The shame culture

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 non-judgmentalism, life was flatter and emptier.

Bloom's thesis was accurate at the time, but it's not accurate any more. 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 towards an answer.

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularised, 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 honours 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 omni- presence 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 behaviour 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 criticised 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, Crouch argues, is to criticise 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 honour 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.

On the positive side, this new shame culture might rebind the social and communal fabric. It might reverse, a bit, the individualistic, atomising thrust of the past 50 years.

On the other hand, everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along.

If we're going to avoid a constant state of anxiety, people's identities have to be based on standards of justice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancy of the crowd. In an era of omnipresent social media, it's probably doubly important to discover and name your own personal True North, vision of an ultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity and exclusion.

The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner.

The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don't fit in.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'The shame culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe