Shame Culture

Colossal statue of Minerva depicting woman sitting among weapons and shields
Colossal statue of Minerva depicting woman sitting among weapons and shields. Getty Images/DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI

Shame culture, which is also sometimes referred to as a shame society, or an honor-shame culture is a type of society in which control over the general masses is gained, and social order is maintained by the inculcation of shame from an early age and the constant threat of ostracism. The inculcation of shame in society begins at a very young age, and serves as a way to control individuals from the time of childhood.

In shame culture, individuals put an extremely high emphasis on honor and its preservation. Members of the society care about their own honor, and how they are viewed by others. Public perception is also very important in a shame culture. Thus, people conform to established acceptable norms in order not be publicly dishonored, or to “fit in.”

Greek culture evolved from shame culture to a guilt culture over time, and this shift is mirrored in Greek drama. This transition is chronicled in E.R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational (1951). The same movement from shame culture to guilt culture has been used to describe the movement from medieval, religion-dominated western society to the modern individualistic western world. When you publicly admit your sins (and are then absolved) or are put into the stocks, you are shamed. When you instead internalize the shame, it becomes guilt.

In the epic poems attributed to Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, some of the behavior that seems strange in modern society is actually based on the idea of a shame-based culture.

The Greek’s transition from a shame culture to a guilt culture is characterized throughout these works.

Ostracism

The fear of ostracism is the basis of a shame culture. Ostracism is social rejection. It occurs when an individual member of society is purposefully excluded from social interaction. Humans, by nature, are social beings, who crave attention and interaction at a basic level.

Prolonged social rejection, either on the individual or group level, can have serious negative impacts on an individual. Consistent rejection can lead to many negative psychological issues, including isolation, depression, aggression, loneness, and purposelessness. These feelings can be amplified in children.

Ostracism was used procedurally in the Athenian democracy, where a citizen could be expelled from Athens for up to ten years. Ostracism was used as a punishment for actions against the established social norms, and also preemptively as a way of temporarily removing a citizen that was considered to be a potential threat or tyrant. After ostracism from Athens, the individual was not permitted to have any sort of contact or communication with any other member of the society.

Shame, Guilt, Fear

A shame society is based on shame and social rejection. Pride is a main factor in shame culture, as is societal standing. This is different than a guilt society. In a guilt society, control is maintained by generating and reinforcing guilt for certain behaviors that are condemned. Guilt culture emphasizes the individual conscience, while downplaying the impact of public perception. In fear societies, control is maintained by the general fear of retribution for actions.

 

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Gill, N.S. "Shame Culture." ThoughtCo, Dec. 8, 2015, thoughtco.com/shame-culture-in-ancient-greece-118847. Gill, N.S. (2015, December 8). Shame Culture. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/shame-culture-in-ancient-greece-118847 Gill, N.S. "Shame Culture." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/shame-culture-in-ancient-greece-118847 (accessed September 19, 2017).