[Viewpoint] Between guilt and shame

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[Viewpoint] Between guilt and shame

“Hate the sin but not the sinner” is a catchphrase that contains wisdoms of both the East and the West. It appears in the ancient Chinese philosophy book of “Caigentan,” and it is mentioned in the tradition of the Christianity, too. It was also quoted in the 1929 autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi. St. Augustine went a step further by saying, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Although it varies, each culture has a list of sins. Punishments for the sins are the control mechanism of a society. But a culture also prepares a protection mechanism for a sinner. “Hate the sin but not the sinner” symbolizes the protection mechanism. There is no culture that does not have the mechanism of forgiveness. All cultures attempt to embrace the sinners as members of their communities.

But to forgive, there is a precondition. A sinner must feel guilty for the sin. The feeling of guiltiness is the sense of responsibility for harming others. Before a society criticizes, a sinner must reflect upon the sin and feel guilty. That is “healthy guilt” referred to by psychologists. A society’s function to harmonize can only work when the healthy guilt is exercised. Hastily embracing the sinners who do not feel guilty is breaking the rule of social unity.

There is unhealthy guilt, too. Some feel the guiltiness far too deeply. Some believe that everything is their fault. Some even feel what is called “survivor guilt.” They are the people who feel guilty for surviving while many others died from a disaster or an accident. Society must restrict the return of the guiltless sinners, while comfort and protect the people who suffer from unhealthy guilt.

Society also needs to do something about the feeling of shame. It needs to protect the people who feel unhealthy shame.

In her book “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” American anthropologist Ruth Benedict distinguished a guilt culture from a shame culture. The book, designed to understand Japan, which was the enemy of the United States at the time, unconsciously contains the idea that the individualistic culture of the West was superior to that of Japan, so it may have some limits. But the distinction between the guilt culture and shame culture is very insightful.

In the guilt culture, other people’s criticism toward me is important, while my criticism toward myself is important in the shame culture. The difference in the standards of judgments is tremendous.

In the guilt culture, an individual will very likely fight others to prove his or her innocence, no matter what the world says. In contrast, a falsely accused individual sometimes chooses a drastic measure - such as suicide - in the community, where the shame culture dominates.

Western scholars analyzed that the sense of shame is the outcome of violating cultural and social values, while the sense of guilt is the outcome of violating inner values. They say guilt is a more advanced human emotion than shame.

The argument is not necessarily correct. The sense of shame coming from life in a community is sometimes superior to the sense of guilt that is rooted in individualism. Healthy guilt and shame are both needed for a society’s unity. Guilt and shame can be a door to step out from the past wrongs and to return to society as a healthy member. Guilt and shame are complementary because individuals and a community are both important.

Korean society is where the guilt culture and shame culture are mixed complicatedly. The factors of a guilt culture have entered society as it became Westernized. It is desirable that only the best parts of the two cultures are realized but unfortunately guilt and shame, which undermine the healthiness of society, often dominate.

But we already have a resolution. “Hate the sin but not the sinner.” The phrase indicates the hope that everyone can return to a community, no matter what the sins are.

*The writer is an editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Kim Hwan-yung
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