Unraveling the Interplay of Culture, Civilization, and Social Structure: Understanding Shame and Othering

It’s possibly the case that different individuals experience the words culture and civilization differently. I can imagine that my own multi-cultural family background, and having come from multi-ethnic society like Singapore, plus being a sort of immigrant, may lead me to a different idea of what the words mean than from someone from Germany or Japan.  Culture is a phenomenological experience. 

Culture, as from the essence of being cultivated, is inherited like ethnicity or race, while civilization is the infrastructure built with the influence of culture; or a group of cultures existing in a geographical location. We cannot choose or delete from our existence the culture from our furthest ancestors, even if some may choose to disown that culture through making lifestyle choices. When different cultures come together through migration or colonization and co-inhabit a place, these cultures produce a civilization; out of which emerges it’s own hybrid culture. A large part of the Singapore economic story, and the survival of Singapore as island city-state is attributed to the management of society by its strict laws by reason of maintaining security, sovereignty and enhance economic wealth. 

Writing this, I am reminded of  what Norbert Elias wrote:

“This rationalization goes hand in hand with a tremendous differentiation of functional chains and a corresponding change in the organization of physical force. Its precondition is a rise in the standard of living and in security, or, in other words, increased protection from physical attack or destruction and thus from the uncontrollable fears which erupt far more powerfully and frequently into the lives of individuals in societies with less stable monopolies of force and lower divisions of functions.”  (Elias, 1994, pp. 440).

The social structure that is built upon laws of civilization and the culture within it has function. Human beings are oriented by nature and nurture to exist only in inter-dependent relationships, and therefore have to adjust their existence to suit the structure.  This interdependence inadvertently puts pressure on the individual to adapt and change their psychological state and personality in support of this order. In the course of human history, the progress of civilization has imposed stricter and stricter control on human instinct and drives, thus increasing the incidences of shame and embarrassment, preventing us from expressing in public or in private our emotional impulses.   Shame— as with insecurity of war, fear of punishment, guilt, fear of loss of prestige— is induced directly or indirectly in a person by other persons (Elias, 1994).   

Social Structure and Shame

Shame is a difficult to control, unwanted, and inconvenient emotion (Tangney, 1995), which is distinct from feelings of guilt, embarrassment (Miller, 1996). Feelings of shame are highly correlated with social anxiety (Leary & Kowalski, 1995).  Within society, shame arises out of evaluations of self by self and self in the eyes of others, with the concerns of falling short. There lies a lot of shame even in being ashamed, leading this emotion to be psychologically repressed. This sort of “by-passed shame” (Scheff, 1998) is a cause of psychological disorders, and in functional people, can easily elicit aggression (Lewis, 1986).

Pride is the contrasting affect of shame.  The flip sides of whatever brings pride bring shame.  The neurotic part of personality is organized around building an idealized image of the self in defense against painful experiences of shame.  Scheff & Retzinger (1991) mentions Karen Horney’s 1950 analysis of pride as defense against unacknowledged shame. This is a “false pride” that often manifests itself as destructive aggression (pp. 12).  Within the social structure, pride is the emotion that corresponds to securing of solidarity, while shame corresponds to alienation.  “Social structure, and pride and shame are reciprocally related: the repression of shame causes and is caused by alienation” (pp. 15).

Othering and Shame

Cultural identity defines one group of people from another. Like a line at the boundary of two different entities, that which separates the entities also provides contact between them; each side feeling the difference of the other.  In the 1807 book, Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel (2004) explains that consciousness of the self comes to being only through the recognition of a different other – “he is consciousness existing for itself and mediated by an other consciousness“— that which is not the self.   In the sub-chapter entitled, Lordship and Bondage, he makes an analogy of the power relationship between master and slave. The master has the power over the slave, and uses the slave as a tool without awareness that his (the master’s) very own identification of self is dependent upon this relationship. The slave, meanwhile, aware of this dependency, plays along with this role in order to gain security from the power wielded by the master.  Hegel points out that both oppressor and oppressed reinforce the relationship.  This inter-relationship forms a kind of a looping effect, as defined by Hacking (1995). This master-slave relationship is played out between groups of people. Groups that are subjugated are found within and between civilizations.  It is also the cause of conflict, prejudices, stigmatization, dependency and violence (Staszak, 2008). 

The oppression within Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is an aggressive one, albeit this aggression often eludes the consciousness of both sides. But what does aggression serve?  Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 publication, The Second Sex, may tell us something:  she says that unlike any other type of “other”, women have, from the very beginning, been subjugated.  This relationship between the sexes has been so insidious that even Freud, with all his wisdom and understanding of the psyche had fallen into its trap (De Beauvoir, 1956).  Using Beauvoir’s thread on the alterity of women as example of othering, the next literature to consider would naturally be the Book of Genesis 1:26-3:24 (Vatican.va, 2015).  Is the story of Adam and Eve not the justification of aggression against women?  The alterity of women in this story is clear: she is an off-shoot of man  (2:21-22), she is created to as helper to man (2:18), she cannot be trusted to follow orders because she listen to a serpent (who, incidentally, unlike God, told her only the truth), she pursued knowledge of “good and evil” (which, for maintenance of patriarchy, was not allowed) (3:3-6) and so on; and alas, the consequence of this whole fiasco is shame.  Adam had lost his honor, and is punished forever since, as God put it, “you have listened to the voice of your wife” (3:17).  The need to overcome shame thus becomes a good reason for punitive action and oppression (hence aggression) against the “other”, in this case, the woman.

Othering as Self Defense Against Shame

Othering is an aggressive demonstration of one group of people projecting dis-owned feelings of shame on to other groups of people.  “Projection” is a psychological defense mechanism where by one puts upon one’s own disowned and repressed emotions onto another person (Perls, 1969. pp. 188). Shame is a relational phenomenon and a regulator of social interactions, brought about by one’s experience of certain aspects of being that one perceives to be unacceptable in oneself or the other (Lee, 1994). Hence, for example, if I were a man and am proud of being strong, then I would be ashamed of being physically weak.  In order to identify myself as strong, I would project this shame on people of whom I perceive as weak. This could be men of another race, or women.  I would identify myself as strong by pointing out how the “other” is not like me because of their “weak” characteristic.  If I were obsessed with this, I would set up campaigns using the ideology: weak is bad, they are weak, therefore they are bad. This ideology functions as means to all kinds of ends, like (and not only) make meaning, create a value system for society, put forth false ideas to help legitimize discrimination, create forms of thought motivated by social interests, create identity thinking and socially necessary illusions (Eagleton, 1991).

What happens, then, to the “other”? As Hegel—and de Beauvoir— explains, the relationship works both ways. The “other” plays a role in perpetuation of the phenomenon. Gestalt therapy theory explains this via another psychological defense mechanism called “introjection”.  Perls (1969), describes introjection as “preserving the structure of things taken in, when the organism requires their destruction” (pp. 153). In a toxic relationship like that of Hegel’s master and slave, the slave swallows whole the ideology that binds him to the master, while not being able to spit the “toxin” out.  Introjection, like projection, is a psychological (in this case neurotic) defense mechanism that causes one to unconsciously take in self-deprecating social ideology in order to maintain social status quo in order to gain protection from the stronger party.  Rory O’Neil (a.k.a. Panti Bliss), drag queen and gay rights activist, says, “I do know what it feels like to be ‘put in your place’… I check myself to see what is it about me that gave the gay away.” Eloquently he laments on how the non-gay part of society feels that it has the right to decide how much rights a gay person gets, or whether he/she is qualified to be a parent. On the same breadth, he admits to checking himself and his cringing at the appearance of his gay companion “because he is being so gay”, and how O’Neil himself would try to “butch-up a little” in order to compensate for his friend’s “gayness”. The oppressed not only feels the punishment of shaming, but he/she also feels the shame of self-discrimination through the phenomenon of introjection.

Our Way Out of Othering

Shame as the underlying force psycho-social issues caused by othering can be seen in relation to social status (Lichtenberg, 1996), homosexuality (Singer, 1996), female body image (Fodor, 1996), in corporations (Bentley, 2012), plus not to mention countless examples of shame in race relations.  

Today’s internet-connected society that thinks itself as being more enlightened and more aware of prejudice is even more aggressive with othering and shaming. In his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed highlights the damaging phenomenon of Internet shaming and trolling (Ronson, 2015).  Popular opinion has taken the place of religion and government; crowd trolling has become the new weapon of aggression. Now we feel entitled to shame those whose behavior and words we don’t like because we still cannot come to terms with shame itself. All of a sudden the racists, homophobes, sexists and all deviants of our newfound sense of righteousness are our “other”.  Are we better?

Looking at individual’s relationship to shame is a logical way out of many social issues. Working through what causes shame feelings in individuals can disperse the stress caused by shame.  Oftentimes there is lots of shame in shame itself. Working with this will diffuse the fear of recognizing shame and the need to suppress feelings of shame. Bringing feelings of shame to consciousness prevents shame being channeled into aggression.   Social forces shape the way we find pride and where we find shame; and form our lived experience. By the same token, it is the “we” that shape social forces. Through awareness of our unconscious experiences and psychological defense mechanisms we can find the freedom to shape the civilization in which we live.


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