I am concerned that we have moved into a culture of shame where individuals are taken apart in the media. Perhaps previously we were in a guilt culture. Both cultures teach people how they ought to behave, but they have very different approaches to wrongdoing. In shame cultures what matters is what other people think of you: the embarrassment, the ignominy, the loss of face. Whereas in guilt cultures it’s what the inner voice of conscience tells you. In shame cultures we’re actors playing our part on the public stage. In guilt cultures we’re engaged in inner conversation with our conscience.
The biggest difference is that in shame cultures, if we’re caught doing wrong, there’s a stain on our character that only time can erase. But guilt cultures make a sharp distinction between the doer and the deed, the sinner and the sin. That’s why guilt cultures focus on atonement and repentance, apology and forgiveness. The act was wrong, but on our character there’s no indelible stain.
In shame cultures, if you’ve done wrong, the first rule is, don’t be found out. If you are, then bluff your way through. Only admit when every other alternative has failed, because you’ll be disgraced for a very long time indeed.
Shame has a place in any moral system, but when it dominates all else, when all we have is trial by public exposure, then the more reluctant people will be to be honest, and the more suspicious we’ll become of people in public life, not just in medicine but in politics, the media, financial institutions, corporations, and let’s be honest, in religious organisations too. We need to make it easier for people to be honest and apologise, which means that we too must learn how to forgive. As it says in the first letter of John, if we confess our sin God is faithful and just to forgive us our sin. Invite someone to take a closer look at Christ and his church.