, for me, the Occam’s Razor explanation of a complicated subject.

    Until we understand the fundamentals of universal shame and the affects we are all born with, there is no hope of making broader generalizations. Nathanson’s Affect Theory deserves much broader dissemination.

    Just as an example, here is a webpage devoted to the exacerbation of the shame affect in children who have difficulty learning to read:

    The Effect of Affect on Reading

    Until we understand how shame operates in our own culture, we will never decode the dysfunction of the Arab psyche.

    Essentially, there are only four possible “poles” or responses when one is oriented to shame. The first is to withdraw and recover — that’s the kid with the blanket over his head. The second is to avoid further interaction; here there is no retreat and recovery but an inner “decision” not to engage again. If you’ve ever seen an avoidant child you know how hard it is to reach them. The third possible response is attack-self; here the baby will often hit his head on the wall, or smack his own face. And last, attack-other, in which the baby attempts to mete out some kind of retribution to the source of his shame.

    Shame comes simply from the interruption of pleasurable affects like curiosity or enjoyment. Sudden, frequent, and insensitive interruptions of pleasure will result in a shamed individual.

    You can see the grown up aspects of the compass quite easily. All of us have a preferred pole of response. I think it may be partly constitutional. Think of the experience of being cut off in traffic: a common urban shame situation. Then consider which pole you most frequently revert to…that’s the Compass of Shame right there.

    Sorry for going on so long…should have done another post on Nathanson!

  8. RL says:

    i’d gladly comment on your post on Nathanson. this is wonderful.

    i tried to read him for my course and couldn’t penetrate. (i was focussed on the historical and anthropological literature.) but it’s clear the psychological is key, and i’m glad you’ve shown me a way in. as soon as i find the book, i’ll read it.

    in the meantime, the one aspect of shame that i didn’t find in your (and perhaps his) discussion is the issue of shame in front of someone else. without the element of feeling shamed in someone else’s eyes (and hence aware of another who is “other” and experiences “me”), it seems to me that the response to interrupted pleasure could be more a form of frustration rather than humiliation. but maybe i’m wrong. am i mixing fruits and vegetables? what’s the diff btw “shame” and “humiliation”?

    ps. that’s how i read the story of adam and eve. when they ate the fruit they became aware of “another’s” consciousness. once they realize others see them, they become aware of and ashamed of their nakedness. but that’s exegesis, not psychology.

  9. […] yet His ethics ran radically contrary, in many ways, to those of an honour/shame society. This post describes some of characteristics of the Arab world& […]

  10. […] ng us, on pain of accusations of racism, from identifying primitive cultural traits, (like warrior honor-shame culture), and their pathologies (like “p […]

  11. […] quent description of how that’s a losing game even if they win… dare I say it, honor’s poisonous allure. My great admiration to Riad A […]

  12. […] f civil society and a free press, and demands a very high level of emotional maturity. In honor shame cultures the instinct is to point the finger and, […]

  13. […] all had the effect of issuing a gag-order on any criticism of the Arab world discussion of honor-shame dynamics in the Arabic world blinding us to the em […]

  14. […] ent almost defies sociological definition. It only works when you apply the categories of honor-shame culture. * A non-violent approach – what I c […]

  15. […] t look beyond “humiliation” as a source of real solutions because I think that honor-shame dynamics represent one of the most valuable resour […]

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  17. […] and therefore the solutions to – the conflict. Given the extraordinary sensitivity of Arab honor-shame culture to public disapproval, one might even […]

  18. lora says:

    Great tutorial.r

  19. […] have written a good deal about honor-shame culture, its dynamic, its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the prohibition on mentioning it in post-colonial, […]

  20. […] This piece by David Gutmann is one of the best psychological analyses of shame and the Arab psyche I… […]

  21. […] This piece by David Gutmann is one of the best psychological analyses of shame and the Arab psyche I… […]

  22. […] This piece by David Gutmann is one of the best psychological analyses of shame and the Arab psyche I……..continue reading here…. […]

  23. […] This piece by David Gutmann is one of the best psychological analyses of shame and the Arab psyche I……..continue reading here…. […]

  24. […] This piece by David Gutmann is one of the best psychological analyses of shame and the Arab psyche I……..continue reading here…. […]

  25. […] has been long recognized that the West has a guilt culture and the Arab and Eastern worlds are a shame culture. He have […]

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