Before I delve into the individual posts on Mary I have planned, I think it’s necessary to discuss some of the elements of an honor-shame culture. Most human cultures throughout history (and essentially all cultures in the ancient world) have been honor-shame cultures. However, those cultures are essentially alien to most of us shaped within modern Western cultures. Our cultures are mostly what sociologists call guilt cultures. Obviously there’s no way I can go into the topic in depth in a blog post, but it’s necessary to grasp some of the basics.
We have plenty of examples of modern honor-shame cultures — though some of them may be in a slow process of shifting at least partially to a guilt culture under the influence of Western cultural products. Most Far Eastern cultures, such as those in Japan, China, and Korea, remain honor-shame cultures. Many Latin America cultures are honor-shame cultures. Arabic culture is an honor-shame culture. The list goes on. So how do honor-shame and guilt cultures differ?
Though it’s an over-simplification, there’s a rubric that provides a good place to start. Let’s say there’s cultural expectation or standard of behavior which can be violated. It could be anything, but it’s something your culture holds is wrong. Tension arises in any such situation when the belief I hold about my behavior differs from the belief of the group about my behavior. That tension is resolved differently by guilt and honor-shame cultures.
If I believe I didn’t do it and others believe I did it, in a guilt culture I protest my innocence and fight the accusation. In an honor-shame culture, I am shamed and dishonored by their belief.
If I believe I did it and others believe I didn’t do it, in a guilt culture I am expected to feel guilty anyway. In an honor-shame culture, I am not shamed since others do not know.
These are not conscious processes through which we work. Culture doesn’t operate at the conscious level. Rather, it shapes the way we perceive reality and our automatic reactions to those perceptions. A guilt culture is more internalized and individualistic. An honor-shame culture is more externalized and group-oriented. It tends to be familial rather than individual. That’s why, for instance, ‘face‘ (a concept difficult for us Westerners to grasp) is such a central element in Chinese and Japanese culture.
Honor-shame culture tends to also lead to disproportionate rather than proportionate reaction. We see that today, for example, in cultures where relatives of a woman perceived as engaging in sexually immoral acts (again, remember the shame comes from the group perception of the truth of the accusation, not its actual truth) feel they must kill her to regain their familial honor. When you read the Mosaic law through that lens, you see that many of its provisions (other than those dealing with sacrificial/worship practices and ritual purity) are designed to temper disproportionate reactions and make them more proportionate.
It’s not really possible to change our cultural lens. The best we can do is recognize that it exists and try to consciously think through the way a different lens would have shaped behavior.