Guilt and Shame

One of the few commentators who aggressively tries to address the critical differences between Western culture and Arab culture is Richard Landes who blogs at the Augean Stables and The Second Draft. His essay Honor-Shame Jihad (HJP) is an excellent introduction to the role of honor-shame culture in the Arab Israeli conflict. As he says in his introduction to it, it is just one framework that attempts to understand the conflict better. Personally, I find it helpful, but certainly not the only way to view the situation. Landes has recently published this essay by Lazar Berman, an Israeli officer who has served in an Arab unit within the IDF, which explores in unusual detail some critical differences between Western and Arab culture. In particular Berman deals candidly with his own naivety as an American born Westerner with the difficulties cultural ignorance can cause.

The point I want to highlight from Lazar Berman’s experience is the difference he sees between guilt and shame and how it impacts differently in the West and in Arab culture. In the context of an IDF workshop designed to improve his unit through self criticism Berman tries to understand why he is willing to self criticize but his fellow officers who are Arab are not.

The West seeks to avoid guilt, the Arab world shame. Whereas shame requires a witness; guilt is a private emotion. Being whole with one’s actions is paramount to public honor. The elevation of conscience over honor is elucidated by Michel de Montaigne- “ Any person of honor chooses rather to lose his honor than to lose his conscience.” Western honor is contingent upon following one’s conscience, and not on eluding shame.

He describes the reasons for his own behavior:

I was willing to have my leadership publicly criticized because I would have felt guilt at refraining from a process that would lead me to become a better officer. Guilt is a personal matter; it involves primarily answering one’s conscience. It stems from knowing that one failed to fulfill one’s personal obligations to live and act a certain way. To not address issues in my platoon because of my own pride would have been a violation of the principles to which I am bound.

He sees the cultural difference and its impact on his effectiveness and that of the workshop:

The Bedouin commanders were concerned with avoiding shame. Honor and shame are always in the eyes of others. Concern with shame does not precipitate guilt’s private reckoning. The workshop focus on public analysis and criticism guaranteed its failure for our unit.

He goes on to show by example how failure to understand the public nature of honor and shame can lead to unintentional insult and the inability to recognize and understand the motives involved in issues of Arab honor. His essay covers many related topics – the importance of Arab strongmen for example – and if this sample has caught your interest I reccommend reading the entire essay. Finally, I don’t want to leave the impression that Berman’s approach is narrowly military. His concluding paragraph demonstrates that his analysis rises above cultural partisanship or military success and failure:

Unfortunately, the mutual insight into Arab and Western cultures cited here is reached by attempts to vanquish, not to understand. There is no shortage of constructive fora for the two cultures to study what drives the other. Today, the West and the Arab world come into contact in every field. The West, especially its media, must give up its cultural arrogance and preconceptions and view the Arab world as it is. Misunderstanding Arab Honor/shame society has negative, potentially disastrous consequences. He who fails to comprehend this paradigm will insult an Arab friend and will be deceived by an Arab enemy. Insisting on universal cultural similarity will not lead to cultural understanding. We respect societal differences by emphasizing them, not by imagining them away. Only by honoring what makes us different can we approach each other as equals.


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