December 03, 2004
Spreading troubled oil on troubled waters . . .
The brilliant Sean Kinsell has a must-read post on the topic of homosexuality in Japan. He starts by observing that unlike ours, Japan's is a shame-based culture:
Japan, as you've no doubt heard in various contexts, is a shame culture rather than a guilt culture. I love our American forthrightness and sincerity, but (partially on ethical grounds and partially because of plain old temperament) I always feel a sense of release when I'm boarding a plane back to Narita. It comes from the knowledge that I'm returning to a place where every last little turn of phrase or arch of eyebrow isn't mirthlessly prodded for complex psychological motivations, where you can expect people to be polite and considerate in public, and where no one cares about your private life as long as you don't force people to reckon with it.No one cares. Attitudes like that are very refreshing for Americans to contemplate, because there's no need for guilt -- something Americans often confuse with shame.
Sean makes a compelling (if somewhat heretical) argument that American gay activists have been all too quick to overlook hidden benefits of the shame-based view:
....there are benefits to Japan's tradition-mindedness that I think a lot of gays in America have been too willing to cast off. The lack of gay ghettos means that it's pretty much impossible to wall yourself into a queer-positive echo chamber and start seeing rank-and-file straight people as an enemy arrayed against you. It also means that very few people see their homosexuality as their entire identity, with anti-gayness blamed for every disappointment, setback, depressive episode, and failed relationship. You never hear Japanese gays getting into princessy snits about not being approved of or officially sanctioned exactly like straight people in every last finicking little detail. At ordinary gay bars, you meet brittle, desperate guys who are obviously using a constant stream of sex partners to avoid dealing with their issues much, much less frequently than you do here in the States. (Even here, they're a minority, of course; their attention-whoring just makes them disproportionately noticeable. But the Japanese in general don't burden put the burden of self-definition on sex to the point that we do in the US.)For many Americans, this guilt-free view could be considered quite refreshing in a sexual context. That's because, while on the one hand there is shame if one creates a public spectacle, on the other hand personal privacy is preserved and protected, and there's no need for guilt.
America is a mongrel culture consisting of people coming from shame-based backgrounds as well as people coming from guilt-based cultures and backgrounds. This leads to a confusion between guilt and shame which often strikes me as quite hopeless to debate, because arguments rarely get past the definitional stages.
Sean's essay -- and the topic of Japanese homosexuality -- reminded me that there is a culture war within a culture war, and I can't think of a more classic illustration than the debate over "outing." Gay Patriot does an excellent job of stating the case (and explaining this predicament):
....I reminded myself that this was the reason I started the blog in September: to shine the light on this despicable and anti-gay 'outing' campaign against supposed closeted gays in an around the Federal Government.How ironic, indeed. "Outings" are what happen when the forces of guilt and shame join in an unholy alliance. An all out, invasive assault on personal privacy where no one is left alone, everyone is forced to take sides, and an inquisitorial mood prevails.
But please bear in mind that this discussion of guilt and shame is by no means limited to (or necessarily about) homosexuality. It's just that the latter is an easier topic for most people to understand, because guilt and shame are so commonly -- and obviously -- associated with homosexuality. Less obvious (but more common) are the deliberate attempts to utilize shame and guilt to manipulate people as in the recent examples of oiled geese. Americans feel guilty for a variety of reasons, and ever since I was a child I have seen constant attempts by authority figures to harness this guilt by blatant attempts to shame them. When I was a kid it was usually associated with religion, being scolded in church about poor people starving, and often this would make its way to family dinner tables. As the civil rights movement came into its own, politics and religion tended to merge, and the country saw religious leaders being beaten and arrested as they attempted to introduce a new form of shame to the Old South. Naturally, the Old South didn't like being shamed on national television, and the irony was that the South (which I repeatedly visited as a boy in the mid 1960s) was more of a shame-based culture than the largely guilt-based North.
This cultural irony was compounded by the uncomfortable fact that the South, while officially segregated, was in practice more integrated than the North! I know this sounds crazy, but I saw it firsthand. In the North, black people were pretty much restricted to black neighborhoods, and if they strayed out of them, they'd be stopped by police, and were often attacked by lower class whites. If black homebuyers managed to buy a home in a working class white neighborhood, there'd be a mass exodus of whites (a phenomenon called "block busting" by the greedy realtors who'd swoop in).
In the South, there were rituals and rules about what was allowed and not allowed, but there was more actual interaction and less ghettoization. Blacks and whites could talk and socialize in ways that they could not in the North. Please bear in mind I'm not defending this, just reflecting on its cultural aspects.
It was all too easy for Northern liberals to call attention to the South's obvious, ugly, shame based features like the segregated drinking fountains, lunch counters, and rear bus sections. But in reality, well-off Northerners wouldn't have known what to do with a segregated drinking fountain, as no one would have used it! Blacks didn't venture into white neighborhoods and vice versa. Integration was something to be imposed upon other people -- the "bigots" in the South.
"Up here" in the North we don't have things like "colored" bathrooms! (Yeah, and if a black man came into your nice lily white office building you'd call the cops and he'd be hurried out if not arrested for vagrancy!)
Ditto for integrated schools. These were for anyone's kids but those of the affluent blue staters! Schools in the North were segregated not by official policy, but by neighborhood, and money.
All of this led to a North which felt guilty trying to shame a South which appeared to be more guilty, but which felt less guilty. While that battle has been largely over for decades, whether American culture is based more on guilt or more on shame is far from settled.
Plenty of people around here felt guilty when oil was spilled in the Delaware River, and their kneejerk reaction was to shame as many people as they could. Considering that it's rather hard to shame a Cypriot shipping company which didn't want to lose money or oil in the first place, they used the Philadelphia Inquirer to slam SUV owners, to make everyone feel terrible about oiled geese, and to upset as many children as possible.
More harm to the local economy than would have been caused by the spill alone, with shippers rerouting their tankers elsewhere. (A small price to pay if we can transform children into shame-based environmental activists!)
In Japan, the captain would simply have committed suicide.
Relations between many blacks and whites were often cordial; and the cordiality depended on the implicit acknowledgment of one group's inferiority to the other. Essentially, the position of the Republican right is now identical on the matter of homosexuals. The Bush line, essentially is: "We are not homophobes; we are happy yo live alongside gay people, as long as they recognize that they can never have the same civil rights as we do. Accept your own inferiority, and we will accept you."He's right that politeness, while important, is not everything. But I've seen from personal experience that Democrats are less tolerant of dissent -- and far less polite to dissenting gays -- than are Republicans. (Also, opposition to gay marriage is by no means limited to the "Republican right"; those state initiatives passed by substantial margins in eleven states.)
Sean Kinsell adds (in a comment):
I just can't see the "civil rights" line of argument as anything but a desire to coerce people into postures of approval, and the comments Sullivan has appended to that e-mail do nothing to change my mind.Try as I might, I can't see marriage licenses as being indicia of full citizenship.
posted by Eric on 12.03.04 at 07:57 AM
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» "The forces of guilt and shame join in an unholy alliance" from Pajama Pundits
Imagine you are in an English class. Imagine your assignment is to write a cohesive essay including homosexuality in Japan, shame, outing gay Republicans, oiled geese, the Old South, guilt, racism, and civil rights. Imagine you could do it this [Read More] Tracked on December 5, 2004 10:35 AM
» Carnival of the Vanities #116 from The Big Picture
I've really enjoyed assembling this week's COTV. I received many submissions from blogs I read regularly, as well as from sites that were new to me and which I look forward to visiting again. Herewith, now… the 116th CARNIVAL OF THE...[Read More] Tracked on December 8, 2004 3:35 AM
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