Lazer Gurkow

The Shame Culture

A shame culture is one in which the individual is pressured to conform to the collective. Deviation from cultural norms is punishable by public shaming and ostracism. In a shame culture, people carefully groom their public personas—the image acceptable to the majority. A shame culture operates under the assumption that if enough people are punished, the rest can be expected to conform.

One of the many problems with the shame culture is that people don’t really conform. They simply comply out of fear of opprobrium. Internally, they retain their personal views. The majority can coerce the minority, but they can’t be a force for constructive change. Another problem is that a shame culture is unable to forgive. The collective must shame and punish transgressors so that they serve as a model for others. There is no expiation or forgiveness in shame cultures. There is only persecution to the very end.

Opposite the shame culture stands the guilt culture. In these cultures, people gauge their own rectitude or lack thereof and engage in self-correction. In guilt cultures, people don’t cultivate public personas because the opinion of others is irrelevant. If we know we are guilty, the adoration or excoriation of the multitudes is irrelevant. It is for us to determine whether we violated our conscience. If we are guilty, it is for us to face our demons and correct our errors.

Society can establish formulas for penance in guilt cultures, but it doesn’t administer the penance as it would in a shame culture. In guilt cultures people keep themselves in line through the power of conviction. In a shame culture, society keeps you in line through the threat of public humiliation.

In guilt cultures people focus inwardly and make personal choices. In shame cultures people focus outwardly, making choices that placate the masses rather than that consist with their beliefs.

In guilt cultures the focus is on the sin, in shame cultures the focus is on the sinner. In guilt cultures the sinner can attain rehabilitation and redemption by atoning for the sin. In shame cultures the sinner must suffer public humiliation and utter deconstruction.

Around The World
Throughout history there have been shame cultures and guilt cultures. The historical Chinese culture was a shame culture. Infractions and violations of social mores and moral codes were punishable by public humiliation. In 1946, Ruth Benedict published The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in which she argued that the Japanese have a shame culture. Later anthropologists took her to task for her conclusions because she was unable to study the Japanese directly during the war and relied on newspaper clippings.

The United States used to be a guilt culture but has lately skewed toward a shame culture. The current trend of calling out those who don’t agree with certain mores is symptomatic of a shame culture. In many cases, people lose their jobs, positions, and self-respect because of their public shaming. There is little room for penance and forgiveness. It is all about brazen threats and even more brazen oppression of anyone who doesn’t toe the line.

It is not surprising that Judaism is (at least in this context) a guilt culture. The Talmud tells us that King David chose his words deliberately when he wrote, “May sins be eradicated from the earth.” He meant to say that only the sins need be eradicated. The sinner must be rehabilitated. In the inimitable words of the Talmud, “the sins, not the sinners.”

The Drawback of Guilt Cultures
For guilt cultures to work, it is critical that sinners have a path to redemption. Sinners must know that if they repent and jettison their sinful ways, society will embrace and rehabilitate them. It is natural for tongues to wag and for people to talk when they hear about another’s sin. Even if the intention is not to shame the sinner, the fact is that such talk leaves the sinner publicly humiliated.

There is an unwritten rule that bad news travels faster than good news. It can take five minutes for the entire town to hear that someone sinned, but they might never learn that the sinner repented. Everyone might know that someone destroyed public property, but very few might know that he or she made restitution. The result is that even in a guilt culture, sinners might find forgiveness elusive.

Yom Kippur
Enter the public nature of the Yom Kippur service. Much of what occurred in the Temple on Yom Kippur, occurred behind closed doors. The High Priest would enter the Holy of Hollies and perform rituals that no one was permitted to see. The rituals that were performed in the outer sanctuary were visible, but only to a few of his fellow priests.

Yet, one element of the Yom Kippur service was public. The Talmud tells us that a red string was suspended over the entrance to the Temple and at some point during the day the string would turn white. Red is a symbol for sin and white is a symbol of forgiveness and purity as the prophet states, “If your sins are crimson red, they will turn white like snow.” This statement of forgiveness and expiation was made in public. When the string would turn white, a cheer would go up among the assembled.

The reason for this public display was to broadcast to the world that the sins were expiated, and the sinners forgiven. As we said, even in guilt cultures the good news—the forgiveness—can sometimes go unnoticed while the sin remains ingrained in the community’s collective memory. G-d deliberately announced His forgiveness to ensure that the sinner would be rehabilitated. Moreover, He broadcast His forgiveness in dramatic fashion to ensure that it would be memorable and will never be forgotten.

Today, we don’t have dramatic displays of public forgiveness on Yom Kippur, but we do have public rituals in the synagogue that accomplish the same. At the end of Yom Kippur we sound the Shofar, a dramatic blast of vindication, so that one and all would know that we were forgiven.

On Sukkot, we march through the streets holding our lulav (palm branch) up high. Our sages taught that this is akin to one marching with a baton held high declaring to one and all that we were victorious. Indeed, we go to great lengths to ensure that everyone knows that everyone was forgiven, and we embrace one another with love during the joyous holiday of Sukkot.

In today’s tumultuous era of judgement, recrimination, and public humiliation, we would do well to take a page from Judaism’s book of vindication. Go easy on the sinner and focus on the sin. Don’t destroy the sinner by holding up the sin. Work to rehabilitate the sinner by facilitating their repentance.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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