From Bill Clinton To Harvey Weinstein: How American Culture Is Becoming More Shame-based

In his Nov. 18, 2017 New York Times article, What if Ken Starr Was Right?, Ross Douthat, writes, “(According to Clinton’s supporters)… our 42nd president was only guilty of being a horndog, his affairs were nobody’s business but his family’s, and oral sex with Monica Lewinsky was a small thing that should never have put his presidency in peril.”

I doubt if, deep inside, many of the above supporters didn’t think that President Clinton had committed an immoral act. Yet, at the same time, they felt that “the effort to impeach him was a hopeless attempt to legislate against dishonor.” Again, Mr. Ross says,

That narrative could not survive the current wave of outrage over male sexual misconduct. So now a new one may be forming for the age of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump. In this story, Kenneth Starr and the Republicans are still dismissed as partisan witch hunters. But liberals might be willing to concede that the Lewinsky affair was a pretty big deal morally, a clear abuse of sexual power, for which Clinton probably should have been pressured to resign.

aggression-683910__340A question we should ask is, what changed? What is this new narrative that now says, “the Lewinsky affair was a pretty big deal”? To me, this new narrative is written by the social media community, which is using shame as a means to control those within her boundaries.

Here I need to explain what I mean by shame brought about by a community, or as it’s called a shamed-based community. The phrase “shame culture” was coined by Ruth Benedict in her book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, where she described American culture as a “guilt culture” and Japanese culture as a “shame culture.”

A shame-based culture (Sometimes called shame/honor base) consists of a community where a continually reinforced feeling of shame and ostracism is used as the main instrument to control the people within that community. In those societies, a person is punished by coming short of the standard which her people have collectively chosen to be the norm. The punishment for acting against the norm is being shamed and shunned. As David Brooks puts it, “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 (As in a guilt base culture); it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.”

Having been born and raised in Iran, I didn’t just study the shame culture, I lived in it for 19 years. After living in the guilt-based culture of America for almost 50 years, I still have nightmares about being exiled and condemned instead of being praised and embraced (honored) by my old Persian community. That’s because in that culture everybody is constantly living in fear of being at the mercy of a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no clear standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture that compels all her members to just go along. By the way, that’s why I wrote my book, Shame On You.

For the last 15 years I’ve been teaching on shame and honor. And for that many years, I was sensing a shift in the American culture, but I couldn’t put it to words. I could sense that the younger generation was tilting more towards a culture of shame, but couldn’t quite see, or name the nuts and bolts that were creating such a society. Then, last year, I read Andy Crouch’s essay, The Return of Shame.

According to Andy, this above society is social media and the nuts and bolts are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.. The shame-based community of social media is the community of “constant display and observation” where 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 standard of right and wrong, but a standard of acceptance and rejection. By the way, how many Facebook “Likes” did you get on your last post?

In this community, each tribe demands instant respect and recognition for their group. They react with intense violence toward those who dare to disrespect the community by questioning their codes of conduct on some biblical values. As Crouch argues, the ultimate sin today, is to criticize a group, especially on moral grounds. Talk of good and bad has deferred 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.’”

Crouch calls the social media community a “fame” culture rather than a “shame” culture. Again, he correctly argues that this shame culture is different from the traditional shame cultures, of many third-world nations, for example. In traditional shame cultures the opposite of shame was honor or “face” — being known as a dignified and upstanding citizen. In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is fame — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform (Aka the Kardashians).

Going back to my original question, “What is this new narrative that now says, ‘the Lewinsky affair was a pretty big deal?’” As David Brooks puts it, it was “The shifting fancy of the crowd” and not a moral awaking. The community, in this case, “#me too” established a set of common behavior patterns. Then, the enforcers within the tribe went after everyone who broke the group code. Maybe Clinton’s supporters were correct—you can’t legislate against dishonor. But you can establish a culture where its enforcers can come after you when you break their codes of conduct. And this my friend, has all the nuts and bolts of a shame-based culture.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m delighted that almost every day more women are coming out to name their abusers and shame these predators. However, having experienced both cultures, I much rather live in a guilt-based culture where my identity is built on a moral code of right and wrong. It’s much less stressful. But here, all I’m talking about is a shift in the culture. If, along with many others, what I’m saying is true and there’s a cultural shift in the wind, then what is the church’s place in such a community?

4 thoughts on “From Bill Clinton To Harvey Weinstein: How American Culture Is Becoming More Shame-based

  1. Thank you Sharokh jaan,
    The article helps me to see what’s going on with a lot of clarity. I am not sure what the role of the church is yet, but the fact that the issue is being clearly defined, I would guess, is part of the solution. Perhaps now people have a choice to decide which culture they want to live in and that’s where the church can help the seeker between the two worlds, which would be a better choice. One that’s free from both guilt and shame, the culture of Resurrected Yeshua.


  2. Sha,

    thanks for this posts.

    I guess my main question is, do you think we are in an in either or situation with Guilt versus shame? Or do you think it is a mixture of the two?

    In response to the church’s role: I think we need to go back to Jesus and see consider how he dealt with honor and shame within his own context. I think there are a few times in the stories of Jesus’ life where he confronts shame culture and challenges it and reveals a way forward.

    Finally i think the church hopefully learned a lesson when it comes to people like Roy Moore and the claims against him. I think some portions of the church where not wise to support or even just be so passive on his situation. Basically the church did not have to necessarily condemn him as the culture was, but i think the church should have been more wise in taking this serious enough to say, “lets wait, or lets not try and defend someone without knowing the whole story.’

    Alright thanks again for the post.


    1. Hey B, thanks for not only reading my post but also replying to it.

      No one culture is purely this or that but always a mixture with a predominant tendency. Having been built upon Judea-Christian principles, the West tend to be more law-abiding and hence more guilt base—guilt or innocence/right or wrong according to the law. On the other hand, most nations within the 10/40 window tend to be more shame-based—Do all you can (Even if by our standard it is a wrong action.) to bring honor to yourself and your family.

      Yes, one of the things that Jesus demanded was transparency, something that is an absolute taboo within that culture. To them, airing out the dirty laundry is just as sinful as having the dirty laundry itself. To air out your dirty laundry, that is to admit your guilt, is to lose face and bring shame on yourself and your family.

      You know, I have a friend who edits my posts. When she read the rough draft of this post for the first time, she automatically assumed this was a political post. That got me so concerned that I was going to post it with a disclaimer saying that this is NOT a political blog. All I’m saying here is that I see a shift in the culture, which needs to be approached in a fresh way. The old evangelical approach—the Four Spiritual Laws/innocence vs guilt method—are not as effective anymore.

      To me, as a follower of Christ, it’s an absolute shame to support a candidate because he’s got a D or an R in front of his name… Be it, Clinton or Moore.


  3. Dear Peter, thank you for your comments. I’m sorry for my late reply. Health issues and the recent fire in our neighborhood kind of prevented me from replying to you sooner.

    There are many scholarly books written and much research has been done on this subject by people who can explain the shame-based culture of the Middle East a thousand times better than I can. But what separates you and me from most of these scholars is that we both grew up in a shame-based culture. The other day, I got into a tense conversation with one of my relatives who lives in Iran. She was upset that the Iranians in America do not follow the Persian tradition of “taaruf”—When you’re offering your guest something, ask at least 3 times to make sure he/she means it when they say “NO” to your offer. This is how our conversation went:

    Me: Why do you do it this way?
    She: Because it’s disrespectful not to ask more than once.
    Me: Why is it disrespectful?
    She: Because you want to make sure that they mean it when they say “NO”.
    Me: Wouldn’t you rather if the person’s yes is yes and no is no?
    She: Of course, but even then I still will ask 3 times because it’s in my blood.

    Most of the above scholars have very little idea of what it means to grow up in a shame-based culture where the culture has become a part of your very being. After working with Iranian Muslims for almost 40 years, it’s so wonderful to see how Jesus can set them free, not only from their guilt but also their shame.


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