Notes on guilt and shame
One of the most salient differences in terms of exercising social control between Western cultures and Confucian Chinese cultures is the difference between guilt and shame.
In Western cultures guilt is the operative form of social control. Both Protestant (going against your conscience) and Catholic (usually sexual guilt) cultures have developed guilt as a mode of monitoring and controlling the self. Moreover, guilt presupposes an already developed self that can take (or reject) orders from the conscience.
My conscience says ‘No’!, says Launcelot Gobbo, in an internal dialogue between an individual ego and one of its components: the conscience. For the Western individual, moral virtue is an internal dialectic between components of an ego. The individual might certainly refer to an external system (Catholic, Protestant, legal) in making ethical decisions, but still, there is an internal debate. In Western cultures, the individual thinks to himself: if I do this, can I live with myself, giving rise to a whole mythology of guilt, repressed or otherwise.
In Confucian Chinese cultures, on the other hand, shame is the operative form of social control. Shame does not presuppose an individual so much as emphasise a collective. If the people be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good, says Confucius. Instead of internal dialectic we have a collective consciousness, led by notions of virtue and propriety imposed from without. There is no glimpse of an individual here, but a unit in a group aiming at uniformity. In Confucian cultures the person thinks to himself: if I do this, can I get away with it?
The operation of shame can be observed on two levels, the social, and the linguistic.
On the social level, family and baojia system operate to make shame a deciding factor in preventing vicious actions. The baojia system, in which households are registered and an overseer for good behaviour appointed, was instigated by the Qing, but adopted both by Nationalist and Communists, and is still in operation today. Everyone watches everyone else, and infringements are either reported up to the next level (in cases of serious crime), or handled within each baojia (in cases of merely transgressive social behaviour). In such an environment, social ostracism, or shame, is a terrible punishment in itself. This breeds the uniformity (and creates the harmony desired by Confucius), which is so nauseating to the Western individual, with his notions of freedom and individual rights. Everyone behaves, because everyone is watching.
On the linguistic level, shame operates through a curious adjacency pair. An adjacency pair is a pair of utterances, the first of which always summons the second. The most common adjacency pair is question/answer: How are you/I’m fine. Where are you going?/Home. but there are others: Here./Thanks. I feel terrible./What’s up? Thanks./You’re welcome. I’m so sorry./ Don’t worry about it. Adjacency pairs are extremely powerful measurements of social mores, because they operate so unconsciously on an individual level, but are so essential to the smooth operation of social relations. If the second part of the pair is not forthcoming, or is delayed, the first speaker thinks the second speaker is at best unmannered, at worst, unsocialized.
In Chinese, the most common adjacency pair is: buhauyise/meiguanxi, and both terms are extremely difficult to translate and grasp. Buhauyise literally means I’m embarrassed, but pragmatically has a wide range of uses, such as I apologise, I’m afraid that… Please forgive me… Please don’t blame me… It’s not my fault… and so on. Meigiuanxi literally means There is no relationship, or connection, but its range of pragmatic meanings includes Don’t worry… It’s of no consequence… Doesn’t matter… Forget about it… and so on. The pair is used whenever something goes wrong, or social mores have been transgressed. I know that a wrong action on my part, if discovered by my group, can be largely smoothed over by eliciting meiguanxi. If I utter buhauyise when it is discovered that I have done something wrong, the offence is immediately smoothed away when you respond – as you are utterly compelled to do by the power of the adjacency pair- meiguanxi. The compunction to avoid or abstain from vicious action, therefore, comes not from the inner dialectic, but from the social dialogue. Wrong actions can be carried out in secret with no moral stress on the part of the individual. If they are discovered, the resulting shame may be smothered in the oil of social discourse.