Friday, 18 May 2012

That's a shame.

We've been having a bit of trouble here at the university of late with students, and others, destroying the trees, as well as the flower beds below. The problem is that the trees have fruits that people want to get to and they don't seem to mind what damage is done on the way. The strange thing I've found, is that when talking to students they seem to know that it's wrong to steal the fruit and yet they do it anyway. This sort contradiction seems to come up again and again with Chinese people. Yet it seems that their general idea of morality is not that different from my own: theft is wrong, killing is wrong, destroying the environment is wrong. There seems to be no disagreement on these things, expect when you start getting into nationalist politics.

One thing I've been thinking about is that I could be part of the shame culture of China as opposed to the guilt culture that I've grown up in. So what's the difference between shame and guilt?

Well, a guilt culture is one where you take personal responsibility for your own moral choices, while the a shame culture is one when guilt is determined, not by your actions, but by others observation or discovery of your actions. In the example of the students and the fruit, the action only really becomes “wrong” if they are caught doing it. Where as in a guilt culture they would feel bad for stealing the fruit, observed or not.

Of course this is an over simplification, I'm pretty sure that Chinese people feel guilty about certain actions. Likewise I'm sure there are plenty of examples in the west of where some actions are based on shame and not guilt - think of all the things you do behind closed doors that are not immoral, but you wouldn't like others to see. You wouldn't feel guilty if someone walked in, but you might feel shame – unless you like others to watch. But It does seem that there is a difference of degrees between China and my own feelings.

I'm no anthropologist, but I would guess that it has some connection with judeo-christian religions as compared with other eastern religions, especially Confucianism. Although UK has pretty much abandoned its Christian heritage, just as China has abandoned it's own religions. They do still seem to be the yard stick by which we measure our own morality. Confucianist teachings were based on the concept of shame and honor, while Christian religion is more based on personal guilt and I imagine that we've carried these into the present day.

I also wonder if this extends higher into the actions of the Chinese government in general. When it comes to certain things, especially human rights, it seems that they are only wrong (they only bring shame upon China) when other countries point out that they are doing wrong. Until then everything is fine. It only seems to be the fact that other countries have noticed that brings about negative feeling - It's not the actions that they are taking themselves that are wrong. In which case it might explain why they go to such great lengths to stop people noticing and why they are so keen on people “not interfering with the internal policies of China.”   

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