Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Shame vs. Guilt, and the Importance of Arab and Muslim Women 

Dr. Sanity does a fantastic job of isolating the differences between shame-based Arab and Muslim culture, and guilt-based Western culture:

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 judgement 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.

[She includes here a very helpful diagram that is worth scrolling down for in her post.]

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 Gutman 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).
I strongly recommend reading the whole thing if you haven't yet reached your "Aha! Yes!" quota for the day. Particularly interesting to me were some of her quotes from David Gutmann which reinforced my belief in the importance of women in shaping Islam's future. If Islam is to find a path to any sort of accomodation with the West, its women will need to help lead:

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.

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.

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. 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 awhile, to see Arab men cling to these remedies.
While this played into one of my pet points, it is by no means the only highlight. Another intriguing point she quoted from David Gutman:

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.
This helps me understand something strange I've noted several times previously. While we in Israel, and the West in general, are impatient to resolve conflict, always wondering what exactly it is they "want", we are left scratching our heads by the seeming willingness, even eagerness, of the other side to remain at war for centuries, if not forever. I have tried to understand this as some sort of perverse patience in the potentially eternal fight to destroy us. But rhetoric notwithstanding, perhaps internally there is as much satisfaction for them in the eternal bloodshed and strife as there is in the prospects of some hypothetical and distant victory.

There are no easy answers but Dr. Sanity brings some clarity to the questions.

If you really, really liked this -- or even really, really hated it -- there's lots more: