Sunday, November 27, 2005

For shame: murderers and terrorists

I've come to believe that the feeling of shame underlies much of the anger and violence in the world.

But why, you may ask, would shame, "a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace," be a source of anger? Wouldn't it be more likely to be a source of contrition, remorse, and the desire to make reparation and amends?

Yes, sometimes it is, in a person with a strong sense of self, who hasn't been sensitized to find shame intolerable. But all too commonly, that is not the case.

The key is the word "painful" in the above definition. For vast numbers of people, shame is experienced as a narcissistic wound that is unacceptable and almost literally unbearable. In such cases, a person cannot stand feeling shame and is driven to great anger at the source of the shame and must remove it: either in actuality, by doing away with the person or a substitute; or by an intense explosion of rage expressed verbally.

I'm not ordinarily a reductionist, but this explanation (not excuse) for angry behavior keeps cropping up and seems remarkably applicable to a wide variety of differing circumstances.

The need to flee from shame lies at the root of much criminal behavior, as noted psychiatrist/criminologist James Gilligan indicates:

In the course of my psychotherapeutic work with violent criminals, I was surprised to discover that I kept getting the same answer when I asked one man after another why he had assaulted or even killed someone: "Because he disrespected me." In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it to, "He dis'ed me." Whenever people use a word so often that they abbreviate it, you know how central it is in their moral and emotional vocabulary.

Gilligan has spent his life studying violent criminal behavior, and he believes the need to avoid the intolerable feeling of shame is at the heart of it.

...the basic psychological motive, or cause, of violent behavior is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation—a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable and overwhelming—and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride. I will use these two terms—shame and pride—as generic terms to refer to two whole families of feelings. Synonyms for pride include self-esteem, self-love, self-respect, feelings of self-worth, dignity, and the sense of having maintained one's honor intact. But pride must be in much shorter supply than shame, because there are literally dozens of synonyms for shame, including feelings of being slighted, insulted, disrespected, dishonored, disgraced, disdained, slandered, treated with contempt, ridiculed, teased, taunted, mocked, rejected, defeated, subjected to indignity or ignominy; feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, incompetency; feelings of being weak, ugly, a failure, "losing face," being treated as if you were insignificant, unimportant or worthless, or any of the numerous other forms of what psychoanalysts call "narcissistic injuries." As Franz Alexander wrote in "Some Comments," (1938), the psychology of narcissism is the psychology of shame and its equivalent, feelings of inferiority. Envy and jealousy are members of this same family of feelings: people feel inferior to those whom they envy, or of whom they are jealous. People become indignant (and may become violent) when they suffer an indignity; language itself reveals the link between shame and rage...

The consensus that has emerged from this work is that the most potent stimulus of aggression and violence, and the one that is most reliable in eliciting this response, is not frustration per se (as the "frustration-aggression" hypothesis had claimed), but rather, insult and humiliation. In other words, the most effective way, and often the only way, to provoke someone to become violent is to insult him. Feshbach, in "The Dynamics and Morality of Violence and Aggression" (1971), for example, after reviewing the literature on this subject, concluded that "violations to self-esteem through insult, humiliation or coercion are probably the most important source of anger and aggressive drive in humans."

Not all anger is alike, of course. Any offense or injustice can (and will) provoke anger, and some of that anger is justified. But the anger of those who are driven by their need to obliterate their own feelings of shame will have a special quality of being disproportionate and out-of-synch with the seriousness of any offense or insult that may have sparked the feelings of shame. They also often seek a scapegoat to blame. This is the hallmark of the shame-avoidant response; its irrational, over-the-top quality, and/or its need to find substitute targets.

But this does not happen only on an individual level. When whole countries, cultures, and/or groups of people feel the need to run from feelings of shame--beware, beware! Then you are going to have trouble on a truly vast scale. A perception of having been shamed seems to have been a major motivation for German anger at the conclusion of WWI, a rage that found its perfect expression in the person of one Adolf Hitler. And from the recent riots in France to terrorist attacks around the world, redressing and undoing the feelings of shame resulting from the steady loss of Moslem power after the height of the Islamic empire seems to be a very large part of what Islamicist terrorist violence is about, as well as personal feelings of shame experienced in host countries.

For me, the shame explanation finally illuminated a mystery I'd always felt about the killings described in Truman Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood.

I read the book straight through many times over when I was seventeen, despite the nightmares--and the wide-awake anxieties--it gave me. I'd always been interested in human behavior, and the book's detailed depiction of the minds of the two murderers (as seen, of course, through Capote's eyes) brought me the closest I'd ever come up till that point (or since, if the truth be known) to understanding a single horrific act of irrational violence.

And yet there was something I didn't understand in the least, an instant that came towards the end of the book, in what was the key scene: Perry Smith's description of the moment in which he snapped and committed the first murder, that of Herb Clutter. Revisting Perry's confession with the knowledge of the centrality of the need to obliterate shame, it's possible for me to imagine that I understand much more of what drove the crime to its hideous conclusion.

I doubt whether author Capote himself was completely aware of the significance of shame in Smith's narrative account of the actual moment of the first murder. Were the murders "a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act," as Capote quotes police chief Dewey in the book? In a sense, yes, since the Clutters had done nothing to harm or to shame either Perry or Smith, and the crime was minor enough up to that point that the killers-to-be could have easily bailed. But psychologically, there was no turning back for Smith; the entire situation activated his intense and lifelong feelings of shame and resultant rage (some of it at his partner, Dick).

To set the scene: Perry and his accomplice Dick had gone to the Clutter household intending to execute a long-planned robbery/murder, having been told by a prison acquaintance who'd once worked on the Clutter farm that Mr. Clutter kept an enormous and enticing amount of cash on the premises, in a safe. But in fact, after entering the home through an unlocked door and tying up the family, they discovered there was almost no money there at all.

After living on grandiose dreams of making a big score at the Clutter farm, Perry instead found himself crawling on painful arthritic knees after a mere pittance:

Dick stood guard outside the bathroom door while I reconnoitered. I frisked the girl's room, and I found a little purse--like a doll's purse. Inside it was a silver dollar. I dropped it somehow, and it rolled across the floor. Rolled under a chair. I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick. I was just disgusted. Dick, with all his talk about a rich man's safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child's silver dollar. One dollar. And I'm crawling on my belly to get it...

After, see, after we'd taped them, Dick and I went off in a corner. To talk it over...I said, 'Well, Dick, any qualms?' He didn't answer me. I said, 'Leave them alive, and this won't be any small rap. Ten years the very least.' He still didn't say anything. He was holding the knife. I asked him for it, and he gave it to me, and I said, 'All right, Dick. Here goes.' But I didn't mean it. I meant to call his bluff, make him argue me out of it, make him admit he was a phony and a coward. See, it was something between me and Dick. I knelt down beside Mr. Clutter, and the pain of kneeling--I thought of that goddam dollar. Silver dollar. The shame. Disgust. And they'd told me never to come back to Kansas. But I didn't realize what I'd done [cut Herb Clutter's throat] till I heard the sound. Like someone drowning.

It's almost a textbook demonstration, isn't it? The shame.

[ADDENDUM: I wanted to add a clarification in response to the following observation by greg g that appeared here in the comments section:

I'm having trouble adding this concept of shame leading to an extreme reaction against the cause of shame to my own model for viewing others' actions. In the examples listed...I don't see the various people as "shamed". Instead, I see them as feeling superior (arrogant) and insulted in the given situation. I think their feeling of superiority gives them the right to seek revenge and/or punish anyone who dares question their superiority and/or prove their superiority (or so they think).

My answer:

Shame and a sense of superiority seem like opposites, I know. Sometimes they are. But far more often they are linked, although that seems counterintuitive and paradoxical.

I thought to explain that concept in the post, but I jettisoned the idea since it was growing long enough already. Maybe some day I'll write some more on it; in the meantime Dr. Sanity has some posts about narcissism, which is connected to this idea.

A very simple way to put it is that what appears to be a sense of superiority is in fact a false front, put on by an individual who actually feels very shaky about his/her true self-worth. For that reason, all threats to self-worth (experiences that induce a feeling of shame) must be fought against with extreme rigidity and bravado because of an inner sense of actually being inferior.


At 2:58 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

It's interesting that there is no hesitation to use similar emotions to "accomplish" modern political ends.

At 3:26 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3:28 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Neocons of course don’t have that type of problem: they’ve banned the word “shame” altogether from their vocab : embarrassment and dishonor shall not stand in the way of Liberty/Freedom/Democracy/Zion/blah blah… ‘s glorious march!

In an interview published in London on Sunday, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told The Observer newspaper that abuse of human rights in Iraq is as bad now as it was under Saddam Hussein, if not worse: Allawi accused pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalists in the government of being responsible for death squads and secret torture centers- see link below,6903,1651789,00.html

In an ironic twist, yesterday, following US ambassador John Bolton’s forceful steering of the UN towards a public condemnation of Lebanon’s Hizbullah and other pro-Iranian terrorist organizations, there was an avalanche of articles in Washington and Tel-Aviv celebrating the great moustached macho man’s diplomatic prowess…

One should recall that John Bolton has been the administration's point man on weapons of mass destruction: in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he was particularly aggressive in denouncing Saddam's allegedly un-satiable appetite for “yellow cake”, “bacteriological chowder”, “nuclear soufflé” and other deadly delicacies supposedly “supplied to Iraq by greedy French arms makers”!

Too bad Bolton supported the illegal invasion of Iraq, for that country was the sole counterweight to Iranian Islamic fundamentalism, and the only (relatively) secular country in the whole Middle-East: many members of Saddam’s government such as Tariq Hanna Aziz and 30%+ of high-ranking civil servants were actually European-educated Catholics whereas Christians made up less than 4% of Iraq’s total population…

But Bolton, Bush and their Neocon cum Israeli partners in crime favored of a “free and democratic” Iraq ruled by “progressive” Shiite fundamentalists such as Prime-Minister Al-Ja’afari, a bearded Islamist thug of Iranian descent who claims to be an admirer of both Donald Rumsfeld and Grand Ayatollah Khomeini…Go figure.

Anyway, apart from the renegade “Sunni triangle” and the Kurdish Northeast, most of the country in now “fully liberated”, firmly under Persian terrorist influence: in many neighborhoods, from Baghdad’s eastern suburbs to downtown Basra, bearded Iranian agents roam freely in broad daylight while US and British soldiers don’t dare enter.

Ambassador Bolton, thank you so much for fighting for America’s freedom by “sending a strong message to Iran” during that fateful UN security council meeting yesterday!

You’re a real macho with a fully developed thick American moustache, not a dirty, small and less elaborate Arabian tash like that spider-hole wimp Saddam!

As for left-wing human rights activists and other wailing anti-war collaborators who recently condemned the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by US and British forces in Iraq, well they’re just a bunch of ignorant liberals without any notion of modern nutrition and medicine: “WHITE PHOSPHORUS” (W.P. in Pentagon parlance) is actually good for brain and nerve formation in children.

Actually, unlike cynical French and Soviet arms merchants who fed you “YELLOW cake” from the BLACK continent (yuck, disgusting!), your “compassionately conservative” liberators have decided to contribute to the edification of a new generation of healthy cum freedom-loving Sunni Ayyrabz : and we even gave your kids premium quality WHITE produce !

Dr Victorino de la Vega
Chair of the Thomas More Center for Middle East Studies

At 4:05 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger sammy small said...

Did someone flip the "rant" switch on the guy above? Neo must have hit a nerve!

At 4:16 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, this is so microcosmic that it can't turn into a rant...

Earlier in my life I collected a number of narcissist friends, whom after 40 years, much therapy, and a religious conversion no longer "match" my worldview.

What I notice about them is the impracticability of having anything at all to do with them. No amount of flattery is enough, no amount of helpful goodwill disarms their resentment, and walking on eggshells does not secure the territory of productive civility.

I am sad for them, and sad for losing my own hope of re-formed friendships. Those who circle around wounds and shame, denying and avoiding it, are lost causes except to major miraculous soul-saving in one medium or another.

I can't remember the philosopher of science who said the solution to a problem must come from outside the problem. Anyway, as to catering to the shame-obsessed, What He Said.

At 4:20 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

No rant switch sammy: The "comment" was written before Neo's post, and he just added the first paragraph to make it "relevant" to her post and pasted the rest from his website. He probably does this all over the net. His writing frequently demonstrates the heart of an angry racist, which actually makes his attitude relevant to Neo's post. Go figure.

At 4:22 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Darleen said...

actually, I think the "Dr" is spamming -- he left a similar post at Jeff Goldstein's.

At 5:04 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

If you google the Thomas More Center for Middle East Studies, of which Dr. Vic is chair, you will find nothing more than a few blog comments written by, you guessed it, Dr. Vic himself. I don't know who he thinks he's fooling. Is it too much to ask that he at least create a sham website to give his story the flimsiest plausibility?

As a wise observer once noted, Dr. Vic is an international troll of mystery.

At 5:07 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It appears the good doctor is immune to shame.

At 5:29 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He who chooses to use the label Dr. was getting a bit annoying, until I started thinking of him as Dan Ackroyd as Dr. Detroit, now I just get a chuckle when I see his spam.

At 5:31 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your description of shame goes a long way to describing the culture of 'honor' in many arab counties. Witness 'honor killings' and the constant preoccupation with honor and shame in all things. Stephen Vincent, in 'The Red Zone' describes much the same thing .

At 5:42 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are some people for whom the mere existence of success greater than their own is a mortal insult. I know a few people like this, and without exception they are all deeply unpleasant people to be around.

The ones I know are, thankfully, harmless. Or mostly harmless. One is a relative who, mercifully, keeps score in life by means of dollars. I may or may not make more money than he does; it doesn't matter to me, and I haven't made any inquiries, being content to let him consume conspicuously. PReferably, somewhere else.

One is a former boss who keeps score in terms of authority. The "disrespect" theme was pivotal while I worked for him. Since I had no aspirations for his job, or even a job similar to his, he was mostly harmless... except for the time when his attitude toward his own superiors became so obnoxious that he nearly got his entire department shut down, disbanded, and laid off.

The relative is garden variety narcisistic, which is to say, he's just a jerk. The former boss was dangerous mostly through ineptness, although with greater will and skill, he would have been scary. I'd be fascinated to read a professionaly prepared psychological profile of my ex-boss; I have a hunch he might be borderline pathological.

I have, thankfully, not met anyone higher on the scale than that. (That I know of, anyway.)

I have long thought that there might be something to the "shame" theory of international politics, being one strand of many in today's situation. But I think it makes more sense in a larger context. Narcissism such as you describe is not an ordinary, every day phenomenon. Conducting surveys of prison literature might skew that perspective, but that's because that's where such people tend to end up. Something else, I think, needs to happen to a culture in order to bring that strand to prominence.

Namely, the rest of the culture needs to lose (or at least have weakened) its ability to properly police such people. The ultimate danger of anarchy is that it provides an extraordinary playground for such people to operate in, but anarchy is an extreme, too. Depression, on the other hand, is a far more common thing, and perhaps driven at several removes by the same features.

It cannot be easy for a culture to see itself not simply surpassed, but surpassed so comprehensively and at the same time so seemingly effortlessly.

(Make no mistake-- I don't believe there's anything at all effortless about the successes that the West has had over the past thousand years. Quite the contrary. But it probably seems effortless from the outside.)

My almost any measureable comparison between the West and Islam, Islam turns out poorly. Political influence, military power, commerce, wealth, productivity, employment, etc. This, despite the immense natural resources of oil, and notwithstanding the amazing successes of Islam in the past. Only in subjective terms of "culture" or "spirituality" can claims be made that Islam is competing successfully... or at all.

That simply has to sting. The responses to this situation would all involve anger, as I see it.

Some anger is productive: "I will learn from those more successful, and in doing so, better myself."

Some is turned inward, depression: "I cannot beat them, this is hopeless."

Some is turned outward: "I will learn from those more successful, in order to kill them and erase my shame."

And it seems to me further that the majority will turn to hopelessness, leaving the dialogue between the extremes as a contest for hearts of the depressed. And in this, the narcissists have short term advantages: They are charismatic, they are willing to kill, and their methods, though futile, are headline grabbing and present the illusion of progress.

At 6:00 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

This is one of the reasons why the death penalty has to be implemented in an effective manner, one that does not take years , cruelly inflicting mental anguish upon the prisoners.

Justice, punishment that fits the crime, that is nonetheless objective and not prone to individual vendetta, contains equal parts sanity and order. Thus, for justice to be justice, both the criminal and future criminals must understand what is happening to them, why, and what will happen in the future. If they do not understand, then society has not done its duty in protecting all members of society.

If you try to rehabilitate a criminal, if you try to punish him according to your biases, preconceptions, and faulty reasoning of what he deserves, then that is neither just nor effective against criminals.

However, if you tell the criminal that we find his reasoning justified for murdering, then we communicate to him in clear and unambiguous terms, that if he believes he can kill people weaker than he is because they dissed him, then the rest of us can kill him just as equally dead since he dissed us. After all, has not a murderer, a violent street thug, told us to our face that he is above the law while we are not? Has he not said that he will sue us for violating his rights, but that he will stay free to kill again, and again, and create even more creative crimes?

Obviously the criminal believes that he can insult society and innocent people, get off scott free, while he is entitled to kill anyone that insults and shames him.

Given the disproportionate balance between how many criminals there are and how many normal people there, I do believe it is time to tell the criminal that he is not better than the rest of us. And if we have to kill him in 24 hours of his conviction, to prove his mortality to him and the rest of his friends, then that extreme choice was made by the criminal in the first place.

He who justifies violence in return for insult, cannot be protected from violence deriving from his insults. Just as he who does not follow the law, cannot claim protection under the law.

There are those who don't like the death penalty, and they are the ones who won't take responsibility for being wrong, not even when that responsibility is shared by millions. But they will cheerfully take responsibility for communicating to criminals in a language that they do not understand.

Criminals are humans, and jail isn't going to convince anyone that he is wrong or even that he was guilty.

It is precisely because criminals operate under human nature, that they require human responses. And the most basic, and most powerful human motivator is self-survival. If a criminal believes he is above the law, above society, and above humanity in taking life, then he must be taught the error of his ways. He must be taught the power gap between one individual, and 300 million individuals.

It is an implacable conclusion. And it is one that progressives, conservatives, moderates, and religious people don't tend to find very appetizing.

Perhaps their appetites tend towards inhuman conduct, cruel and unusual punishment through promoting an individual's self-destructive behavior, or some other rationale I know not.

The American prison system has an ironic history. First we had very brutal and very violent prisons, work gangs, and who knows what. Then we had the so called "progressive" rehabilitation program, which Europe didn't mend copying from us and then ragging on us in the 21st century that we are the retro-barbarians.

And so it seems the only people who understand what must be the consequence for criminal actions, are the ones who understand human nature, understand that criminals are humans, and understand that they should not be punished in a cruel and unusual manner that the current system does.

Sort of like the Founding Fathers, educated by the Enlightenment, using Greek Logic and Aristotelian ethics, applying the principles of Adam Smith and human nature to government.

The solution to terrorism, the same as the solution to crime, is a human one, it is not a political, nor a military, nor a criminal solution.

At 6:23 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

Good post Neo!; lots of interesting comments from all: dt, Tim P., M. Vit., Ymar. et al. This is most certainly an important topic. Makes for a nice finish to a wonderful holiday weekend. Thanks all.
(you know T-day is over when you have used the last of the turkey; cooked the last few slices with olives, onions, the last of the tomato from the garden and red wine; then dumped it over whole wheat pasta; yummy)

At 6:31 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

As coercion can be a source of inflaming rage in the shamed, we are left with a terrible paradox. Containment is the one reliable response to dangerous behavior. It is more effective than punishment, and even allows some opening -- often futile -- to reward desired behavior.

But containment is often perceived as punishment, and becomes in itself a source for rage. That must be endured. Once the pattern of getting rid of shame through violence is rewarded, it becomes extremely rewrding, and even harder to eliminate.

Violent groups often channel this shame into the group's aim. The perpetrator then takes some pride in another group member's use of violence, and the fear/respect that the group inspires becomes a way of the individual burying his own shame.

The violent response is not unknown in women, but is less common.

At 6:54 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I think the good Dr. Victorino is the brainchild of the nefarious Karl Rove.

What better way to showcase the silliness of the hard left?

At 9:11 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Assistant Village Idiot:

As coercion can be a source of inflaming rage in the shamed, we are left with a terrible paradox. Containment is the one reliable response to dangerous behavior. It is more effective than punishment, and even allows some opening -- often futile -- to reward desired behavior.

Respectfully, I disagree.

Let's take as given (for the sake of discussion) that the shame element is an important strand in today's problems. Further, I point out that we're discussing this, in part, as an analogy from human emotions of the individual to human emotions of the crowd, or of the nation.

In that sense, individual shame is to national shame as incarceration is to containment.

Incarceration may be an effective defense against extreme anti-social behaviour, by virtue of simply making it impossible for the incarcerated to act on his desires. I don't know that I'd consider it an effective response if the goal of the response is anything larger, such as bring the extremely anti-social back into the fold of civil society.

Neo may be able to speak with some expertise here, but my layman's reading led me to believe that the rehabilitation effects of incarceration are... dubious, at best. Recidivism studies may be a worthwhile indicator, here. It stands to reason, to me, that incarceration of the style we have today, e.g., large prisons, can only make the problem worse by putting lots of criminals in contact with each other, where they reinforce their opinions.

Moreover, even though the analogies appeal (and I continued them in a response of my own) I think that ultimately they are flawed. Nations are made up of people with indiviual emotions, but do not themselves have individual emotions.

As emotions are emergent properties of the wiring of our brains, some "emotional states" of nations are emergent properties of the individual emotions which comprise them. No single human being can be a mob, any more than a single neurocorticle column can experience love or hatred. Thus the difference between psychology and sociology, after all. Thus, I'm not convinced that "containment" in this sense is really the way to go.

So much for general objections.

I think the argument fails specifically in the following ways:

1) There's a serious scaling issue. Containment of an individual, i.e., incarceration, is even possible in the first place because a person is a single, solid thing. A person can be plucked up and put in jail, or barricaded in his house.

Nations are a bit different, being geographic entities. Containment can, in some cases, be effective when containment is enforced against large, blunt tools like conquering, occupying armies. But against other phenomena, the successes are much smaller. The Soviet Union makes a good case study: One leg of Western strategy was, yes, containment, but it was specifically containment of armies. Containment of influence was nearly impossible, as the history of South and Central America will show. Containment of spies was futile. Containment of nuclear weapons, absent a missile shield was so pointless we resorted to the MAD doctrine.

The Islamist strategy not only recognizes this, it plays very specifically to the weaknesses of containment against individuals and ideologies. Containment, in this sense, simply will not work as long as the governments in the region are unable or unwilling to control the problem at the root. (Thus the difference between local police action and warfare.)

Second, containment might produce in the individuals of the society the same effect I alluded to in domestic prisons. The phenomenon is called "opinion cascade" and is well document in sociological circles. Briefly stated, closed deliberative societies tend to produce more extreme ideological positions, not less so. (A good account of this can be found in the front of Cass Sunstein's "Designing Democracy.")

This, too, I believe is understood and counted on by Islamist strategists, at an instinctive level if not a formal level. This, I believe, is why a dominant theme of Islamist goals is to create a shut-off, shut-in mini-society. (This is not limited to Islamists, by the way. In addition to Afghanistan, see also North Korea and Cuba all the way down to various small-time cult leaders.)

And this is why I believe that giving them what they want, so to speak, is a bad idea. Not for the sheer cussedness of denying them, but because they want that insulation, that isolation, for a reason. Containment is likely to postpone the problem and make it worse, if my grasp of sociology is correct.

(Granted, I'm not a sociologist.)

At 9:14 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The shame/honor dynamic is ubiquituous in Islamic societies, especially those that have been highly Arabized. I read a good book on this topic some years ago: The Closed Circle by David Pryce-Jones (ISBN: 0060160470). Highly recommended.

Jason B.

At 9:20 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The impression I got was that Neo's post was mostly concerned with criminal behavior and even more so international relations (especially with Moslems). I think it could also explain (at least in part) a less serious problem, but one that is becoming more common. Without any scientific data to support my observation, it seems that in the "old days", when a child did something wrong at school, parents would be called. The parents would apologize to the teacher and punish the child appropriately. Now, it seems to be more and more common that when the parents are called, they act if it is an attack on themselves (they feel shamed) and react very defensively, denying that the child did anything wrong and lashing out at the teacher. Am I understanding Neo's concept correctly? Does this seem to fit?

With that said, I'm having trouble adding this concept of shame leading to an extreme reaction against the cause of shame to my own model for viewing others' actions. In the examples listed (even my own) I don't see the various people as "shamed". Instead, I see them as feeling superior (arrogant) and insulted in the given situation. I think their feeling of superiority gives them the right to seek revenge and/or punish anyone who dares question their superiority and/or prove their superiority (or so they think). For example, in the case of the French rioting, some comments by rioters indicated that they looked down on the French, and they wanted to prove that they controlled their own suburbs. My question is, are there some situations where the "shame" concept would predict different actions than the "I'm superior" concept? I'm just asking so I can get a better understanding of the concept.

At 9:28 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pride and shame play are strongly mentioned in the works of Eric Hoffer. His "The True Believer" and "The Passionate State of Mind" are must reads for anyone wanting to understand the fanatic. To Hoffer, Pride (and shame) is the explosive alternative to self esteem.

At 10:16 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Goldstein said...

I think this is a great post. The word humiliation comes up again and again when Arabs and Moslems talk about their grievances. I think this is essentially synonomous with shame.

At 10:34 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ M. Vitruvius
I don't think we are in such complete disagreement. If my reference to "containment" on a national level suggested to you that I was advocating the less energetic policies of the 1990's rather than the warfare-plus-containment model we are currently using, then the error was mine. I consider that what we are doing in the Middle-East now to be containment -- not because warfare is the only way to accomplish that, but because warfare is one way, and sometimes the least bad way, to accomplish containment.

As to attributing personality concepts designed for understanding the individual to entire nations or groups, I admit that such things are a stretch. Because they have explanatory power, I tend to use those concepts, even though they are not testable (yet). I allow that any of us could have the impression that we were understanding international phenomenon, but just playing a game in our heads.

I would offer the following as evidence that the use of psychiatric concepts on nations is at least useful as analogy, and possibly illuminates even deeper truths: nations and peoples tend to personify themselves with symbols, animals, and stereotypes. While we would all agree that not all Russians seem like bears, the Russians themselves recognize something of themselves in that symbol. Extending this, the peoples of the world do see themselves as having personality tendencies which spill over into their national character. Americans really are more informal than other peoples, for example. Each nation generally assents to the positive traits of the stereotype. What we do here is to look at the downside of those traits.

For your reference to opinion cascade I thank you. I had long forgotten about the concept, and think I knew it by a different name. It very much applies, and inserts a note of caution into our containment of both individuals and nations. Perhaps recidivism is directly related to this distilling of attitudes in prisons, and something similar would happen with an isolated nation. Indeed, it has in North Korea.

At 10:35 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

greg g--Shame and a sense of superiority seem like opposites, I know. Sometimes they are. But far more often they are linked, although that seems counterintuitive and paradoxical.

I thought to explain that concept in the post, but I jettisoned the idea since it was growing long enough already. Maybe some day I'll write some more on it; in the meantime Dr. Sanity has some posts about narcissism, which is connected to this idea.

A very simple way to put it is that what appears to be a sense of superiority is in fact a false front, put on by an individual who actually feels very shaky about his/her true self-worth. For that reason, all threats to self-worth (experiences that induce a feeling of shame) must be fought against with extreme rigidity and bravado because of an inner sense of actually being inferior.

At 11:19 PM, November 27, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

Very interesting and with much merit, in my opinion. Living in and around Hispanic culture I sense that the shame, or more appropriately, the "Honor" motive arises in violent confrontations more times than not.

On a completely irrelevant, but interesting note, my wife's uncle, a young reporter in Kansas, was the first journalist on the scene of the Clutter family murders.

At 11:41 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't think we are in such complete disagreement. If my reference to "containment" on a national level suggested to you that I was advocating the less energetic policies of the 1990's rather than the warfare-plus-containment model we are currently using, then the error was mine.

Fair enough. Containment, I think, is a necessary but not a sufficient component of getting ourselves out of the conflict we're in, successfully. I don't think that withdrawl of any sort constitutes "getting out" except in the shortest possible terms.

As to attributing personality concepts designed for understanding the individual to entire nations or groups, I admit that such things are a stretch.

Yes, but by the same token, I used
them earlier in this thread and I've used them in other contexts as well. I did not mean to imply that the concepts are useless, only that one must be very careful in applying them.

For your reference to opinion cascade I thank you.

Ah, my new intellectual toy. You're welcome. It's something I've understood on a gut level for a long time, without ever suspecting there was a formalism for it. In fact, the understanding was so gut-level, I was never really aware of it, until I came across it a few months ago.

Reading it was like rediscovering part of my mind. At this point, it's a lens I can't help but examine things through. That'll wear off eventually, I'm sure, but it's interesting while it lasts. TO the extent that I have a personal philosophy, that's now part of it.

At 11:59 PM, November 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a magnificent post. I can't help feeling sorrow for anyone missing the chance to absorb Neo's thoughts (Including the comments except for the nutcase Dr). You won't see this in the newspaper. Mark

At 12:23 AM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

Your post made me finally put my thoughts together on this subject. Well, not my thoughts so much as Donald Nathanson's.

Encompassing Shame

I may cross post an amended version on Gates of Vienna tomorrow, one which deals more specifically with terrorism. Nathanson deals with youth violence mostly, I think...

If you haven't read his book, I recommend it highly.

BTW, I don't think there's been a steady loss of Moslem power -- it's been impotent for centuries -- it's the shame of remembrance that keeps being opened up like a wound. The Islamic decision to take only from the West its martial ideas and weapons while leaving the culture behind has badly backfired on them.

Iraq is putting that behind them. As would Iran's people if they could get free. I am not as certain of the Lebanese educational system's foundation, nor that in Syria.

But Saudi Arabia is an alien group. Some tertium quid not even other Muslims understand...and they are the most dangerous.

At 1:35 AM, November 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently posted a two part series on shame, here and here. These posts focused on the more personal aspects of shame, and their solutions, but have some applicability to cultures as well.

At 3:30 AM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

Fantastic discusion, neo-. I've long claimed that ENVY was the most destructive emotion, the desire to destroy the good that somebody else has. But haven't quite understood it.

I'm thinking now that shame is a more basic feeling, and the destructive envy, like Bolshevik commies, Pol Pot commies, or German Nazis, all grow from seeds of shame.

Funny how the individual-identity shame/envy can morph so dangerously into group-identity shame/envy. Funny sad.

At 4:58 AM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Pixy Misa said...

It has struck me that where Islam is a shame culture, Judaism is a guilt culture. The difference, I think, is that shame is a sense of inadequacy couple with a sense of entitlement, whereas guilt is inadequacy couple with a sense of duty.

This comes not from years of scholarly reasearch, but from having a jewish grandmother, so make of it what you will.

At 6:56 AM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Pixy Misa said...

My 'd' key appears not to work. Apart from that...

At 8:13 AM, November 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those among us who believe that anagrams can disclose the truth about the character of a person, the following three (suitable for viewing) anagrams come from the good(?) doctor's name--Dr. Victorino de la Vega:


At 11:29 AM, November 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of the comments here, especially greg g's and pixy misa's, put me in mind of something that struck me very forcefully the other day, namely that the United States seems to be in the process of reverting from a "guilt culture" to a "shame culture."

It seems to me like "guilt culture" is more productive because people measure their inadequacies against a set of ideal standards. As long as they believe in the validity of those standards, other people's judgments of them may not matter quite so much as whether or not those judgments themselves conform to the standards. As a result, a sense of being slighted or shamed is less likely to develop and find expression as rage. Instead, people will strive to live up to the code.

Probably, though, "guilt culture" is always socially-based, a situation in which shared values are so strong that they come to seem like they're something independent of how people react to each other. Everybody takes for granted that everybody believes in the code, and can live with the illusion that it's the only standard that really matters and that everybody knows it (or should).

But when the shared values start to unravel, when it becomes clear that lots of people don't accept the code, "shame culture" comes back. Parents of schoolchildren start to feel that their children are being victimized when disciplined because discipline seems like a form of personal disrespect rather than an attempt to enforce the absolute standards in which we no longer believe. People will have the same reaction when caught up in the criminal justice system, since it becomes obvious to criminals that the people handing out judgments no longer have any confidence in the rules and punishment comes to seem purely "personal."

At 2:24 PM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

I read a work sometime ago (I don’t recall either the name of the book or the author) that dealt with similar concepts as some of the above comments. Specifically, it was a defense of the much-maligned “Victorian Virtues.” The gist was that having a “code of honor” (or coed of honor if one is Groucho) that is unattainable is better than a Pomo “anything goes because everything is relative” notion of civility, in that there is a sense of guilt/duty (as mentioned in previous comments) that is associated with the former, whereas the latter involves only a sense of historical shame (the guilt of others), which engenders rage (BDS maybe). Can opinion cascades go down different slopes? One towards productive ends (even though it does appear to be a good thing at the time) and another towards lunacy? One towards resolution and innovation and the other towards stagnation and violence? The problem I see here is with “judgment,” which, of course, is a dirty word.

At 3:15 PM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

even though it does NOT appear to be a good thing at the time

At 6:03 PM, November 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is important to realize what the opposite of shame is. It is not the arrogance or brittle pride that becomes violent when disrespected. It is healthy self esteem that is reality based, not propped up on shaky reeds of self delusion and fear.

Shame based people, and nations, prop themselves up on false notions of being "better than" others, because they secretly believe they are "less than" others. Shame, "better than", and "less than" are all based upon the same thing - an ego that is fragile and brittle and continuously flipping back and forth from "better than" to "less than." Being "'dissed" is the cause of violence because it threatens the "better than" and names the hidden "less than."

The opposite of shame is solid and true self esteem, which is not rooted in either "better than" nor "less than." Real self esteem (as opposed to the feel good about yourself politically based "self esteem" of the liberal education establishment) is one that recognizes without judgement both one's strengths and weaknesses and concludes that one is both enough as one is for now, and that one is in the process of growing and becoming more. Thus, there is no fear or rage at being "'dissed" because one is not desperately trying to cover up secret weaknesses or flaws. Weaknesses are part of who we are, and correction and growth are part and parcel of healthy, mature development.

The "cure" for this shame-based Islamic rage at the West may very well be an honest psychological growth of the Islamic people to the point where they no longer are shame based but rather become people with healthy, reality based self esteem. This healing has nothing to do with war, politics, or any actions that any government can take - unless we can offer lots of therapy for the fascist element of Islam :)

At 12:37 AM, November 29, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Tom Grey, don't give up on the importance of envy just yet. It does make it into the 10 Commandments, after all.

And as 4 of those are specifically about our behavior toward God, you might say that it made it to an even shorter list of behavioral directions.

Connected new thought while posting:
The violent responses to shame may flow directly out of the commandment not to take the Lord's name in vain. People usually think that has something to do with swearing or taking false oaths, but the central concept is actually putting your words in God's mouth (rather than the other way 'round). It is justifying as good an action known to be evil, by trying to forge God's signature to it.

At 11:51 AM, November 29, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The difference, I think, is that shame is a sense of inadequacy couple with a sense of entitlement, whereas guilt is inadequacy couple with a sense of duty."

I think Pixy Misa really hit the nail on the head with that one. The biggest challenge in the GWoT will be finding ways to convert the sense of entitlement at the core of the terror supporters' belief systems, into a sense of duty, on a large scale. Like the saying goes, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country."

So... how could this be done?

At 12:01 PM, November 30, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

So... how could this be done?

It's the Grand Strategy already in use in Iraq and Afghanistan, as such how it can be done is how it is being done.

At 2:01 PM, November 30, 2005, Blogger Solomon2 said...

Neo, I think your analysis is good, but not-quite-sufficient. I would also add the desire for power and "magical thinking" factors to the mix: terrorists engage ritual behavior and set-in-stone beliefs as a way to seize "control" of the world. (Art History isn't entirely useless.)


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